STILL PUNCHING ABOVE ITS WEIGHT
The Portman RitzCarlton Shanghai may be 17 this year, but it is giving its younger competitors a run for their money
When Derek Flint, general manager of The Portman RitzCarlton in Shanghai, said that the luxury hotel he runs has the best location in town, and perhaps even the country, few would disagree. After all, the 610-room property and its two adjoining buildings, which comprise restaurants, cafes and retail options, is situated in a sprawling complex called the Shanghai Centre.
Located along Nanjing West Road in the heart of Shanghai, The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai is also one that is steeped in history, and it is the only hotel in the city that can claim to have hosted every American president during their official visits.
The Shanghai Centre was designed by John Portman, who in 1980 became one of the first American architects to enter China, after the country reopened its door to the world. Portman was invited to design the property by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who was impressed when he previously stayed at one of Portman’s signature projects — the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta.
Portman’s project in China was a big deal given the diplomatic circumstances at that point in time. It was two years after the signing of the Sino-US Communiqué and the normalization of the relations between the two countries. That year also marked the beginning of China’s opening up and reform policy which was implemented in 1979.
Designed to resemble the Chinese character shan (mountain), which is believed to bring fortune according to fengshui, the center was finally built after 10 years and an investment of $190 million. The gigantic complex which rivaled the likes of the Westin Hotel in Atlanta was the highest building in Shanghai for many years. Till today, it remains the only landmark in the city that is named after a person and elderly locals living in the area still proudly claim that their homes are in the same neighborhood as the dwellings of former American presidents.
The property is also the first foreign luxury hotel in China and the first outlet of The RitzCarlton Company, L L C.
The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai celebrates its 17th anniversary this year and Flint took the time to pay tribute to their most loyal of staff members — 250 of the employees have actually been around for at least 20 years — saying that
Derek Flint, they are the hotel’s most valuable asset.
“What truly distinguishes us in the competition is these ladies and gentlemen, without whom, the hotel would just be a collection of walls,” said Flint, a British-American who joined the luxury brand of US hospitality group Marriott International in the 1990’s.
The son of an investment banker, Flint started out in the hospitality industry as a desk clerk at the old Ritz-Carlton in New York. From helping a galaxy of celebrities check in and out at the once chicest hotel in the US, the graduate of UC Berkeley’s psychology major soon realized “it’s the industry for him” and has since been climbing up the ranks.
“No day is ever the same. There are experiences that, after 25 years in the industry, continue to amaze me,” said Flint. The experiences also include saving people’s lives, and more than once.
As one of the first players in the industry, the hotel has witnessed the evolution that has taken place over the years. Flint noted that one of the biggest changes include the guest demographics — while international travelers used to be the hotel’s biggest clients, it is the domestic travelers who now form the majority. And apart from a spike in their arrivals, Flint said that Chinese travelers are becoming more sophisticated in their demands.
“I think in some aspects, Chinese guests are more discerning than our guests from the United States,” said Flint, who attributed this to the growing number of luxury hotels in Asia with service levels that are much higher than some of those in the US.
Vying for these guests is a number of other luxury brands that have popped up over the years, including Shangri-La, Peninsula and Four Seasons. There used to be panoramic views of city’s western areas from the hotel’s club lounge on the 43rd floor, but now the sight is one of keen competition, represented by the sleek and shiny Shangri-La, located less than 2 kilometers away. Flint, however, is unfazed by the new challenges posed.
“Competition brings out the best in us,” said Flint, who conceded that occupancy rates at The Portman RitzCarlton Shanghai were slightly affected since Shangri-La’s opening. “Shangri-La actually creates more awareness of this area, and I think there is more than enough business for just two hotels.”
general manager of The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai
Derek Flint, general manager of The Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, says that their employees have been pivotal in the hotel's success over the years. Gao