Industry Update
Opinion Article18 September 2015

The Asia Syndrome

Numbers of Asian tourists visiting Europe keep growing, but is the European hospitality industry ready for them?

By Alex Katsomitros, Community Manager

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For many years it would make the rounds in the hospitality industry as a rumour, guised in the cloak of an urban legend, until the BBC finally verified its veracity: every year a bunch of Japanese tourists visiting Paris run amok by what has been dubbed as "the Paris syndrome". Confronted with the notorious Parisian audacity of bistro waiters and taxi drivers that insults their Asian proclivity for politeness and reserve, they are overwhelmed by stress and anxiety – some even suffer from a nervous breakdown and need to be sent back home, often with a doctor by their side. Too much cultural difference to absorb, obviously.

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Back in the day these stories served as a whimsical excuse for banter rather than for serious concern. Alas, the tables have turned. As most European hoteliers have learnt by now, Asia is the new Eldorado, with Japanese, Chinese and other Asian tourists spending as much as Europeans and American tourists do.

European destinations are particularly popular among Chinese visitors. This year's annual survey of Chinese outbound tourists by FT China Confidential shows that 2.2m Chinese visited France in 2014, half a million more than in 2013. Even more promising is the fact that seven out of the ten dream destinations of the expanding Chinese middle class are located in the old continent: France, Italy, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Spain. Each country exploits its own historical and cultural assets to enchant them - Russia for example is a leader in what has been called 'red tourism', attracting visitors keen on Communist paraphernalia, although France has been catching up in this niche market too.

As it happens with all things China, size matters. Last spring a Chinese company, Tiens Group, sent no less than 6,400 of its employees on a four-day holiday to France, booking more than 4,700 rooms in Paris, Cannes and Monaco. According to Chinese media, around €13m was spent on the trip.

Parlez-vous Mandarin?

There is always the chance that China will eventually succumb to an economic crisis, a prospect that may not be distant given the recent woes of its stock market. If this happens, it will possibly take the rest of the Asian and perhaps global economy down with it. But even in that case, it would be futile to expect a return to the previous world order. Asia is here to stay as an economic superpower in the 21st century, and the hospitality sector should take notice.

Inevitably, the question arising for European hoteliers is how they can fully exploit this trend. Winning the hearts and minds of the Asian middle class is the key to success. This requires familiarity with their culture and habits and, by default, with their mother tongues too. Which raises the question of whether European hotels need more mid-level and senior members of staff who are fluent in Mandarin and other Asian languages – not just receptionists, waiters and drivers, but also managers, marketing experts, doctors and tour guides.

If this is true, the million dollar question is where these workers can be found. Tapping into the European workforce can obviously be a part of the solution. An increasing number of Europeans learn Mandarin, perceiving this ancient language as the future lingua franca of international business along with English. Korean and Japanese language courses are popular too. This trend is backed by governments, often at the expense of Europe's own languages. David Cameron for example has urged British pupils to give preference to Mandarin over French.

Unfortunately, this may be wishful thinking for now. It is the very nature of Asian languages that renders their mastery for non-native speakers a tedious and nerve-wracking, although not impossible, task. It is unlikely that European language schools and universities will ever produce the number of Asian language speakers the European hospitality sector needs, never mind the European economy as whole. And even if they do, in the best case the bulk of them will not have a working knowledge of the language if they have not spent some time in Asia. It is not a coincidence that big hotel chains such as Starwood Hotels and Ritz-Carlton relocate their senior staff to China for a short period of time to familiarise themselves with the language and the culture. Online language courses are definitely promising in this regard, but it is too early in the ed tech era to assess their long-term success.

In the footsteps of Marco Polo

Inevitably, the other option is more controversial: bringing in Europe native speakers from Asia, possibly through fixed-term exchange programmes that allow European students and workers to spend some time in Asia and their Asian counterparts to come our way.

Hiring native speakers has a distinct advantage. Smooth and timely customer service is king in today's digital world where TripAdvisor reputation is everything. More than often this has to do with culture and its main vehicle, language. French and Italian waiters may be famous for their lack of foreign language skills, expecting customers to have a smattering of French or Italian to communicate, but this is no laughing matter for Asian tourists who are often aghast at what they perceive as lack of respect.

Mastery of a foreign language brings along cultural awareness too. It is no secret that big hotel chains avoid putting Chinese tourists on floors or rooms that containing the number "four", which sounds like the Chinese word for "death", while Chinese senior staff often expect to stay on higher floors than rank-and-file ones.

Perhaps Europeans must take their cue from US hotels, which have proved more resilient in this regard. Some even deploy experts in the intricacies of the Chinese culture, from tea drinking habits to the several versions of Chinese breakfast. Above all, they have been hiring an increasing number of Mandarin-speaking employees in order to tap into the Chinese market.

Beyond the main Asian source countries, such as China, Korea and Japan, European hotels can also try their luck in niche markets that have just started taking off, particularly in those countries that historically have not been a part of the English-speaking world. Hiring someone with Indonesian or Cambodian language skills can be the stepping stone for an ambitious online marketing strategy to attract tourists from these countries.

So the race for finding the right staff has already started and is going to be fierce. This does not mean that it is a zero-sum game; every hotel chain can curve its own niche according to its own goals and assets. As a Chinese proverb famously used by Deng Xiaoping goes, "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."

Alex Katsomitros, Community Manager, Movinhand

Alex Katsomitros

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