Neil Li has been known as a rising star of the hospitality world for some time now, with his ascent now seeing him at Shangri-La Group as Director, Luxury Experience. Speaking 5 languages and with a background in VIP customer service, Neil began his career as front-desk assistant manager at Hyatt on the Bund, before rocketing up the career ladder, later becoming Director of Rooms and EAM, until his move to Shangri-La. He spent 7 months as Resident Manager of Jing An Shangri-La, a flagship hotel of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, before taking up his current role.
In his career, Neil has also acted as personal butler for global royalty, international celebrities and the like, from Richard Branson to the King and Queen of Belgium to Keanu Reeves to Stephen Curry.
The Luxury Conversation sat down with Neil to discuss how domestic luxury hospitality in China has looked to overcome 2020’s enormous challenges.
Rather than go into the usual ‘how can hospitality recover’ discussion first off, let’s talk about your experience with the ‘VVIPs’ of the world. What have been some learnings that you would offer to others in hospitality that deal with star or UHNWI guests?
Well, of course there are the basic tips such as being available 24/7 during their stay – services from laundry, room service, massage, gym and pool, to yourself. Be available on the guest’s preferred contact platform, whether they prefer to message you personally on WeChat or another app for anything during their stay.
But the key to the whole stay is your relationship with their PA. Their PA is not only the access point to the guest, but sets the tone for their experience and their overall satisfaction. Becoming ‘friends’ with the PA makes everything go much more smoothly, and helps with flexibility when anything unexpected occurs.
Personalisation is something that’s often referenced in our world, but that comes from research: researching the guest from any available sources online – but also from your hospitality network, such as sister hotels to see what the guest enjoyed the most during the stay with them. This means you have the knowledge to create not only the stay experience that they are looking for, but something memorable and longer-lasting, such as a meaningful ‘surprise’ farewell gift that will touch their heart and show the thought that it has been given.
So, looking more contemporaneously at how domestic hotels are faring, what have you seen?
Tourism, weekend and family-oriented stays have recovered much faster than properties in city centres. Take the Intercontinental Wonderland, which is in Shanghai’s outskirts – throughout the May holiday it was nearly 90% occupied for five days, and their rate remained near 3,000 RMB.
There is still a concern with travelling from region to region, as some guests are reluctant to fly and take the train, so it’s trips within a four or five-hour drive that guests are seeking currently. The Thousand Island lake area in Zhejiang was the hottest destination in May, as it gathers in guests from Wenzhou to Shanghai.
For city centre properties in Shanghai, the general trend was 40-45% occupancy in the May holiday, though now it’s now rising to over 50% occupancy, which is a very strong sign and a healthy trend.
What’s prompting more stays is pre-sale discount packages that are seeing weekend pick up due to staycations. The domestic staycation market is something that properties need to win with, due to international guests not visiting, of course.
Recently we saw that The Langham Shanghai and Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai did close to 90% – on a low starting rate of near 900-1,000 RMB, but this was because guests are using pre-sale deals and vouchers that the properties sell on their WeChat mini programs.
Much is said about the ‘new’ – guests that are new to luxury, and even the definition of luxury being something evolving to the trends of younger generations. How is Shangri-La going forwards as an established luxury brand? How has the group been able to meet this year’s challenges?
In China, it’s actually the second and third tier cities that are recovering more quickly, with close to 100% occupancy during the May holiday. The brand of Shangri-La has been in China for over three decades, so the brand speaks strongly to the Chinese audience nationwide.
Whether Changzhou, Hangzhou midtown, Suzhou and so on, the brand-knowledge is strong; and there was less international travelers as part of the standard demographic mix, thus they were able to continue with their original majority base clientele.
Competition is higher in first-tier cities, of course. But what we can say is that the product remains the centre. Globally, Shangri-La Hotel, Paris, Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul and Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard, London each have outstanding products, from the landmark location through to the rooms. In Shanghai, the city’s newly developed area called Qian Tan has several luxury hotels set to open in the future, including the Shangri-La Hotel, Qian Tan. For Shangri-La, the rooms are the strength, with new features that are about environmental-friendliness to comfortable touches such as heated bathroom flooring and the like. What we are looking at is what we call ‘the future of distinctive luxury’, which can showcase our unique, Asian-style hospitality.
What does the future hold for hotels in China? The recovery has demonstrated consumer resilience and optimism, but how have expectations changed?
I have to say that luxury brands can actually learn from local, non-luxury brands. It’s vital that we never assume that we cannot learn more from all sources. What we’ve seen from non-luxury, Chinese-brand hotels are aspects such as sanitising machines that disinfect the guest’s items such as their wallet, with UV light. Various QR codes around the room let the guest scan with WeChat and tells them who is the housekeeper, when the room and area was last cleaned and so on. This is about trust and care. It gives guests a strong sense of trust that the property has put thought into the care and consideration of the guests’ feelings, as well as the cleanliness of the property.
Of course, luxury rooms have an aesthetic standard – so even if a brand doesn’t want to fill the room with more machinery, perhaps the hotel can at least offer this on request, just as in China we offer air filters and facemasks on request. It’s the small touches that can make the biggest difference.
In F&B, customers are already having a normal experience and it’s business as usual. Popular brunch spots are full again. There are those who have introduced a smaller menu in order to remain more agile and stay conservative on the side of cost. For events, 150-person size group events are being booked.
There are certainly new requirements, such as temperature-checks for those staying at the hotel – but guests accept this. The knowledge and information is key, as guests will want to know all details. We have to anticipate their questions and be ready to respond with both information, and personal, engaging service.