FOR a latecomer to the service game, China is certainly catching up fast. The sheer pace of change in the country is driving its hotel industry forward as shiny new hotels light up the skylines of the major cities. As competition in Asia toughens, Chinese hotels are now scrambling to import Western business managers and standards in a bid to play the West at its own game and rid the Chinese hotel industry of its poor service image.
But when it comes to cultural and operational differences, China is not so much another country as another planet. Chinese hotels want Western managers to introduce Western service standards, yet those managers cannot fall back on Western business practices. "I'm here to represent and implement the Western system," explains Sven Isberg, general manager at the 363-bedroom Hilton Beijing, "but if you take a Western business approach then you won't get very far - you need to understand how the clock ticks differently."
The German national has been in the job for just three months but has already realised that "face" - roughly meaning status, or avoiding being made to look stupid in the eyes of others - is crucial to business in China. "You can't make someone lose face in front of others or let things become personal in front of his colleagues," says Isberg. "On a one-to-one basis, however, you can make things very clear."
Status is also a driving force behind career aspirations in China, says Isberg. "Everyone here wants to get promoted," he notes, "but, whereas in the West it's for career purposes, here you want to be promoted for social standing and money."
Isberg is most baffled, however, by the bewildering difference in logic. "In our Western world, there are cold facts," he says. "Here, there is always a story behind it all - you always have to look at something three or four times and gather all the information before you can work out the real story."
For Markus Kranz, executive assistant manager, food and beverage, at the Hilton, the main difference is the lack of staff experience. After one year in China the Swiss-German has found that staff knowledge and training is a world removed from his previous jobs in Cairo and Cameroon. "Some 90% of staff training takes place at the hotel," he says. "A lot of staff have just basic hotel-school knowledge."
He complains that there is a lack of flexibility in transferring staff. "You can't take people from one sector and put them into another one," he points out.
According to Kranz, the service culture is not really in the blood yet. A strong emphasis on training, however, promises to update the country's service standards rapidly. "Training is a very important issue in this part of the world," he says. "Training is going on every day in the hotel. It's one of the top priorities in Chinese hotels."
As the first five-star joint venture in Beijing, the 1,007-bedroom Great Wall Sheraton Beijing has been the training ground for every other hotel in the city, according to general manager Adriano Severi. "There were 70 expatriates in the beginning and now there are only eight or nine," he says. "It shows how we have picked up standards."
Kranz predicts that training will drastically improve service standards within the next three years in the larger Chinese cities. Smaller cities, however, are lagging some 10 years behind the likes of Beijing and Shanghai. "International hotels are just starting in smaller cities and are still operating according to Chinese standards," he says.
While training is sharpening staff skills, soaring unemployment rates and embryonic capitalist values are also driving staff to work harder. China is slowly wriggling out of its state-owned legacy, privatising industry and laying people off. "It's very hard for people to change," explains Tina Liu, communications manager at the Grand Hyatt, Shanghai. "They're coming from a state-owned mode of working where they're used to reading the newspaper and chatting all day. But staff members are now motivated by the fact that they are lucky to have a job at all. Slowly, they are learning that this is the way the world works."
And as privatisation creeps in, working attitudes are slowly changing. The Chinese are bound by a strict nine-to-five, five-day working week - that's the law. But, says Liu, there are unwritten rules that motivate staff, such as: "Would you like to be promoted and be given a rise?"
Labour laws differ drastically from those in the West. The Labour Bureau is a large body which deals with human resources but China has "no such thing as a union in the way Westerners know it - the government represents the workforce," explains one expat source.
The country's socialist system provides excellent benefits for Chinese workers. "Hotels certainly invest in their employees here," says UK-born Shaun Treacy, resident manager at the 555-bedroom Grand Hyatt Shanghai. "We spend about US$700 (£436) on each staff uniform so that staff are dressed correctly and take pride in their appearance."
Hotels will also typically pay half of an employee's rent. "I rent accommodation from the state," says Beijing-born Nancy Giu, executive floor manager at the Hilton Beijing. "I pay RMB170 [£12.80] per month and the hotel pays another RMB170. It's better to buy a house but I can't afford it."
Holiday entitlement goes up on an annual basis, with seven days' leave for the first year, and three days' extra leave for every subsequent year worked. If staff work on a national holiday, such as New Year's Day, Spring Festival, Labour Day or the National Day of China, they are given an extra two days off in lieu. Tax increases with a person's salary, rising by 5% above the RMB800 (£60) bracket. Tax and health insurance are deducted from employees' wage packets each month.
There is little in the way of sex discrimination and, in fact, hotels are buzzing with "girl power". Hotels prefer to employ women because females are considered "more capable", says Liu.
China is also advanced in its strict, even harsh, hygiene laws. Hotels are subject to frequent inspections by various committees and are penalised if predetermined expectations are not met.
Isberg calls a recent annual sanitation inspection at the Hilton "by far the most advanced I've ever seen in the world". Kranz agrees. "They check every single detail during the inspection," he says. "If a teaspoon is facing the wrong way in a cupboard then they deduct a point, because an employee could pick that teaspoon up the wrong way and not by the handle. If they find a fly in a restaurant, then they will deduct another point."
The authorities impose these stringent safety and hygiene standards as part of China's hotel classification system. Three years after it opened, the Hilton Beijing received its official accreditation as a five-star hotel from the China Tourism Administration on 5 May 1997, bringing the number of five-star properties in the city to 16. Among the more usual requirements of this standard, such as having a restaurant open 24 hours a day, five-star hotels must have a flower shop on the premises.
Hotel hygiene standards may be high but machinery is not as reliable, as Toby Dale, chef de cuisine at the five-star Shanghai Grand Hyatt, knows only too well. "The other day," he says, "I was serving at the buffet hot plate with two guys sprawled over my feet. If the repairmen turn up and we tell them that we're too busy, then we won't see them for a couple of days - so you just have to work around them, even when you're busy."
Like Dale, Severi, from the Great Wall Sheraton Beijing, also takes such cultural differences in his stride. "So they act differently. I continue to act as normal," says the charismatic Italian. "I embrace them, they don't embrace me back. I adapt to them, not them to us. We are here to teach them - we have the intelligence to adapt to the environment."
He concludes: "The Chinese are marvellous people, very enthusiastic and hard-working. The people here are great, try very hard, have great vision and will go very far." And the West would be foolish to ignore the upheaval taking place in the Chinese hotel industry. n