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Bridging the Chinese Cultural Chasm

They’re traveling more than ever and bringing their cultural mores with them. Here’s how to better understand their needs and how to make this group enjoy your hotel.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014
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If you’re on the same conference circuit as I am, then you already know everyone is seemingly obsessed with the Chinese traveler. For good reason too. China has experienced insanely rapid economic growth in the last 20 years and combined with a loosening of citizen travel restrictions it’s opening up opportunity for hotels around the world to profit from this increasingly financially flush consumer.

So just how important are the Chinese to the global travel economy? Get this; according to BRIC Marketing Group, China currently accounts for nearly one in 10 tourists globally and they’re taking about 100 million trips out of their home country every year. And that number is expected to double in just five short years. Plus they have a rising middle that’s the same size as the entire U.S. population.

Here’s one more head exploding stat. The Chinese are already outspending Americans, Germans and Russians on a per trip basis, dropping more than $100 billion annually. That’s some serious coin.

For me as a hotel industry journalist, educator and speaker I have been talking a lot about how critical the Chinese are to the global tourism industry, but it’s always been a topic I didn’t quite feel I understood fully. I mean, I get that there are a lot of them traveling. And like anyone else, they have specific needs or desires. But I didn’t truly feel I had a cogent understanding of what this consumer is all about.

That was until Best Western International invited me to visit an assortment of their hotels in China and Mongolia (more on this country another day). The experience was eye opening and multilayered, imbuing me with a depth and breadth of understanding that finally gives me a sense of confidence to talk about their cultural nuances and how they differ from the American traveler.

Lesson #1 – The Chinese have a multi-faceted culture

Human instinct is to put people into neat categories. It makes it easier for us to understand the world, but doing that obfuscates truth. Reality dictates people are multifaceted and cannot be pigeonholed into silos based on broad characterizations. We’re doing that all the time when we talk about Millennials, for example. People from New York are very different than those from Iowa or Hawaii. The same holds true in China.

I spent time in Shanghai and Beijing and found the cultural underpinnings of both places to be widely divergent. Shanghai was a bustling cosmopolitan showplace reaching far forward into the 21st century in a scene more reminiscent of a Manhattan street corner with its record shattering skyscrapers. Whereas Beijing was rooted in ancient tradition. Not surprising as it’s the seat of government for China and the culture there felt more focused on the communist structured government and its glorious emperor filled past.

So when they come to America, Chinese people from different areas have different needs and desires.

Lesson #2 – The Chinese are not that different from us

Unlike most countries where languages were derived from Latin, the Chinese (and other Asian cultures of course) utilize a character based written language and a tonally spoken one. That makes the culture seem more alien and therefore tougher to fully see similarities between us. It’s much easier to feel a commonality between the American hotelier and French traveler, for example, as our cultures are not that far apart. Although the French do seem to know how to cherish life more than us Americans.

The divide between us and the Chinese is not all that different, even if it appears that way when taking a wide view at the culture. Take technology, the Chinese are as infatuated with their telephones as we are. I could not go five feet without seeing dozens of selfies being shot and sent to friends on social networks that are not Facebook (that site is strictly forbidden in China).

They want to share experiences just like we do, and crave the same buzz travel gives other cultures.

Lesson #3: Human beings all want a feeling of safety and security

No matter how different we all are on this planet, we all desire the same thing from a hotel experience; a clean and comfortable lodging experience. We all get clean, but what about comfortable? To me that means having in place with culturally relevant experiences from someone’s homeland that make these guests feel at home. The hotel is an outpost that must feel to the guest they are experiencing a bit of their own culture regarding specific elements like food, the sleep experience and design.

I remember when I first started traveling internationally I stayed with familiar brands because I knew no matter how much foreign culture I experienced in a day, at night I’d return to a bit of America and the warm, cozy feeling that comes with it.

So if you are planning to attract the Chinese guest you need to have a breakfast they enjoy and menu items they appreciate during other day parts such as ramen noodle soups or congee in the mornings. They also love slippers!

Tip: Chinese menus all had photos of the food. That gave me confidence to order something I knew I’d like, and all I had to do was point to the image to be understood.

Lesson #4: Celebrate cultural differences

The great thing about the world is now matter how different we are, we can learn from those differences to gain a better understanding of how other cultures work.

For example, the Chinese are less concerned with personal space. Maybe it’s because they live in close quarters or perhaps it is something that’s developed over thousands of years, but that doesn’t matter. I noticed many Chinese attempting to muscle ahead on queues, or they’ll stand real, real close to you. It is a little discomforting, but once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal.

When it comes to sleep the Chinese believe a firmer mattress is better, while we all think softer equates to luxury. So if you are getting Chinese guests consider appealing to this reality. I slept a week on hard mattresses in China and I did not enjoy the experience, but locals love those hard mattresses. Think about they feel!

The Chinese also love haggling over prices. That’s a little odd for Americans who love set prices, so expect Chinese guests to want to pay less than what’s expected. Don’t take it personally, it’s just what they’re accustomed to. Oh yeah, tipping does not exist in China so please educate Chinese guests as to what’s appropriate in North America.

Tip: Make sure you have television stations that are in Chinese so your guests can have that connection to home. Do you want to live without CNN or ESPN wherever you are in the world?

Lesson #5: You can connect and make money

If you are really looking to attract Chinese travelers it’d be a great idea to have someone who speaks the language working at your hotel. It’ll make them feel more like they belong. And oh yeah, have cards at your hotel written in Chinese and English with basic phrases and places of interest. This way they can communicate in a modest way with us English speakers and they can just give the card to a taxi driver, point to a line on the card and get to their destination without any confusion. That saved me a couple of times overseas and gave me the comfort to explore more on my own.

The Chinese are an interesting, vibrant people taking their place on the stage. It’s time to welcome them and say nǐ hǎo or 你好. That’s hello to us Americans.

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