Karaoke, foot massage to welcome Chinese tourists

Grace Xin of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada welcomed delegates in Chinese to her session at the AHLA conference

Grace Xin.

Grace Xin.

LAKE LOUISE, Alta. — Ni Hao, everybody, said Grace Xin of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, welcoming delegates in Chinese to her session at the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association conference last month.

Welcoming Chinese tourists to Canada was a hot topic at the conference, since Hainan Airlines will be flying directly from Beijing to Calgary three times a week starting June 30, with plans to offer a fourth flight later this year.

“The new direct flights from China may be a pain-killer,” said Xin, referring to the province’s embattled economy. “I’m not going to give you any data — just talk about karaoke and foot massage.”

Xin, who came to Canada 16 years ago, is well-equipped to talk about differences between mainland Chinese and Canadian cultures. “If we know about the culture, we can better understand the people — we can understand, anticipate and engage.”

Xin praised Hilton Huanying, a program that offers Chinese travellers a customized hospitality experience during their stay, rolled out to more than 110 Hilton Worldwide properties globally last year. Similarly, IHG’s Zhou Dao program, which offers training on Chinese etiquette, culture and hospitality, has been rolled out to tens of thousands of the hotel company’s employees.

Xin alluded to TIAC’s new program (see below), which has been expanded to include all interested stakeholders. “There are 1.3 billion Chinese. If only one per cent travel, that means 13 million people. China hasn’t opened the doors for long,” she said. “In 1999, a single woman going abroad was as difficult as going to the moon.”

The Chinese people coming to Canada are wealthy, said Xin, noting she once saw one person spend $20,000 (CAN) in 15 minutes.

Food safety is very important, as is air quality. In China, Alberta air is for sale, and buyers will pay upwards of $15 for a little can of it.

China is all about competition and density — that means they are looking for serenity when they are travelling. 

When mainland Chinese tourists come to Canada, they are interested in shopping, gawking, seeking medical care, gambling and visiting schools. “Don’t underestimate education as a tourism driver,” Xin said.

Some of the cultural influences on service are tangible — for example, Chinese people do not like to have a mirror facing a bed or to have fans blowing on the bed. The number four is always bad because it is close to death — number eight is good.

China has a hierarchical culture, with the attitude, “When I pay money, I am the master.” They complain that servers don’t give them enough respect. At the same time, drivers at the International Motorcoach Association complain that the Chinese are too rude. “The two sides need to communicate to understand,” said Xin.

In restaurants here, we serve glasses of water with ice cubes; Chinese visitors would prefer hot water with lemon and no ice. They don’t like cold food; they don’t drink without food; they have three precise meal times and dessert is usually just fruit.

Xin gave a profile of the Chinese visitors to Canada. She said 60 per cent are female, and they shop a lot. There’s also a younger demographic, students in grades 7 or 8. “They call me Teacher Xin and ask what they can buy with their $100 bills.”

They tend to travel during the winter school holiday or the Chinese Spring Festival. Sixty-seven per cent of adult travellers have a Bachelor’s degree and 30 per cent have a Master’s. They all have mobile phones. They are also affluent, and many have travelled a lot already — Canada is late with their ADS designation — we’re the 146th country. This means that many are already sophisticated travellers. 

Chinese hotels were built more recently  than many of our Canadian properties, with grander lobbies and newer buildings. We often have to lower their expectations of other countries’ hotels, Xin said.

When they are dining, a good centrepiece is important. At a business lunch, there are generally eight to 10 appetizers and a similar number of main courses. People share everything. After dinner, they might want a private room for Karaoke followed by a foot massage.

How to bridge the gap?  Chateau Montebello arranges private rooms for groups of Chinese diners, who tend to be noisy when they eat. 

Key to playing the Chinese game is offering UnionPay, as they have to pay more exchange fees on cards like Visa or MasterCard and those cards have a $50,000 (USD) per year limit — not helpful when they are looking to buy items such as a car for their kids. 

In China, they are not allowed to gamble, and UnionPay cannot operate inside gaming establishments. Smart establishments such as Edgewater and River Rock casinos in the Greater Vancouver Area have large UnionPay signs and machines just outside the property.