Hotels eye long-haul travel market

by Ella Lee

James Lu, executive director, Hong Kong Hotels Association

The hospitality sector remains optimistic but recognises the need for talented new recruits

While the number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong has been the focus of much attention within the tourism sector, many hotels are just as interested in boosting the inbound long-haul travel market, which they see as potentially more remunerative for the hospitality industry.

According to James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, hotels have not been benefiting as much as the retail and restaurant sectors from the rapid growth of mainland tourists. "It is because 40 per cent are day trippers and 70 per cent come from nearby Guangdong province," he says. "With friends and relatives in Hong Kong, they don't have to stay in hotels." The result is that only 30 per cent of mainland tourists need hotel accommodation, though Mr Lu is quick to add this still represents over two million people or one-third of total demand for hotel rooms in a year.

The general view of those in the hotel and tourism industry is that the growth rate of the mainland market, which currently accounts for over half of incoming arrivals, will slow. "In previous years, we talked about robust growth in the range of 10 to 20 per cent, but now we expect less than 5 per cent," says Mr Lu. "We can't over-rely on China; we must develop the international market which still has great potential."

In fact, there has been steady growth in the number of long-haul travellers arriving this year. According to Hong Kong Tourism Board figures, visitors from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific were up by 33 per cent in the first eight months of 2005, while arrivals from Europe and North America have risen by 26 and 14 per cent respectively in the same period.

Positive factors

Mr Lu is therefore optimistic and notes that there are a number of favourable factors. These include government support for the development of new tourism infrastructure and attractions such as Hong Kong Disneyland, a cable car service on Lantau and the wetland park in Tin Shui Wai. "We had almost no new attractions in the '90s. Now tourists can have many choices from going to the Peak to shopping and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland," he says.

For long-term growth, Mr Lu thinks integration with the rest of the Pearl River Delta to form a cluster of tourist attractions covering Hong Kong and places like Zhongshan and Zhuhai would help to attract more visitors. "The rapid development of Macau will also benefit us, resulting in a win-win situation for both places," he notes.

To support growth, talent, as opposed to just manpower, is needed. "By this, I mean having around five years' solid experience in the hospitality industry," says Mr Lu. Demand is consistently high for frontline service personnel. Such positions usually account for 70 per cent of a hotel's total workforce and include the areas of front desk operations, housekeeping, and food and beverage.

The opening of new hotels in Hong Kong and the developments in Macau have added to the demand. Mr Lu points out that, as a result, it is not easy to recruit talent and can be even more difficult to retain capable staff. Experienced professionals are always needed, especially if they have undergone the traditional, western-style training and have worked for hotels known for their high standards and reputation.

New competition

Hotels and casinos in Macau mainly look for two types of recruit from Hong Kong - those at supervisory level or with food and beverage experience. "They don't only target Hong Kong people, but are also looking for affordable and available talent in places like the Philippines and even mainland China," Mr Lu explains. Since employers in Macau offer remuneration packages that are comparable with those in Hong Kong, some hotel professionals now see a move to Macau as an opportunity for faster career advancement. Mr Lu notes that it can sometimes take five to seven years to reach supervisory level in Hong Kong.

In the current market, there are also many opportunities for fresh graduates. In fact, up to 50 per cent of the positions on offer with a new hotel may be suitable for people with limited work experience. Mr Lu says this is because personality rather than specific job knowledge is the most important thing for people starting out in the hospitality industry. "Like most multinationals, we focus on a person's value and attitude during interviews," he adds.

He suggests that newcomers should have clear objectives and make a commitment to the hotel business. "It takes time and effort to get results, so it is necessary to have patience and endurance to adapt to the traditions and practices of the industry," he says. Some people don't, which explains why the rate of turnover is highest for staff in their first twelve months. New recruits must also be good learners, team players, and have a helpful attitude at all times towards guests and colleagues.

Mr Lu partially attributes the lack of overall talent in Hong Kong to the exam-orientated education system and the absence of a caring culture, which means fewer people are more naturally equipped to enter the service industries

Feeling at home

  • Hotels in Hong Kong cannot rely too heavily on inbound tourists from the mainland for future growth
  • Attention is being directed towards attracting more long-haul travellers
  • New hotels in Hong Kong and Macau have increased the competition for talent
  • Positions are regularly available for graduates and more experienced staff
  • Attitude is more important than specific job knowledge for those starting out.

Taken from Career Times 21 October 2005
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