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Western chain hotels in China - why do I end up complaining every time?

Fries with ice cream from the hotel bar

Guiyang, the capital of one of China's poorest but most beautiful provinces, Guizhou: Over the past 4 days, we've seen three other western tourists. One at the Huanghuashu waterfalls and two at our hotel during breakfast. Despite the scarce number of western tourists (and the lack of interesting sights in Guiyang) there are no less than nine big, sparkly, western chain hotels in the city - including Hyatt regency, Hilton, Sofitel and Sheraton.

Even if I’m all for Chinese full immersion and authentic experiences, I admit that I do like to book western hotels when travelling in China. There are some places where it would be a sin not to go local but in cities, I suppose you can say that I like to play it safe. So why is it that I often get oh so disappointed whenever I check into a western hotel in China? I’ll give you a hint: expectations.

Whenever I check into a western hotel, I expect to feel at home. I expect to have a perfectly cooked omelet for breakfast, I expect the sauna to be on, I expect staff to speak and understand English, I expect there to be diet coke, I expect western potato crisps for my happy hour drink, I expect for the waiter to know how to use a bottle opener. The list goes on. But alas, with a few exceptions, the reality is often a far cry from fluffy omelets and cold Sauvignon blanc.

Poor manager

For many years, I dreamt of a career in the hospitality sector. After high school, I worked at a luxury hotel in London, I supported myself through waiting jobs as a student and I worked for a hotel management school in Rome. You may argue that it is not a lot of experience, but wherever I go, I feel like I’m in the business. I can't help it. I observe the level of service-mindedness, the attention to detail, how staff is trained, I come up with new concepts and my specialty is to give unsolicited advice to hotel managers.

Whenever I’m unhappy with something at a hotel, my family watches in horror as I charge towards the reception and ask (or rather demand) to talk the manager on duty. It’s happened on a number of occasions here in China and one occasion became a family anecdote which we're able to laugh about now that my kids have gotten over the embarrassment. We were staying at the Crowne Plaza in Urumqi (Xinjiang region) and it all started very well. At check in, we were offered vouchers for a free welcome drink. Perfect timing as we were both tired and thirsty but when we presented the waitress at the hotel bar with the vouchers, something odd happened: She grabbed each of our hands quite violently and stuck a can of either coke or sprite in them. She chose for us. Coke (not light obviously) or Sprite. The only two options. No smile, no glass, no offer to sit down. Needless to say, that I asked to speak to the Food & Beverage manager within a matter of minutes. He was so mortified that he sent a big tray with wine, fresh fruit and pastries to our room.

Well saved. We move on, and choose, once again to stay at a western hotel here in Guiyang (Novotel). For a few extra RMB, we decided to go for a mini suite with access to the executive lounge where we imagined ourselves winding down after long days of sightseeing in the region. It didn’t take me too long to get over the smell of damp carpets in our mini suite and after a 10 K walk around Guiyang, it was time to finally enjoy a glass of cold white wine in the executive lounge.

We were greeted by a loud group of Chinese businessmen who were having some kind of meeting. The air in the room was thick with cigarette smoke despite there being non-smoking signs all over the walls. The men all seemed drunk. It must have been the beer because there was nothing else. Well, that’s not entirely true because there was one bottle of "Great Wall" Chinese red wine stuck in an ice bucket for everyone to enjoy. The fridge contained a vast selection of soft drinks, namely four cans of coca cola and the snack selection consisted of cucumber and ham sushi-ish rolls and dry biscuits. There was no staff in sight so this concept was all new to me: A self-service, unmanned business lounge at a four star hotel.

This time, the F&B manager was not on duty, so the receptionist called him up and I spoke to him on the phone. Much like our friend at the Urumqi hotel, he apologised and promised that he would personally make sure that service was improved. Common for both managers was that they were very open to criticism. They were in no way defensive. Furthermore, the manager in Urumqi explained (in very good English) that he was new to the job and that the staff hadn't received proper training in ages. This is why I rarely complain to staff but to their managers. I believe it's wrong to blame staff who haven't been trained properly. It may seem absurd but reality is that no one ever told the waitress in Urumqi that a welcome drink is served in a glass and with a smile - after the customer has sat down.

One in a billion

I believe that having expectations is normal when you pay for something. Otherwise, I might as well go for budget hostels every time. But could it be that I am asking too much? Should I really be treated to a perfect western breakfast buffet when westerners represent something like 0.1 % of the clientele in any given hotel in China? Would I not find it odd if I stayed at a hotel in Amsterdam and the decor and food selection was all Chinese? I may well have misunderstood everything. Maybe the chain is just a name and the aim was never to assure any type of western service. I would love to find out more about this this, so watch this space.

In the meantime, I will try to be more openminded and to give western hotels in China an A for effort. Quite often, the good intention is there - and not everyone is aware that we don't usually serve French fries and ice cream together in the West. I couldn't bear to complain when they placed it in front of me at the rotating rooftop bar at Novotel, Guiyang.


Post scriptum: There are of course many western chain hotels in China that deliver on all fronts. We writers tend to highlight the examples that have somehow made us wonder (and laugh). In major cities and business/tourism hubs you're usually never disappointed. My favourites so far were Sofitel in Shanghai and Sofitel in Guangzhou. Free flow Prosecco in the lounge and I'm sold.

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