More than 2 million Chinese travelers are expected to visit the United States in 2015, spending $14 billion. By 2018, the Chinese tourist will be the top overseas visitor to this country. An announcement in November that U.S. visa stays will extend from one year to five years for students and 10 years for businessmen and tourists has made travel to this country all the more attractive for the Chinese. And the icing on the cake to all these statistics: The Chinese like to vacation during a typically slow period for the hotel industry, February, around their New Year.
More visitors needing accommodations is a boon all hotels will want to tap into. So what does it require to capture a share of this market?
“You don’t have to be a five-star hotel,” says Evan Saunders, CEO of Attract China. “If you have a great location, offer free Wi-Fi, and accept the UnionPay credit or debit card” you are well positioned to charm this rapidly growing tourist group. (“UnionPay, founded in China in 2002, is now the number 1 credit/debit card in the world,” Saunders explains.) And by great location he means not just New York City but also Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia, and other top metro markets. “Chinese tourists have been to New York; now they want to see the rest of America.”
Hotels are looking at the options and meeting the challenge. Companies like Hilton, IHG, and Starwood have done their research and rolled out programs at select U.S. properties that are already reaping the benefits of increased leisure bookings.
These programs adapt what these big brands have learned from years of operating Chinese hotels. Carol Chung, regional director of Starwood Sales Organization for Greater China, says in-room tea kettles, “welcome” materials translated into Mandarin, on-site translation services, and familiar menu items are services they have learned Chinese travelers appreciate wherever they travel. IHG, which will open two deluxe hotels in China in the next two months, offers slippers in guestrooms, green tea, and Chinese TV stations, says Jolyon Bulley, former COO of IHG’s Greater China region and currently COO of the Americas.
Besides offering all the amenities mentioned above, Hilton’s Huanying program (launched in 2011 and meaning “welcome” in Mandarin) has added an extensive breakfast menu in Chinese that includes congee, fried dough fritters, dim sum, and fried noodles and provides chopsticks and chopstick holders at select hotels in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Hawaii, Florida, and California. Additionally, Hilton forged an eight-year agreement with the Chinese Olympic Committee to provide hospitality services to athletes and their families.
“Research shows Chinese travelers like to eat at least one meal a day of familiar food,” says Jon Scofield, senior director of strategy and program management at Hilton Worldwide. “Before Hilton developed its first-of-its-kind Chinese traveler program, we partnered with academia and professionals in the field and pinpointed three key areas: in-room accommodations, breakfast food, and language assistance.”
Agreeing this triad of services enhances a hotel stay, Saunders, who has lived in China and whose company offers independent Chinese travelers access to U.S. destinations, hotels, restaurants, retailers, and attractions through its Mandarin-language portal, says a Mandarin-speaking staffer isn’t always necessary. Although, IHG finds translators invaluable for two reasons: to assist Chinese guests and to provide initial cultural training to hotel staff.
Despite these efforts to provide familiarity, IHG has learned through its research that familiarity only needs to go so far. “Chinese don’t want to travel to the U.S. and find a Chinese hotel,” Bulley says. “What they do want are the little thoughtful touches that they understand and appreciate when they arrive.” Saunders agrees and advises hotels looking to attract Chinese travelers to walk before they run. “Implement programs and spend money where you can measure ROI,” he says. “And be sure to communicate what you offer with the Chinese.”