Previously the Hilton Hefei’s director of operations, Markus Kaliss became general manager of Doubletree by Hilton Resort Wuxi Lingshan in March. Originally from Germany, he has 17 years of hospitality management experience and has worked in the UK, Malaysia and Maldives. This latest step in his career takes Kaliss to a young hotel that opened in September 2009. He spoke with China Economic Review about the World Expo’s negative effect on business and the hospitality industry’s prospects in China’s secondary cities.
Q: Now that your hotel is approaching its first anniversary, what kinds of achievements do you think it’s made so far?
A: Year one for every hotel is always tough, especially in a new destination. I think we exceeded all expectations. We thought it would take longer to establish a new hotel. Every month we have more and more guests coming. So I think the biggest achievement on the business side is getting the hotel on the market and establishing it as a really nice location for MICE and groups. On the service side we’ve had a lot of improvement and we’re providing international five-star standards, even though we don’t have the official rating from the government yet.
Q: Why not?
A: You need to be in operation for one year and there are certain things you have to do, including implementing environmentally friendly measures.
Q: How would you describe the state of Wuxi’s hospitality sector?
A: Wuxi is a growing destination with a lot of potential. This year we experienced a slowdown because of the Expo. Many local tour groups want to go there, but it hasn’t had the positive effect we were hoping for. We thought people would go to Shanghai and then add another destination in the Yangtze River Delta to their itinerary, but people are just staying longer in Shanghai. However, there’s an active government here and the Lingshan Buddha Palace has a lot of potential after the Expo. It’s not fully tapped and it really is something unique in China that’s worth driving a few hours to see.
Q: Wuxi gets a lot of business travelers, but your property is a resort. How does that play out?
A: It depends on what kind of business travelers. We don’t get corporate travelers who come in for a few days because we are 45 minutes from town. However we’re very strong in MICE business so big companies come and bring their teams for leisure and team-building. Of course, for tour groups it’s also a perfect destination. Our hotel stands out because it’s in natural surroundings and it’s peaceful – no dust, no noise. It is a breathing stop for busy tour groups that may be going to three or four different cities.
Q: What kind of opportunities have you had from working in a second-tier city in terms of your personal career growth?
A: For me, Hilton Hefei was a very good training ground. In a secondary city that’s not as Western as Shanghai or Beijing, you have to adapt more. It makes it easier to understand the culture and people. I also like the pace of change in secondary cities. If you go into an old, established hotel and want to change things, people say, "It’s always been done this way." But in a newly established hotel of two or three years you can suggest a new way of doing things and they say, "Why not? Things change everyday."
Q: What makes you think that the majority of hotel growth is happening in secondary cities?
A: If I look at our own Hilton pipeline, for many of the cities where we’re constructing hotels, I have to Google it first and see where they are. In big markets like Shanghai and Beijing, the major players are already there. Now what’s happening is everybody is going into the smaller cities. When we opened in Hefei four years ago, it was the first international hotel. And people thought: Hefei, what’s that? Now it’s running at 85% occupancy. Hilton’s strategy is not only about opening more hotels, but also Chinese outbound travel is becoming more and more important for us as a global company. The more Hiltons we have in China, the more familiar people will be with our brand.