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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - In Shang­hai

xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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.

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