THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Hyatt’s strategy to winning over hotel guests in China is one that is based on an old adage: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach
For Christopher Koehler, vice president and managing director of Hyatt Hotels and Resorts China, the last thing he wants at the restaurants in the group’s 30 properties in China is a dish that looks “safe”. And by that he’s referring to common and boring menu options that can be found in most hotels, such as a club sandwich or fried rice.
“Very often, being safe comes from the attempt to try to please everybody. But what we want is to impress and surprise our guests, especially at our restaurants,” Koehler told China Daily USA ahead of the hotel group’s Asia Pacific Food and Beverage Leadership Conference held in Shanghai in August.
“Hyatt is a very food and beverage-driven company that happens to have guestrooms. Our company earned its reputation in the hospitality industry through food and that’s also the reason why we are having this meeting,” he added.
The annual gathering of the group’s hundreds of executive chefs and F&B directors from their hotels in Asia has often been likened to the Oscars of the gastronomy world, and it always features guest speakers sharing and celebrating the best of Chinese food and wine.
“It’s to inspire, motivate and encourage our chefs to walk out of the comfort zone. We really don’t worry about being safe. For us, it’s more about being locally sensitive,” said Koehler, who was formerly a chef.
An example of how the hotel group caters to local preferences while introducing an innovative twist can be seen in Park Hyatt Ningbo in east China’s Zhejiang province. After realizing that the taro is a staple food for the locals, like how potatoes are for Americans, the general manager at the hotel decided to make the plant a signature dish in the hotel’s autumn menu.
But instead of using a knife to cut the taro, the restaurant incorporated an old method of preparation — one that even most locals have stopped using — to make the dish stand out. By cutting the taro with a string that is attached to a small bamboo bow, the chefs can preserve the milky and earthy texture of the taro while elevating the taste and presentation of the dish.
“We are not changing what the taste should be. Instead, we often change the presentation by adding an uncommon element to make it more interesting for diners. That’s what we are strong at,” said Koehler.
“When we say ‘organic’ at Hyatt, it’s not an adjective we put on the menu before vegetables or meat so that we can charge more. It’s defined as a seasonal, local and beneficial, for both the diners and the environment,” he added.
What motivates Koehler and his staff to be innovative is the dramatic change in the demands of Chinese consumers over the past 10 years. He noted that Chinese people today are eager to learn more about the food and culinary scenes outside their hometown, as compared to a decade ago when their idea of experiencing foreign cuisine was limited to hotel buffets or eating a burger.
“Now people are becoming more adventurous, especially those in Shanghai and among the younger generation. For them, the global food map is no longer divided into Western and Chinese cuisines. They want to discover and learn about very specific cuisines such as Kyoto Kaiseki, as well as traditional ones that can only be found in a small village far away from the city,” said Koehler.
Another factor that keeps Koehler and his chefs on their toes is the global trend of
Christopher Koehler, healthy eating where people are becoming increasingly inquisitive of the origins of the food on their plate and the environment in which animals are raised. Koehler attributes this to the fact that Chinese people today have traveled much more in the last 10 years than they ever did before.
Fifteen years ago, 70 percent of Hyatt’s clientele in China was made up of international travelers who were in China to set up offices and businesses. The tables have now turned and domestic tourists have instead become that 70 percent. Koehler also noted that most of their domestic guests are visiting for leisure instead of business.
Statistics from the National Tourism Administration of China showed that Chinese people made 100 million oversea trips in 2014, 10 times the number recorded in 1998 when the administration first started to track figures. The number of domestic trips in the past year is even larger — Chinese travelers have spent 3.03 trillion yuan ($474.97 billion) exploring their own countries in a staggering 3.61 billion trips, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.
In order to tap the popularity of travel within China, Hyatt will be expediating the opening of its new hotels in China. There will be 20 new openings within the next three to five years and it will almost double the current number of properties managed by the group since it entered the Chinese mainland in 1986.
The Hyatt Regency Chongming, tucked away on China’s third-largest island, is the latest opening by the group. Koehler described the island, which is located an hour away from downtown Shanghai and is one-third the size of Long Island in New York, as “a place featuring natural beauty with a handful of mom-and-pop cottage farms dotted around”. He said that the island also reminded him of the past when huge food production companies had yet to rule.
“When we open a new hotel, we don’t just ‘copy and paste’ even though that would be much faster,” said Koehler. “If it’s a hotel in Chongming, we want to zoom in and be as focused as possible. For example, the menu from its restaurant can’t be Chinese or Shanghainese cuisines — it needs to be a truly Chongming one that you may not even find in restaurants located hours away in (downtown) Shanghai.”
Koehler conceded that the hotel industry in Shanghai is oversaturated at the moment, which makes running a hotel particularly tough. However, he believes that quality will always emerge above quantity, and that being sensitive to the market sentiment will be paramount in a hotel’s quest for success.
“It doesn’t matter how many, but really how good they are. I don’t worry about the number of hotels in the market, although it sometimes dilutes the total market,” Koehler said. “I think those who understand the market and adjust to it will be successful and continue to be successful. So the most difficult thing to run a hotel today is really being relevant to the market.”
The taro, a staple food for people in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, is one of the signature dishes at the Park Hyatt Ningbo. The hotel chefs employ an old preparation method to elevate the taste of the plant.
Christopher Koehler, vice president and managing director of Hyatt Hotels and Resorts China
Soaring above the metropolis, people can take in sweeping views of the city from Park Hyatt Shanghai.