Hotel industry on the rebound

by Jayanti Menches

Mono Wan, convenor, HR Development Committee, the Hong Kong Hotels Association

After a SARS-induced dip in hotel occupancy rates in 2003, occupancy is surging with Chinese visitors

Optimism has returned to Hong Kong's hotel industry, based on a surge in occupancy rates in late 2003 and a promising forecast for 2004. With tourism on the rebound and several new hotels opening over the next couple of years, an increase in job vacancies is forecast within the hospitality industry. Frontline staff are in high demand, from receptionists and room attendants to waiters and cooks.

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), 1.79 million visitors arrived in Hong Kong in December, a 7.4 percent increase over the same period in 2002, making up for the financial blow struck by SARS earlier last year. Despite the events, the total number of visitors in 2003 reached 15.54 million, only 6.62 percent less than in 2002.

The surge in visitors from mainland China is being heralded as a key factor in the recovery of Hong Kong's hospitality industry. The recent lifting of travel restrictions for independent Chinese travellers along with an increase in tour groups from the mainland has been nothing but good news for Hong Kong hoteliers.

"This year should be much better than 2003," says Mono Wan, convenor of the HR Development Committee for the Hong Kong Hotels Association. "The increase of travellers from the PRC will help the industry." According to Mr Wan, only 10 percent of independent PRC visitors will stay in hotels, most likely in the medium-priced range. A very small percentage may take advantage of Hong Kong's deluxe hotels. Although the number of individual PRC tourists to Hong Kong will increase, still only 14 cities are permitting independent travel, he explains. There will also be more tour groups which will make use of three and four-star hotels. Referring to the volume of visitors, he points out that, "From a human resources point of view it will help employment by increasing staffing, no matter where PRC visitors stay."

2,000 new jobs within the hotel industry

Job vacancies up

To cope with the forecast inflow of visitors, not just from the PRC, ten new hotels are scheduled to open across Hong Kong this year. "According to the HKTB statistics as of June 2003, there were 95 hotels in 2003 and 107 properties are anticipated to be operational in 2004," says Mr Wan. "The number of rooms will grow from 38,108 to 42,964 in 2004 and an additional 7,000 rooms are expected in 2005." That many new rooms means 2,000 new jobs within the hotel industry, says Mr Wan, a positive development for the Hong Kong economy.

But an influx of PRC guests will present new challenges for hotel staff, Mr Wan warns. "Staff need to learn how to deal with the psychology and consumer behaviour of PRC guests. They may have uncertainties about Hong Kong and are likely to ask more questions. Hotels and the HKTB are holding training workshops to help frontline staff deal with these new issues." Language skills are also paramount. Knowledge of Putonghua is becoming increasingly important as well as Cantonese and English. Hotels are also looking at cross training employees in order to maximise staffing, Mr Wan says. This allows staff to understand the difficulties of other departments and improves communication between employees.

When it comes to applying for vacancies within the hotel industry, Mr Wan's advice to graduates is, "If you love talking with people it is easier to work in the industry." People who want to join the sector have no shortage of opportunities. Transferring from a customer-focused industry such as retail sales or catering offers an advantage. Formal training for the hotel industry at college or a vocational institution is also beneficial. "Education helps you think," emphasises Mr Wan. "Once you have gained some experience, it gives you more of an opportunity for promotion."

New hotels - new opportunities

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Mongkok's busy shopping district and along the waterfront at Hong Kong's newest technology development, two new hotels are gearing up to open their doors in 2004. Although one is a large, five-star property and the other a luxurious boutique hotel, both promise to deliver something unique for Hong Kong businesses, residents and visitors.

Le Meridien Cyberport, due to open in late March, advertises itself as being "technologically superior to other Hong Kong hotels." According to general manager Dean Schreiber, the hotel is targeting the IT-related business market, since most companies with offices in the Cyberport area are IT specific in some shape or form. Besides a business clientele, he expects the property to attract local visitors due to the nearby shopping arcade, cinema and food court expected to open in the spring. With 173 rooms and superior interior design, Mr Schreiber considers Le Meridien Cyberport, "More boutique than a large, five-star hotel."

In contrast, the large, 669-room Langham Place Hotel is the first, new five-star property to be built in Kowloon in over a decade, says Sharon Cheng, group director of human resources for Langham Hotels International. The Langham Place, scheduled to open in Mongkok in July, is the flagship of a 1.8 million square-foot development comprising a shopping mall and a 60-storey office tower. The hotel is also set to offer the most up-to-date technology, including hotel-wide wireless broadband connection and Internet-enabled phones with touch screen.

Anticipating a healthy mix of business and leisure guests, the Langham Place intends to recruit 400 new staff prior to opening. "Most of the management team has already been hired", says Ms Cheng. The hotel will hold an open day in the near future in order to hire its frontline staff. "We are looking for people to help us create something new," she emphasises.

The Le Meridien Cyberport has 196 staff positions from senior management down, according to Mr Schreiber. Around 45 frontline vacancies remain to be filled. Just like the Langham Place, Le Meridien Cyberport is looking for people with the right attitude. "You don't need to have the polished level of five-star service, we will provide that," says Mr Schreiber.

Taken from Career Times 06 February 2004
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