When President Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act in March 2010, ratifying a bill that had passed the Senate with overwhelming and rare bipartisan support, the hotel industry was just one travel segment to breathe a sigh of relief. This legislation established a much-needed public-private partnership to promote the United States abroad.
Prior to its passage, the numbers had been diminishing for overseas visitors to the United States. In fact, 9 percent (2.4 million) fewer overseas travelers visited the United States in 2009 than in 2000, due in part to 9/11 and the increased security that followed. But the poor numbers were also attributed to a dearth of marketing efforts abroad, which nevertheless coincided with a growing momentum of global travel. According to the United Nations, international tourist arrivals grew from 682 million in 2000 to 880 million in 2009—an increase of 198 million travelers or 29 percent.
As emerging economies continue to expand and grow, populations are becoming increasingly mobile and global. In fact, by 2020, China alone is expected to bring more than 100 million international travelers annually to the United States, according to the U.S. Travel Association’s 2010 report titled A Lost Decade.
Hotel chains are wisely taking notice of the trend and laying the groundwork for the future with targeted loyalty programs, amenities, and marketing efforts to reach the growing segment. In 2011, Hilton Worldwide introduced the Hilton Huanying (“welcome” in Mandarin) program, which currently operates in 85 Hilton Hotels and Resorts worldwide. At those properties, a Mandarin-speaking staff member greets guests enrolled in the program, and rooms are equipped with at least one Chinese-language TV channel, electric kettles with an assortment of teas, and a welcome letter in Chinese. In the same vein, in 2011, Starwood introduced the Starwood Personalized Travel program, designed to cater to the tastes and preferences of the outbound Chinese traveler, says Christie Hicks, senior vice president, Starwood Sales Organization. “It’s a program of initiatives that were designed to serve the unique needs of Chinese travelers to offer a variety of simple yet meaningful touches that matter most to the Chinese guest,” she says.
The program includes an in-hotel Chinese specialist, who welcomes the guest, helps with language assistance, and facilitates transportation; comforts of home, such as tea kettles, slippers, instant noodles, and toiletries; translated collateral; and familiar foods at hotel restaurants with menu items like congee, noodles, and rice.
For Starwood, this effort is just an extension of their international groundwork, says Hicks. “As Chinese travelers begin to travel beyond their borders en masse, like their Western counterparts before them, they will gravitate to the hotel brands they know from home, and with Starwood’s leading footprint in China, this gives us a great advantage. Just as our hotels in China have historically catered to American and European travelers with familiar amenities from home, now our hotels globally will provide the same services to Chinese travelers.”
In an effort to reach out to Chinese travelers and enroll them in loyalty programs, Starwood opened “the largest Customer Contact Center of an international hotel company operating in China,” says Hicks. Located in Guangzhou, the center employs more than 160 associates to support Chinese-speaking customers traveling to Starwood’s more than 1,100 hotels around the world. “Starwood is also the only hospitality company in China that provides 24-hour customer support, 365 days a year, for its Chinese-speaking customers.”
Other tailored welcome programs for Chinese travelers include Li Yu, which Marriott launched last year, and Langham Hospitality Group’s Ying, which was introduced in January and is designed for group customers.
Beyond employing Mandarin-speaking staff and offering typical Chinese meals, many hotels are working hard to meet the increasing demand. According to the Chinese International Travel Monitor, a report published by Hotels.com in 2012, 46 percent of hotels in the United States already offer a Mandarin version of their websites, 71 percent of U.S. hoteliers are planning to partner with China UnionPay to process payments from Chinese guests, and 63 percent intend to establish on-site translation services.
And hotels that offer Chinese travelers a multicultural experience and make them feel at home will gain a competitive edge.