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Jun
2015

Observe, observe and observe

In this month’s Insider’s insights, we talk with Robert Gauer; currently the Operations Director at the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai, one of the cities top three luxury hotels.

Robert is originally from Brazil and is a Bachelor in Hospitality Management. He has 19 years experience in hospitality and aviation industries and has worked in prime properties from South America to the Indian Ocean and Asia, including the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island and now the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, both with a long list of accolades.

Luxury Insights China wanted to hear directly from Robert about some of his experiences and practical advice he would offer others when dealing with wealthy Chinese consumers. What follows are Robert’s own personal views and not those of his employer.

 

 

What would be your top three tips to any hotel professional arriving to take up a new position in China for the first time?

Come with a very open mind without trying to compare or change the local mindset to the western world. We are both too different and correct in our ways.

Observe, observe and observe. Be patient to cross check information and ask questions without being judgmental, as everybody will test you, and as a result so will your resilience. You need to remember that you are a stranger who is joining their place.

Try to blend in as soon as possible, following protocols regarding what and when to say things and especially about things you should never say as this will make things easier and you may be accepted faster … although you will always be the stranger. Asians, especially Chinese are not used to having a straight forward discussion and don’t show feelings as we do! Naïve jokes and comments are not perceived as being nice.

 

What has been the operational challenge that has made you smile or laugh the most after the fact?

We had a high profile wedding, more than usual and one item on the menu was fresh lobster. Consistency and deadlines from suppliers and contractors can be frustrating and sometimes surprisingly good, as they tend to operate in one of the extremes! Our fresh lobsters were stuck in customs according to the supplier and it was late evening the day before the wedding. Our purchasing team and executive chef had to find ways through unusual channels to get access to, and pay a significant premium for fresh lobsters and we finally received them at 5 am on the day of the wedding! When we saw them served there was a laugh of relief.

 

What would be the most awkward request made by a Chinese guest, that to them seemed reasonable?

To be honest, and quite surprisingly we have had none. By comparison, the most exotic ones still come from westerners.

 

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Why do Chinese HNWI’s choose to stay at a top 5 star hotel like yours, and is there a particular demographic that you see most?

Due to the number of wealthy customers in the domestic market, certain brands and luxury places became too common and loose their exclusivity.

High end luxury hotels are able to provide an additional level of exclusivity, be it space, dedicated staff looking after one guest at the time or full time if required, customised amenities and F&B 24/7, their entire visit facilitated by our team from their arrival at the airport that might include personalised shopping and a tour of the city, until the moment they depart back from the airport to leave for their next destination.

We see mostly early to mid 40’s businessmen and women on a 2 day trip and families in their late 30’s on leisure trips, most from secondary cities across China travelling with quite a number of family members, sometimes booking a few rooms on the same floor, staying an average of 2-3 days.

 

If you were to describe the key characteristics of a typical Chinese HNW guest that makes them different from other nationalities, what would these be?

They look for places where they feel that the whole team is engaging with them and paying attention to their needs. Food is definitely a very important part of their journey in addition to the service, and of course the dishes should be immaculate. Some high-end luxury establishments may send the message they are too formal and cold and this will freeze local customers as they find it intimidating, inviting them to find reasons for dissatisfaction. Chinese HNW are rapidly becoming discerning travellers who (not all but the majority) have been exposed to top luxury in Europe and US and have their own opinion as to what this is all about. Some in our industry may believe that Chinese wealthy consumers are still learning and then compromise on what’s important to them, which is engagement.

If you had to summaries to our readers what you have learned in the last 18 months at the hotel, what would these things be?

Be patient and observe in order to understand what really matters to each person. Due to the vast exposure customers might have had, it’s close to impossible to pre-empt what will make their stay a memorable one (besides the obvious ones which are already basic and expected from our level of customers) as it can be totally different from one customer to the next.

It’s a long and detailed close communication process involving a number of professionals from the time the booking is made. On that note, lead-time and accurate information is normally not readily available and once it is, it can change several times within the same day, so the single most important thing I’ve learnt is flexibility to accommodate constant changes to an extreme never experienced elsewhere. You may have a VIP booking in a private dining room in one of our outlets and once the group arrives they might have additional guests who might have different requests outside that of the pre-prepared VIP set menu so the whole team need to exercise contingency planning everywhere full time!

 

How different culturally is the day-to-day operation of a 5 star hotel in China versus other places in the world?

Customers: The main one is the recognition. What I mean by recognition is to have the higher management involved in functions, outlets and arrival/departures meeting and greeting the customers and organizers who are bringing with them their clients. This level of recognition they value highly and it’s something very personal. Other nationalities by comparison might prefer being incognito to guarantee their privacy and space.

Team members: due to the service/hospitality discipline being very young in terms of trained/prepared professionals there is a lot of emphasis placed on building the basics, especially in order to guarantee they are comfortable and knowledgeable about the differences between what is expected from customers coming from the domestic market, Asia overall and western countries. Straight forward communication and feedback is replaced by warm, close and long counseling meetings, in order to reinforce the standards and explaining the reasons why they are important.


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