China has become the city’s fastest-growing market for overseas tourists, with the number of visitors from the country jumping 19% in the past year alone, outpacing even the globe—hopping Brazilians. Hotels in the five boroughs, however, are not reaping the rewards, because the price-sensitive travelers are heading to New Jersey, where room rates are significantly cheaper.
Currently, China is New York’s fourth-largest market for overseas visitors—rising from 13th in 2009. An estimated 646,000 Chinese tourists arrived here last year. What’s more, the world’s most populous nation could soon become the city’s No. 1 market, according to tourism bureau NYC & Company, edging out the United Kingdom, which accounted for just over 1 million visitors last year.
The escalation is a result of China’s granting the U.S. “approved destination status” in 2007 and a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama to reduce the time it takes to get a visitor’s visa at an American consulate in China to less than one week from as much as 100 days.
But just 65% of Chinese visitors, compared with 87% of Brazilians (No. 3) and 84% of the British, rest their heads in the city’s 101,000 hotel rooms. The hospitality industry is eager to improve its odds.
The Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square books large groups of visitors all the time, but none of them are from China. That will change in April, when 300 of Amway Great China’s top sellers from Shanghai will be staying at the property for five nights as part of their reward.
“We haven’t seen a large group from China like this one yet,” said a spokeswoman for Marriott’s properties in New York City. “It’s a big deal for the hotel,” she added.
The 1,949-room Marquis will pay special attention to these guests to cultivate its reputation in China. For one thing, the hotel is supplying each of their rooms with slippers and a teapot. It also retained Terri Morrison, author of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, to conduct a seminar on Chinese customs and basic greetings for the hotel staffers who will come in contact with the guests.
Meanwhile, hoteliers in New Jersey say they have more Chinese business than they can handle. “We sometimes turn them away to a sister property,” said Cathy Coanda, director of sales for the Crowne Plaza hotel in Elizabeth. The 260-room property near Newark airport is booking more than 5,000 room nights a year from Chinese tour operators, who request a discount as well as breakfast in exchange for the high volume they bring.
Ms. Coanda wishes some of the groups would reserve during slower times, when it’s harder to fill up the hotel. They pay the lowest rates the hotel can offer. And compared with the Marriott Marquis, which last week listed room rates online of more than $400 per night, the Crowne Plaza is already a bargain at $120 to $140 per night for a room with two beds, according to its website.
Similarly, the Crowne Plaza in Paramus—about 20 miles from midtown Manhattan—tries to limit the number of rooms it books for Chinese groups to 20 at a time. The 120-room property gives groups a discount of up to 35% off the best available rate on its website.
“It’s great business because they leave the hotel at 8 a.m. and return at 9 p.m., so there is less wear and tear on our rooms,” said Michelle Gordon, director of sales for the property. “But they want low rates.”
The preference for New Jersey is not lost on NYC & Company, which is trying to convince Chinese tour operators that there are deals to be had in the city. Many Chinese visitors have friends and family members with whom they stay, but those who come in big tour groups stay in hotels with ample parking for the motor-coach buses that take them everywhere they go in the U.S.
“We are positioning the borough hotels as an alternative to New Jersey, showing the Chinese the advantages of Long Island City, Queens, for example, over Edison,” said Fred Dixon, chief executive of the -bureau.
NYC & Company has set up a “training academy” in Shanghai where it is educating Chinese travel agents, who arrange the vast majority of trips to the U.S., on the benefits of booking a hotel in the city and staying here longer.
“In a 10- to 15-day trip, they are starting on the West Coast and end up at Niagara Falls,” said Mr. Dixon. “They want to see it all, and we are encouraging them to slow down.”
Of course, not all Chinese travelers are pinching pennies. Business travelers and wealthy tourists spend freely at New York hotels. To attract them, the five-star Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue launched a $49 Chinese breakfast about four years ago at its restaurant, Clement, featuring steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings and stir-fried egg noodles with chicken. It added a $43 vegetarian option in June.
New York’s tourist attractions and retailers are also doing their part to attract the Chinese, who are eager to take in all of the traditional sightseeing opportunities while they are here.
Hornblower Cruises & Events is making a big investment in the market. It hired several Chinese graduate students from New York University to help it launch a targeted tour product. The company dedicated one of its harbor-tour boats for Mandarin-speaking tourists–including Chinese-language banners on the upper decks and a recorded tour of the sights in lower Manhattan. The boat leaves from Pier 15 and makes two trips in the morning, carrying some 800 passengers each day; a ride costs $20. It even serves Chinese dishes, including ramen noodles. Hornblower is planning to add another vessel in May. “We’ve never branded a boat like this before,” said Cameron Clark, vice president and general manager.
Last summer, the Empire State Building introduced a signed certificate given to Chinese tourists to commemorate their visit. No other group gets such special treatment.
“It’s about creating buzz and showing appreciation for their visit,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, director of the Empire State Building Observatory, whose signature appears on the certificate.