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    China Business
     Jul 14, 2006
Singapore Slings in Beijing
By Dinah Gardner

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.

This surprising 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 staff.

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 said.

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 markets here."

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 that growth.

"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 people."

Good English is a must for international hotel staff: overseas travelers paying overseas prices expect English, not Chinglish.

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.

Dinah Gardner is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Hotel honchos ponder China's challenges (Nov 24, '05)

China the new growth spot for Asian hotels (Nov 13, '05)

Shangri-La Hotels expands Shanghai presence (Sep 28, '05)


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