The Year of the Goat may have been an annus horribilis in many respects, but not all events that took place had a negative impact. Once such was the launch of the "individual visitor" scheme for mainland Chinese citizens, allowing travel to Hong Kong on independent visas for those hailing from select cities over the border and eagerly hailed by retail and hotel businesses alike for its promise of greater numbers of cash-rich, entertainment-hungry tourists.
Undoubtedly, one major beneficiary of the scheme is Ocean Park, one of the world's most acclaimed theme parks for family entertainment, education and conservation, perhaps best known for its state-of-the-art panda house, spectacular location and stomach-churning rides. Since the park opened in 1977, it has been a "must-do" for over 60 million visitors- including tour groups and, now, independent mainland Chinese travellers.
Certainly, "Ocean Park welcomes the relaxation of the Frequent Independent Traveller policy," confirms Brian Ho, human resources manager of the park. "Apart from local visitors, 40 percent of our visitors are tourists, of whom 70 percent come from mainland China. We believe that Ocean Park is one of the major tourist attractions in Hong Kong."
Indeed, while SARS-hit Hong Kong's tourism industry unarguably suffered during 2003, Ocean Park itself experienced a three percent rise in visitor figures in the second half of the year, welcoming a grand total of 1.9 million people during this period - 11 percent of whom are believed to have been unaccompanied mainland tourists travelling on individual visas. Bar further outbreaks of SARS, the park management now anticipates an almost record-breaking 3.4 million visitors between July 2003 and June 2004.
With this in mind, Ocean Park has implemented considerable adaptations to its branding strategy in order to encourage such welcome visits from China. "To recognise the steadily-increasing importance of mainland tourism, we are investing increasing effort and resources into ensuring that Ocean Park is welcoming to our mainland visitors," Mr Ho explains.
"Our staff undergo language training in Putonghua; guest services are tailored to mainland visitors, with commentaries for shows provided in Cantonese, Putonghua and English; promotions have been developed especially for visitors from the mainland; we accept payments in Renminbi in the park; and every price tag on items for sale in the park is printed in the simplified characters used on the mainland."
Of course, increasing numbers of visitors require greater back-up and staff support at the park.
In particular, the introduction of targeted promotion events demands a significant boost in the demand for seasonal manpower. "For instance, about 100 seasonal staff - including retail sales, games attendants, security guards, and so on, were hired for the Chinese New Year promotion this year," says Mr Ho. "Meanwhile, we are spending more resources on enriching our existing staff by offering both Putonghua language courses and cultural induction courses."
Evidently, language proficiency in both English and Putonghua is essential for Ocean Park staff. However, Mr Ho emphasises that, for most frontline positions, such as guest relations staff, an outgoing personality comes number one on the list of priorities. He adds that understanding the needs and cultural practices of customers from different countries would also be "a definite advantage".
Today, the career path of a guest relations officer runs from guest relations assistant at entry-level to assistant guest relations supervisor, guest relations supervisor and senior guest relations supervisor, with management-level posts including assistant guest relations manager and, ultimately, guest services manager.