Born in Macau, Roberto Madan started his career in the hospitality industry when he was only 16. He began working in major Hong Kong hotels like the Mandarin Oriental (MDO.LSE, M04.SGX) and the Peninsula Hotel (0045.HK), and then went on to study hotel management at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland. Madan’s previous postings include being a food and beverage director for Holiday Inn (InterContinental Hotels Group; IHG.NYSE, IHG.LSE), as well as eastern China area manager for Days Inn China (Wyndham Worldwide; WYN.NYSE). He spoke with China Economic Review about the challenges and opportunities in Chongqing’s hospitality industry.
Q: What has your experience been like so far at Chongqing Tianlai?
A: For me, it’s been difficult adjusting to Chongqing’s weather. This city can be very foggy, dreary and cold. As for the hotel, things are very good. We’re running a high occupancy – 80% for this month. And we were actually just certified as a five-star hotel by the local tourism bureau. I’m also overseeing the development of six Tianlai hotels. They will be completed over the next few years in Nanchong, Chengdu, Wuhan and Xi’an, and we will open two properties in Beijing.
Q: What is Tianlai’s long-term expansion plan?
A: All of these new properties will be five-star hotels. The company’s long-term plan is to have 30 hotels in the country by 2020. Tianlai is also looking to go public by the end of 2013, most likely in Hong Kong.
Q: How would you describe the current state of Chongqing’s hotel industry?
A: It’s competitive – ultra competitive. The problem that a lot of international hotel brands face in Chongqing is that they often appoint a foreigner as general manager and it doesn’t work. Chongqing is still a developing part of China and it cannot be compared to Guangzhou, Shanghai or other big coastal cities. It’s an inland province and people are still quite conservative in some ways. The majority of the tourism market is basically made up of domestic customers, as there are not many international travelers to Chongqing yet. I’m sure this will change once everything is in gear, when the new exhibition center and the airport terminal are completed. The municipality is also attracting more visitors as it grows as a high-tech and auto manufacturing hub. But whether Chongqing can accommodate 50 five-star hotels in five years – which is what the city intends to do – that will be anyone’s guess.
Q: Since 2010, Chongqing has been making big investments in developing five tourism sites: Changshou Lake, Longshui Lake, He-chuan Fishing Town, Nan’an Guangyang Island and the Three Gorges. What kind of impact do you think this will make?
A: These are all things that will cater to domestic tourists, so it won’t have a big impact on us. We’re a MICE hotel and we mostly cater to business travelers who are coming to Chongqing to check up on their manufacturing plants or to meet clients. Perhaps it will mean that our guests can have more leisure options during their downtime.
Q: What major challenges have you seen in Chongqing’s hotel industry in recent years?
A: There is a desperate shortage of qualified staff here. It’s a problem all over China, though less so in big coastal cities. More people are willing to go there because they want to experience life in the big city.
Q: So what are you doing to help solve this problem?
A: We’re investing a lot in training and employee development. We send staff to hospitality training programs in China, including Golden Key and China Professional Hospitality Training. Managers are sent to other countries for training courses.
Q: What should China’s hotel industry be doing to attract potential employees?
A: We’re not doing enough to promote the hotel industry to the younger generation in China. A lot of hotels will send human resources or sales managers to colleges to sell their own hotel brand, but we’re not making enough effort to tell youth that China’s service industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. We’re also not promoting how working at a five-star hotel is unique: Demanding and discerning travelers expect a high level of professionalism and attention to detail, so at the end of the day, you have to provide a very special service that connects with customers. Parents in China still tell their children that they should not clear plates or clean up after someone else, but these are the steps you have to take to learn how to be a food and beverage manager, for example. Airlines have done a much better job of promoting themselves as a prestigious service sector in which rewards are higher.
Q: What keeps you motivated in your job?
A: I’m a fanatic. I like to get things done and I’m very detail-oriented. Guests and staff can see me 24 hours a day, because I want to make sure people who stay at our hotel are taken care of. We’re here to create a very good emotional feeling for our guests, because once you provide that, people will keep coming back. The challenge is that everyone has a different way of fitting their team and tactics together. It’s all in the books but it’s a matter of how you actually practice it.