Hoteliers are seeing the benefits of investing money and effort into programs to help attract their share of one of the fastest-growing groups of global travelers.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—From offering in-room teapots, special food items and slippers to mobile payment solutions like Alipay and WeChat Pay, hotel companies are now offering more varied options to entice the burgeoning numbers of Chinese travelers in key destinations.
These programs have resulted in incremental occupancy increases and are helping some hotels stay one step ahead of their competitors, sources said.
"Hotels need to be thinking of how they can give Chinese guests a better experience, or they will be left behind in attracting this important group of travelers," said Jon Scofield, senior director of strategy and program management for Hilton.
Annual arrivals from China will total nearly 97 million globally by the year 2023, with an average annual growth rate of 5.1%, according to a March 2015 report, "The Future of Chinese Travel," published by IHG and Oxford Economics. Cities are the primary destination of Chinese travelers, with more than 85% of outbound travel going to major cities all over the world. Improving access Chinese travelers also yields a nearly 20% growth premium in arrivals, and these guests are already ranked among the top spenders on a per-trip and per-night basis, according to the report.
Hilton is expecting a 4% to 5% increase in Chinese guests for full-year 2017, due in part to its Hilton Huanying program, Scofield said. Introduced in August 2011, the initiative includes guestroom amenities such as tea kettles, jasmine tea, slippers and a dedicated Mandarin-speaking television channel. It also features a welcome note in Chinese at check-in and many properties have interpretation services. There are also special breakfast menu items, such as a dim sum selection, two varieties of congee with condiments, fried rice or fried noodles, and service items that include chopsticks, Chinese spoons and soy sauce dishes.
A total of 143 Hilton properties in 39 countries offer Huanying, and about one-third of the hotels are located in large cities in the United States and the Asia/Pacific region. The cost to Hilton is $3 to $5 per occupied room per stay, Scofield said.
"This program is not designed to generate (return on investment), but more of a long-term strategic plan to have Chinese travelers think of Hilton first when they travel," he added.
Huanying continues to be refined, Scofield said, and this year Hilton added a phone app that guests can use at the front desk that will translate into Mandarin for them.
"We still have actual translators available, but we wanted to refine and add new technology that also will assist with translations," he said.
Hilton is also considering the possible use of WeChat Pay, the Chinese mobile payment solution, by next year, Scofield added.
The 129 InterContinental Hotels Group properties worldwide that participate in the company’s Chinese traveler program—called Zhou Dao—have shown increased ROI and revenue per available room versus non-Zhou Dao hotels, according to Charlie Cahill, acting COO of the Americas for IHG. This is particularly true when there are spikes in outbound Chinese travel, such as during Chinese New Year celebrations. The initiative has driven more group business to the Crowne Plaza Seattle Downtown property, and the hotel's sales director has helped promote the hotel by visiting China several times and meeting with several group tour operators, Cahill said.
Introduced in 2015, Zhou Dao includes the following amenities in many participating hotels: Chinese-speaking staff at the front desk or 24/7 language support via phone, acceptance of China UnionPay cards—a payment processor that provides bank card services—access to the IHG Translator App that provides instant translations, Chinese tea, special F&B options, slippers, kettles, and Chinese channels available on in-room TVs. More than 15,000 IHG employees have received special training through the program, Cahill said.
"We continue to roll out Zhou Dao to key destinations and hotels where we know there is demand and focus on hotels in cities that we know attract the most significant share of China outbound travel," Cahill said.
It's not just the large hotel brands that are leveraging technology in their efforts to garner a larger share of Chinese guests. Luxe Hotels’ 160-room Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel in Los Angeles and the 86-room Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel in Beverly Hills will both begin accepting WeChat Pay and Alipay this month, according to Adam Sydenham, regional GM for the three-property Luxe Hotels brand.
The three hotels also began offering a “China Ready” package in October, which offers in-room amenities such as slippers, a bathrobe and a tea kettle, at no additional costs to guests. Sydenham said that more than 1 million Chinese tourists visited Los Angeles alone in 2016.
Luxe Hotels hopes to double the amount of guests to its hotels from China in 2018, Sydenham said. Chinese travelers currently account for 2% of guests but Sydenham said he expects that number to jump to 4%.
"We will see even more travelers in the future from China coming here, and when they select a hotel to stay at they will be looking for a sense of familiarity," he said. "If you don't offer this, you will discount yourself from serving these guests and this market."
Hoping to attract its share of the nearly 1 million Chinese tourists that come to New York City on an annual basis, the 1,750-room Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel has been updating its own marketing efforts for the past decade, according to Dan McCarron, director of hotel sales. The property offers culturally-specific in-room items like slippers, green tea and toothbrushes, along with employees who speak Cantonese and Mandarin and a special concierge.
"The most significant ROI we're seeing is the impact on repeat business and consistently positive guest feedback," McCarron said. "We have Chinese groups that book return business with us, noting the customized services that they received."