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What Houston is learning from its experiences with Chinese travelers provides important lessons to other cities and destinations wondering what they need to do to better serve this market.
A greeting in Chinese is important, so hotels should have fluent Mandarin speakers on staff. Teapots and comfy slippers are essential room amenities, while a traditional breakfast of congee, a rice-based porridge, and a boiled egg would be a nice touch.
Cultural sensitivity also demands that white flowers be removed from lobbies, since they can symbolize death to the Chinese. These are among the cultural tips tourism officials have for hoteliers competing for Houston’s fastest-growing, biggest-spending group of international visitors — critical advice for fostering a segment worth millions of dollars to the Houston economy every year.
“If you do things right for Chinese guests, they will show loyalty,” said Michael Udayan, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Suites, one of the local leaders in adding the touches Chinese travelers expect, from Chinese-language newspapers and television broadcasts to free shuttles to and from nearby Chinatown.
Spurred by new nonstop service between Beijing and Bush Intercontinental Airport, Chinese travelers have emerged as the eighth-largest group of international visitors to Texas and Houston. Five years ago, they weren’t in the top 20. An estimated 63,000 travelers from China visited Texas in 2012, up 50 percent from 2011, and they added $175 million to the Texas economy, including $75 million in Houston.
With Air China beginning four-day-a-week nonstop flights last summer, those numbers are said to be increasing. And while Latin Americans still top the list of international travelers locally, Chinese visitors to Houston are said to outspend Mexican visitors by more than 2-to-1.
Tourism officials are encouraging hotel operators to find new ways to extend hospitality to the world’s most populous country. “Ni hao, one of the friendliest phrases around, is one you might find extremely useful in the future,” Jorge Franz of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau told hotel owners during a recent meeting, referring to the traditional Mandarin greeting.
The bureau is working with Air China to develop special tours aimed at Chinese travelers, with visits to local ranches, places like the Johnson Space Center and perhaps even a Rockets basketball game. “We are putting the word out to sell Houston as a tourist destination,” Franz told the Houston Chronicle.
Several recent visitors from China, those who came for business or leisure and made shopping expeditions to the Galleria or took in sites like Space Center Houston, had some surprising reactions to the Bayou City.
Zhu Lili, 31, a Beijing journalist who visited last month for the first time for work, even gave Houston a thumbs-up for its fresh air and good transportation. “It is absolutely a city for travel,” she said.
Xu Yan, also 31, enjoyed her vacation here but was surprised not to see “cowboys on the streets.” Another visitor compared Houston to “the blue sky” and described Houstonians as “very friendly, warm.”
Across the U.S., travel from China was projected to triple during the six-year period from 2012 to 2018. Houston is expected to benefit for several reasons. The arrival in 2002 of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming as a Houston Rocket piqued much of China’s interest in the Bayou City.
Now business opportunities, from oil and gas to real estate, attract Chinese money as well. The launch of nonstop flights has made the city even more accessible, Franz said. Plus, he added, a local Chinese population of 150,000 and the largest Chinatown in the U.S. may be a draw for families to visit.
Local business leaders say the impact of the new Air China service cannot be overstated. The route was profitable from its first week, and the airline has filled 80 percent of seats since its launch. Once the flight goes daily in March, a total of 111,690 seats could be filled, in both directions, annually.
Based on the first six months of data, 80 percent of the inbound travelers stay in Houston, a high number for Bush Intercontinental, suggesting Houston is joining the ranks of traditional tourist destinations Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Bush Intercontinental, which last year set a record for number of international passengers, is expected to surpass that total this year. Stephanie Haynes, president of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Houston, said the nonstop Air China flight has encouraged more hotels to cater to Chinese tourists. “The Chinese represent a different culture than the European travelers we are used to,” Haynes said.
Chinese visitors to Texas, many of whom do not speak English, tend to travel in groups and stay an average of 35 nights and visit multiple cities. They have high standards for their accommodations, Franz said, and are interested in politics and government. For VIP clients, he said, making an introduction to a local politician would be appreciated.
He also said that since Chinese would consider tipping rude, hotels should consider adding a service charge to bills. At the Westin Galleria Hotel, front-line employees last year began undergoing training in Chinese customs, said John Oakley, director of sales and marketing.
Oakley said a study of city tax records show Chinese visitors spend more than any other group of international visitors. “There have been more Chinese travelers recently than in the last four or five years,” added Matthew Vesely, director of sales and marketing for the St. Regis Houston, a Starwood hotel in the River Oaks area.
Among its cultural initiatives, Vesely said, St. Regis has a policy to remove all white flowers whenever Chinese travelers are visiting. Udayan, whose Crowne Plaza Suites is near Chinatown, said he also has seen an influx of Chinese guests since early 2012.
“Because we get so many Chinese travelers here now, our experience is geared toward making them feel very comfortable,” Udayan said. “We did not realize how big it was going to be.” Sun Meng Han, 43, a human relations manager from Taiwan, visited Houston in July for nine days for her children to attend a NASA space camp.
They hope to return. “We enjoyed the food, shopping and friendliness of people from Houston,” said Sun. “We are definitely coming back soon because we didn’t get to see (Rockets player) Jeremy Lin in action this time.” Copyright (2014) Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.