BEIJING - Just a stone's throw away from
Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Zhongnanhai, the
headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and
central government, is an unlikely little bastion
of British colonialism.
Raffles Hotels and
Resorts, the owner of the original Singapore hotel
named after Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles,
opened its first branch in China last month around
the corner between Chang'an Avenue and Wangfujing
Street - Beijing's famous pedestrian-only shopping
district - and just a few blocks from the Great
Hall of the People.
juxtaposition illustrates that foreign-invested
luxury hotels are still in demand in the Chinese
capital in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
Peter Wynne, the new general
manager of Raffles'
Beijing branch, says that what hotels in Beijing
compete for is not so much guests as qualified
Wynne dismisses the historical
irony of Raffles' presence. "I'd say what defines
the Raffles brand is its level of service and the
premises - they have to have an historical
element. I wouldn't say that Raffles necessarily
[has] to be viewed as British colonial," Wynne
Still, like it or not, the hotel
site has some colonial connotations. The new
Raffles is in a portion of the Franco-Oriental Beijing Hotel building -
a massive complex dating back to the early 1900s.
It was started by an Italian entrepreneur who
bought the business - a guesthouse, restaurant,
parlor and wine cellar - from two Frenchmen. The
Sino-France Industrial Bank took over a few years
later, and "Le Grand Hotel de Peking" became a
favorite of luxury travelers with its steam
heating, private baths and flush toilets.
In 1949, the property was expropriated by
the People's Republic and was regularly used for
banquets by Communist Party luminaries, including
Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng
Xiaoping. While the rest of the complex is getting
a bit worn around the edges - the rest of the
Beijing Hotel looks like a shabby 1970s apartment
complex from the outside - Raffles Beijing has
gone to town to recreate its luxury brand.
The lobby staff are resplendent in white,
there are a plethora of room valets - one for
every three rooms - and the Writers Bar, which
naturally offers the hotel's signature drink, the
Singapore Sling, has a wooden French dance floor
circa 1920, where Zhou used to take a turn while
Mao was asleep upstairs.
Among the 171
thickly carpeted, luxury rooms is the
884-square-meter Presidential Suite stretching
over five floors and costing a whopping 80,000
yuan (US$10,000) a night. One of China's 800
million peasants would need to save for at least
12 years to stay there a single night. China's
nouveau riche may struggle to afford the
presidential apartment, but the luxury suites,
which start at 3,500 yuan, are within reach.
The problem is, said Wynne, getting the
Raffles name out there. "I think that everyone has
this great Chinese challenge, creating a brand
name, within such a large market," he said. "As a
company, we've been extremely well known across
Southeast Asia for the last 20 years. It's a
matter of expanding that knowledge into the new
Raffles needs to set itself
apart from the original premises. Domestic Chinese
travelers are likely to find international names
more appealing than the stuffy, once Communist
Party-run Beijing Hotel. Government chic doesn't
generally cut it with locals.
As well as
Singapore, the group has opened Raffles hotels in
Cambodia; Beverly Hills, California; The
Grenadines; Hamburg, Germany; and Montreaux,
Switzerland. Dubai is next on the list.
Beijing is certainly no stranger to
five-star hotels. The Chinese capital has scores
of luxurious places to stay, including the
Shangri-La, the Hilton, the Sheraton and the St
Regis. And more five-stars are coming. This year
should see the opening of The Regent Beijing and a
new Ritz-Carlton hotel among others.
Hoteliers are banking on the continued
healthy growth of China's tourism industry.
Earlier this year, the World Travel and Tourism
Council predicted the industry in China would grow
14% in 2006, making it the second fastest-growing
country globally in terms of total demand. No
doubt, the 2008 Beijing Olympics will only help
"We have plans to really grow
our footprint across China, and Beijing seemed
like a good place to start," said Wynne. "These
opportunities are enhanced by the Olympics," he
said, adding that Raffles and its landlord, the
Beijing Hotel, have already made deals with the
Olympic Committee. Wynne seemed unfazed by the
enhanced competition. "It's like water finding its
own course downhill," he said. "There's probably
enough room in the market for everybody. And the
growth plan has been well calculated by everyone."
Hotels will be competing for qualified
staff and not for guests, he said. "I think
probably the toughest thing will be in finding
talent, finding the right people. Everyone's after
the same staff. So there will be many different
companies competing for a fairly shallow pool of
skilled and talented international service
Good English is a must for
international hotel staff: overseas travelers
paying overseas prices expect English, not
The hotel, which had its soft
opening at the end of June, is scheduled to have
its grand launch in September or October. Guests
staying in one of the 30 rooms already opened now
endure the hammering of construction crews.
Once Raffles succeeds in getting its brand
name in the public eye, it may well find itself
competing with a different rival - the
entrepreneurial counterfeiter. China's violation
of intellectual property rights extends all the
way from DVDs, through luxury goods to coffee
shops and cars - usually slightly misnamed to slip
past copyright laws. So maybe we'll see a
homegrown "Riffles" hotel opening in the city in
the next year or so, with the lobby staff
resplendent in off-white.
Gardner is a freelance journalist based in