Earlier this year, some 14,000 members of Amway China arrived in waves of 2,800 each for a series of meetings in Anaheim, Calif. — just one example, travel industry professionals say, of a growing number of Chinese business travelers flocking to the United States to meet with potential customers, study American business practices and attend conferences and trade shows.
In response, major hotel brands are starting programs to compete for the Chinese business. They are updating menus, hiring bilingual people for their staffs and even offering access to Chinese television stations, anticipating that the number of Chinese visitors will continue to grow in coming years.
“We see that in the past five years it’s grown rapidly,” said Yong Guo, president of the North America Chinese Entrepreneur Association. “You can see it from the travel volume, especially in the summertime. You can see it in the ticket prices.”
Mr. Guo said Chinese business travelers from diverse industries including pharmaceuticals, software development and green technology had contacted him and asked for introductions to potential partners. His member base of Chinese-American entrepreneurs has tripled in five years, he said.
In fiscal year 2010, the State Department issued nearly half a million visas to mainland-born Chinese nationals coming to the United States either for business or for a combination of business and pleasure, despite what can be an expensive, months-long process to obtain a visa. The Office of Travel and Tourism Industries said it expected a 232 percent increase in Chinese visitors over the next five years.
Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide and Starwood Hotels and Resorts are among the hotel management companies that are starting or have recently introduced initiatives to welcome Chinese travelers.
“We think we’re looking at about a 50 percent growth on an annual basis, and that will compound,” said Christie Hicks, head of global sales for Starwood. In addition to conference groups and trade show delegates, Ms. Hicks said, Chinese companies increasingly view the United States as an attractive destination for incentive travel. “When they look for that aspirational destination, North America is one that continues to grow.” Hawaii is one popular destination, she added.
In July, Starwood added touches intended to appeal to Chinese travelers at hotels in 19 cities around the world frequented by Chinese travelers. Bilingual staff members will be available to assist travelers with a limited grasp of English. Slippers and tea kettles are put in the guest rooms of Chinese visitors and are available upon request. Hotel and local sightseeing information is translated into Chinese. And restaurant menus were expanded to include Chinese fare like rice dishes and congee, a kind of rice porridge often eaten for breakfast.
Hotel companies are also betting that China’s growing domestic travel industry will increase bookings in the United States. “We’re expanding within China, so the recognition of the Hilton name was becoming increasingly strong,” said Andrew Flack, vice president of global brand marketing for Hilton Hotels & Resorts.
In August, Hilton introduced a welcome program in 51 hotels in 33 global destinations for Chinese travelers, including 22 hotels in the United States. Like Starwood’s program, Hilton’s has bilingual employees available to assist Chinese visitors, and places slippers and tea kettles in guest rooms.
Travelers also get a welcome letter in Chinese, access to Chinese-language television stations and a Chinese-style breakfast with items like congee and fried rice.
“Chinese government group travel has been taking place for many years, but what’s adding to that is individual business travelers that we’re more familiar with in the West,” Mr. Flack said. “We’re seeing more Chinese delegates attending more international association conferences.”
David Townshend, senior vice president for global sales at Marriott International, said that so far this year, “We’ve seen a 50 percent increase in the business, which is obviously a strong indicator not only of the potential but clearly of the future.” Within some Marriott brands, the growth is even more pronounced.
At the extended-stay TownePlace Suites brand, the bookings are up 112 percent over the same time, reflecting the longer duration of stays for Chinese travelers.
Mr. Townshend said Marriott tested a Chinese-style breakfast including fried rice, pickled vegetables and congee in a few markets and plans to introduce it across its brands at the end of the month.
American travelers may be accustomed to a cup of coffee, perhaps accompanied by a room-temperature pastry, for breakfast. But the morning meal is a much more important one in Chinese culture, said Greta Kotler, chief global development officer at the Center for Association Leadership, or ASAE, an organization for managers of trade and professional associations.
“Breakfast in China is a very nutritious, green meal,” she said. “It’s very much more of a vegetable-rich breakfast than ours might be.”
Joseph Chi, president of Shine Tours, who helped coordinate the Amway China trip, said the company had detailed requirements for what it considered a “suitable breakfast” for delegates.
Hotel companies expect their efforts to connect with Chinese visitors will improve their standing among domestic travelers, as well. “I think we definitely have research that shows that customers look positively on hotel companies that are sensitive to the needs of travelers from multiple countries,” said Mr. Flack, of Hilton.
“There’s a sophistication that goes with that and a worldliness that talks to a high level of hospitality.”
After all, at the end of a long day, an American guest also might like to ease into a pair of slippers or make a cup of tea.