The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Hong Kong’s hospitality business to revise strategies for survival, and look to the Greater Bay Area to stay competitive in the market. Luo Weiteng talks to hotelier Dean Winter.
Dean Winter, managing director of Swire Hotels. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The coronavirus pandemic has revolutionized the hospitality industry, galvanizing Hong Kong hoteliers in an unprecedented way. They must now plan effectively ahead with a greater understanding of the local and Chinese mainland markets, according to a leading industry player.
Dean Winter, managing director of Swire Hotels, called the public health crisis unprecedented, although the industry has gone through ups and downs in the past.
Not only for foreigners, but also those from the mainland, Hong Kong will always be special, like what Monte Carlo is to Europe. There is always a kind of halo around it
Dean Winter, managing director of Swire Hotels
“In February last year, we thought that as we had effectively dealt with SARS, we could overcome this,” he said of the 2003 epidemic. “However, we now realize we have never seen anything like this, probably, since the Second World War, in terms of disruption to businesses.”
It seems the veteran hotelier has always been on a mission at a critical and difficult moment.
In 2009, as the market was licking its wounds from the global financial crisis, Winter took over as general manager of the company’s new luxury hotel, The Upper House. Despite gloomy prospects and mounting challenges, he steered the hotel through the storm, with everything on the mend by the middle of last year.
With the pandemic-battered hospitality sector now struggling to get back on its feet, he takes stock of the “big lessons” acquired from COVID-19.
Unlike their mainland counterparts with a huge domestic market at their doorstep, Hong Kong hoteliers should be even more agile, change course swiftly and reinvent themselves to keep themselves afloat, Winter said.
“As we can’t just wait to get back to how it used to be when there was no need to worry about face masks and sanitization, we should also learn to manage the expectations of guests when it comes to hygiene,” he said.
Luxury hotels in particular have to be creative in offering sanitizing solutions, like providing face masks and conducting temperature checks in a more natural, relaxed manner.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of staying ahead in the business. Before the pandemic, an estimated 90 percent of The Upper House guests were from overseas. “But in the past 12 months or so, we had to turn that off completely and set our sights on the local market,” he said.
To beef up its business, The Upper House — located in Admiralty, the city’s prime commercial district — launched Salisterra, a new restaurant that offers a social Mediterranean dining experience on Pacific Place’s Level 49. In April, the hotel unveiled a suite designed by architect and interior designer Andre Fu.
But still, one could hardly shy away from the fact that the local market itself has taken a beating. After more than two roller-coaster years, Hong Kong is still reeling from a crisis of confidence.
(PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
However, as a long-time resident in the special administrative region since 1992, Winter said he believes the city still has the best of both worlds, and that it will retain its charm and glamour and stage a comeback.
“Not only for foreigners, but also those from the mainland, Hong Kong will always be special, like what Monte Carlo is to Europe. There is always a kind of halo around it.”
Winter is adamant that Hong Kong will bounce back, just as it did when it rode out the SARS crisis.
At that time, the number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong was next to zero due to visa restrictions. Now, the entire picture has changed beyond recognition, he stressed.
The turning point came in July 2003, when the mainland rolled out the Individual Visit Scheme to give Hong Kong’s SARS-ravaged economy a lift. The program, which allows mainland residents to make individual visits to Hong Kong without having to join tour groups, initially covered four cities in Guangdong province. It was later expanded to 49 cities. It helped Hong Kong retailers and hoteliers overcome the crisis and enjoy a decade of dramatic growth.
Amid talk of an industrywide recovery, Winter did not expect the existing quarantine measures for international travelers to be eased in the foreseeable future.
“Given the uncertainties and volatility in the situation, we don’t expect to see international visitors to Hong Kong at least until next year.”
But he is hopeful that normal travel between Hong Kong and the mainland could resume soon, hopefully before the end of this year.
“Thanks to the rising vaccination rate, there should be a time when the authorities on both sides will allow travel across the border with either less quarantine than we have today or even no quarantine,” he said.
This would certainly be quite significant for not only the hospitality business, but also the hard-pressed retail sector in Hong Kong.
Last year, the SAR — a renowned world shopping mecca — received only 1.4 million overnight visitors, of whom 65 percent were from the mainland. It represented a plunge of 94.3 percent from the 23.8 million visitors in 2019, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The city’s overall hotel occupancy rate remained low at 24 percent.
(PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The local retail sector is on track for the better on the back of pent-up demand for travel from mainland visitors once the border reopens, Winter said, pointing to the potentially huge opportunities across the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
Hong Kong has cemented its role as a travel hub. “But at the end of the day, Hong Kong won’t be somewhere where you would typically spend 10 or 14 days,” he said. Instead, the Greater Bay Area has what it takes to be a great destination for international travelers.
It is possible that international passport holders visiting Hong Kong would be allowed to make a 48-hour tour of the Greater Bay Area. “All these inevitable improvements may happen in the next five years,” he said.
The hotelier also notes the keen interest from the new breed of Chinese vacationers, who have gone beyond mimicking the patterns of their Western peers to become the more-sophisticated and discerning trendsetters and innovators, with a knack for luxury hotel accommodations. They are now the driving force in domestic tourism, especially with the pandemic having severely dented global travel.
To make itself more relevant to the mainland market, The House Collective by Swire Hotels recently launched a three-episode film series titled Chef Story, a first-time collaboration between three Chinese cuisine chefs of The House Collective.
Winter himself launched his hospitality career as a chef out of pure love for food, and worked his way through various hotels and departments before climbing up the management ladder.
But the hospitality industry calls for hard work and long hours. “It might not be a business that parents might want their children to get into,” he advised.
“If you are the type of person who enjoys being with other people and the fact that every day is different, this business may offer a perfect stage for you to develop your career.”
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