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Dr. Hudson

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

China's 'Hawaii': Climbing the Curve of Customer Service

By Simon Hudson, Endowed Chair in Tourism and Hospitality, University of South Carolina

China is slated by many tourism agencies to become the world's most popular destination within a decade. Inbound tourist arrivals are forecast by the World Tourism Organization to grow to 210 million by 2020, with foreign tourist revenue set to reach US$58 billion. China is widely seen as an exotic new destination, and both domestic and inbound tourism are growing at unprecedented rates. Currently about 75 % of all Chinese travelers go to Hong Kong or Macao, the earliest beneficiaries of a still-evolving policy to permit Chinese from certain areas to travel on their own.

However, with the rise of low-cost airlines, people with relatively low income levels are able to travel by air for the first time, and they are setting their sights on more exotic locations in China. An example is Hainan Island off the south coast, known as China's 'Hawaii'. Its capital, Haikou, with streets lined with palm trees, is the main port and business center for the island, and the southern beaches in the Sanya area and the tropical climate are the main attractors. With a lack of energy resources, Hainan has focused its economic growth on the tourist industry. Famed for its lush greenery, white sandy beaches and clean air, the island is home to various traditional temples, the most notable being Five Officials' Temple. Hairu Tomb, built in 1589, is a key national cultural protection site, reinforcing the island's position as an important cultural tourism destination. The island also boasts hot springs, volcanic gardens, rivers and other scenic zones but visitors do experience difficulties in locating these attractions as very little tourist information exists in English.

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Historically the island did not have a good reputation, with off-putting labels such as 'an antechamber to Hell' coined by an imperial civil servant. However, nowadays its remoteness, its reputation for housing the ethnic minority group with the longest life span in China (the Miao), and its unexplored flora and fauna could all help establish it as an environmental tourism mecca. Naturalist literature about the island is scarce, access to the innermost areas, which are home to around 4,200 plant species, is limited, but there are several reservations which protect endangered species such as the Hainan Gibbon and Eld's Deer as well as mangroves.

Sanya is the most hotel-dense area in Hainan Island and, indeed, the whole of China. These are mainly luxury international hotels and resorts. Recent figures released by Hainan Tourist Bureau list 209 starred hotels, including 22 five-star properties, a number that will be doubled by 2014. There are many more hotel projects currently in development, at least half of which are planned for Sanya which is fast becoming a tropical-style resort often comparable to Hawaii with its luxury accommodation and surfing beaches. This development has all happened over the past 15 years with the past few years seeing the most rapid growth along Yalong Bay, Sanya's most popular beach, and Haitang Bay. Along with increasing affluence and tourism opportunities within a nation, comes a more discriminating and demanding customer. With growing expectations, there is more chance of service failure and the need for better service recovery strategies in order to retain customer loyalty. This is vital for Hainan Island where competition for high-end tourists is fierce.

The Ritz-Carlton Sanya - arguably Hainan's most luxurious five-star resort - was built in 2008 on Yalong Bay, overlooking the South China Sea and 40 minutes from the Sanya Phoenix International Airport. The resort is owned by the China Jin Mao Group Company, Ltd and managed by Ritz-Carlton. There are 450 rooms including 33 private villas complete with their own plunge pools, lotus ponds and butlers, part of the exclusive Ritz-Carlton Club which also has a private lounge serving five complimentary food and beverage selections per day. There are four outdoor pools, tennis courts, fitness center, Ritz Kids Club, spa, conference and wedding chapel and facilities, and eight different eateries. It also houses a designer boutique shopping arcade with five of the world's top brands - Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Feragamo, Tod's, Paul & Shark and Ermenegildo Zegna - the first high-end hotel retail arcade for Hainan Island.

alt textMichel Goget has been General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Sanya since it opened and has also been the Chairman of Sanya Tourism Association since 2011. That same year he was named 'Outstanding Entrepreneur' by the Sanya City Government and Tourism Bureau, after leading the Ritz-Carlton to more than 78 tourism industry awards. With experience in seven different countries over two decades, Goget is charged with keeping the Ritz-Carlton Sanya at the number one position in Hainan Island. Managing a team of 1000 staff is no mean feat. The majority are Chinese with college educations in hospitality. 'We have a lot of lovely employees who are very young: the average age is 23 years old,' says Goget. 'They are 98 % Chinese with a very limited amount of expatriates. We have an Italian chef and maitre di and there's me, of course.' Goget is a French-born, US citizen and has a home in Washington DC. He has worked all over the US and Europe. Many of his staff members come to the Ritz-Carlton to gain experience during their college degrees and then return to work there full-time after graduation. 'We put them through a very rigorous training process. There are currently about 200 undergoing training,' Goget says.

Named by Training Magazine as the best company in the US for employee training, Ritz-Carlton is also known worldwide as a leader in customer service. Its quaintly old-fashioned mandate is to provide 'ladies and gentleman to serve ladies and gentlemen'. But how does this translate to a remote island in the South China Sea? 'Our whole philosophy - the three steps of service and our gold standard - is the same here as our other hotels,' says Goget. 'What's really amazing is that I have worked in seven different countries and frankly I see no difference here in the culture.' Firstly, the staff searching process is very thorough, selecting only those individuals with a passion to connect with the guest. 'The real challenge we have culturally is that it is very difficult for a Chinese local to identify themselves as the same rank as the guest so we really have to train them to engage with the guest and have confidence to look them in the eye,' Goget explains. 'We work on making sure they are comfortable using the guest's name, pronouncing the name correctly, and breaking the ice. That would be our toughest challenge - encouraging genuine engagement like you have in America.'

The Ritz-Carlton policy is to do considerable groundwork in advance of guests' arrival to ensure that things do not go wrong at their properties. For example, they have thoughtfully provided a 'romanceologist' to orchestrate romantic evenings, proposals and engagements to create the perfect environment for couples. Goget, who has experienced these services firsthand, says that with considerable differences in his Russian, Chinese and Western clientele, the romanceologist has to be well versed in the intricacies of many cultures. 'We get a lot of couples so we try to anticipate these guests' needs. We have 'romanceologists' in our hotel, who work on ways to do something really cool for couples. If they have booked into one of our 33 villas they will have their own butlers and a beautiful villa. But we ask them if there is anything else we can do for them, any particular requirement. We recommend the spa; if they want a romantic dinner on the beach we can arrange it; and if they want to get engaged, we will come up with something to help that out to make it memorable. We have a whole list of items we can provide and romantic spots on the island for couples to go to.'

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Ritz-Carlton prides itself on its 'lineup' tradition - borrowed from French chefs - where staff gathers to reinforce procedures and learn from daily incidents. 'Every shift we get together to review various kinds of culture, alignment, what's happening today, what's happening tomorrow, discuss issues and challenges, review VIP arrivals, and so on,' says Goget. With intensive training, regular on-the-job reviewing and research into clients' specific needs, Goget tries to avoid any customer service problems before they happen. But when something does go wrong his team is well equipped to provide speedy remedies. One quite frequent example is forgotten passports. 'In a situation where the guest is on the way to the airport and realizes he has forgotten his passport, he calls back to the hotel,' says Goget. 'If, for example, he was staying in one of our villas, there is a 24-hour butler on hand who will figure out a way to find the passport. If it is still locked in the safe, then we have procedures to open it and he will then jump in a cab and rush to the airport so the guest doesn't miss his plane.' Another recent incident was a lost iPhone which was speedily found on the beach when 15 staff members instigated a search. I am very proud of our employees taking the initiative in this sort of instance,' says Goget.

One of Ritz-Carlton's most remarkable policies is to permit every employee to spend up to $2,000 if required on making any single guest satisfied. This doesn't get used very often, however, but it does indicate the level of confidence management has in its team of staff. Goget says it would be relevant if they had a situation whereby a guest arrived to find he had no room booked. 'We would have to upgrade them, that has a considerable cost factor. Also, sometimes, being on an island, guests arrive early in the morning and we have no room ready for them, so we have a waiting room available for families, there's complimentary Chinese soup and noodles in the restaurant,' Goget explains. 'It is not their fault that they have to arrive early, so we make sure the experience is not overbearing; we make it as comfortable as we can.'

Simon Hudson is a tourism aficionado, exploring the world, spreading his passion for travel, and enlightening audiences on every kind of travel research from winter sports to film tourism. He has written eight books, and over 60 research articles, many of them focused on tourism marketing. He is the Endowed Chair for the SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Hudson can be contacted at 803-777-2705 or shudson@hrsm.sc.edu Extended Bio...

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