As one who has traveled to 120 cities and towns all across China over the last 12 years, I've stayed at the gauntlet of hotels from a monk's home in Qinghai with no running water or a toilet for five days (and I slept on the floor) to newly opened international brand 5-star hotels -- and everything in-between from guest houses similar to B&Bs to boutique hotels to China's rising 3-star hotel brands (which are actually impressive).
While I don't like to be a complainer or an "angry expat" as a guest in another county, I do think my gripes against 5-star hotels in China are somewhat valid on the bases of their brands failing to deliver on their promises.
After all, when we pay for advertised amenities and services, we should get them, right? And having said that, I know all of these are "first world problems" of entitlement, so take them with a grain of salt (and a chuckle). I'll end the article with a disclaimer and a few positive above-and-beyond success stories to tip the proverbial scale.
But first, the five problems of China's five-star hotels. Note that not all five-star hotels in China have all five problems, but I believe these are the recurring ones.
Saving electricity is a norm in China, so I am used to seeing dark foyers at check-in, particularly at domestic brand 5-star hotels in lower tiered cities. Once I was filming a business interview TV show at a grand property that would also end up promoting the hotel, and I asked the front desk workers if they could turn on all the lights -- the gargantuan chandeliers over a cavernous open lobby that spanned 3 floors. The front desk workers laughed and said that the lights are not actually even wired; the chandelier was just a decoration. So we didn't film the lobby. Where this hurts in global brand properties is when only one elevator is turned on for a hotel with 20 floors and 400 rooms, even though the hotel has three or four other elevators that are turned off and "under maintenance indefinitely". And woe to the traveler during an unseasonably hot April when the A/C is automatically switched off in all guest rooms from midnight to morning, despite the actual sweltering temperatures outside. Don't even try to complain -- it won't result in a more comfortable room because you'll be told that engineering can't override the system, and at that hour, he isn't even in the building anyway. And when it comes to the swimming pool, gym and spa, don't expect any gym equipment to function, or any whirlpools, steam rooms, or dry saunas to be working either. Most hotels in this category will have a swimming pool (which is one of the required amenities for a 5-star rating in China), but if the hotel is a local brand, I guarantee the pool will be empty and "waiting to be repaired". If it's an international 5-star, the saunas and whirlpools are usually turned off during the day. Once I wanted to go for a late afternoon swim before dinner at a very famous 5-star hotel in Beijing, and the men's locker room was dark, the attendant sleeping on the bench, and everything was turned off. When I woke him up and asked what was going on, he was so proud to say they save electricity every day in the daytime when guests weren't there. Again, that's fine (and expected) for a local 3- or 4-star hotel. But not at a global 5-star brand that states the pool and sauna are open from 7AM to 10PM. A similar thing just happened -- as I was writing this article -- at a newly opened 5-star in Hangzhou. The A/C was turned off at midnight even though it was still 38 degrees outside. I called the front desk and they sent an engineer who arrived and literally crawled into the ceiling and said to me in Chinese, "there's no power." I already knew that. The solution was wandering around the hotel with the night manager and a porter, going from room to room, looking for one that was both non-smoking and had working A/C. Needless to say, we couldn't find one that matched those two simple criteria, and I'm blaming it on the management led blackouts.
An inability and disinterest in problem solving
Every traveler to China knows that delightful customer service is still catching up with international norms, and I think it's partly due to the military-like regime that the employees have experienced from early schooling all the way up to large corporations that run with top-down management. As you can guess, there is danger for independent thinking in those structures. So imagine a hyperbolic scenario somewhere on an army base where you go to a barrack and find a soldier and ask him for a cocktail with little paper umbrella in it. The reaction you would get is exactly the one a worker at a 5-star hotel will give you when you ask for something they haven't been trained to address. It's not just a "no", but it's a annoyed reaction, like you are out-of-line for asking for something special. And let's face it, all problems that arise in the hospitality industry are particularly unique and can't be prepared for with training -- each problem is unexpected and requires quick thinking to turn a "no" into a "wait a moment". At that unfortunate 5-star Beijing with the blacked-out locker room, I checked-in and realized I forgot to bring a pair of cuff-links for a French-cuffed shirt. I ran to the concierge to find help. His annoyed reply was, "you can buy a new pair in our gift shop". So I ran to the gift shop and saw the only pair for sale for $400 US dollars (not 400 RMB). I returned to him and said that I didn't need a new golden pair of cufflinks since I had dozens at home, and I only needed to use them for a couple of hours. His reply: "Then I am sorry. I cannot help you." And I walked away bewildered at a concierge who missed the best (and easiest) opportunity to problem-solve. (And if I were a concierge in that situation, I would've immediately removed my own cuff-links, or found a pair, gifted them to the guest and say, "Here you are! Go! Have a wonderful meeting!") But sadly, I went to the meeting with rolled up sleeves and pondered that this is a microcosm of a much larger problem. Luckily, hotel workers aren't usually rude or belligerent when encountering foreigners. However, in the past couple of years (since the WeChat craze has taken hold), I've noticed most service workers in China are staring at their mobile phones while on duty, which I would think shouldn't be allowed at five star hotels -- but is the case. What about escalating the problem to a manager? Good luck locating one. At that same blacked-out locker room and $400 cufflink hotel, I went to the front desk and asked for a manager about another issue (I had been randomly billed for an orange juice and beer from my locked mini-bar upon check-in -- I walked in the room for the first time and found the bill on the table); the front desk worker said that the manager wasn't in the hotel but was home eating a sandwich. (What is that adage about the worst lies have one too many details?) I walked away completely bemused and irritated. Also, filling out the customer comment form at check-out often results in the front desk workers throwing it away when you leave. For years I would dutifully fill it out and write "if someone actually reads this, please contact me". And I was *never* contacted. Not once. Recently I received an email from the loyalty program of a large hotel chain inviting me to stay in their newly opened property at a special price (which was still higher than their price on the online and app travel sites). It just so happened to be that I had a meeting there, so I called to make a reservation. The employee booked my room and then told me that their pool, gym, and other parts of the hotel were not open yet. I told her I really wanted to use the gym and could she help me find a solution? She said she could not. I asked her to ask a manager, and a little while later, he called to say he couldn't help locate a gym that I could use. I was really disappointed and a little shocked that he didn't do a Baidu search for local gyms nearby, any of which I'd gladly pay a day-usage fee. Finally I asked for his manager (how many are there?!) and she called to say she could meet me to take a tour of the hotel and she had called a friend at a neighboring hotel where I could use the gym. I thought, finally, we're getting somewhere. But when I arrived and contacted her, she never showed up, and I waited for over an hour. I didn't recall her name and the front desk workers had no way to find her. I booked a local hotel and walked away thinking this is completely unacceptable for a five-star hotel that prides itself in customer service.
A much needed technological upgrade
China's 5-star hotel boom began in the late 1990s to about 2008. And if you remember correctly, we all started becoming slaves to our smart phones and tablets around 2009. So where are the electrical outlets in the rooms, and why aren't there any outlets installed next to the bedside for charging -- since no one uses a clock anymore and traveling always drains mobile phone batteries? They are no where to be found in China's five-star hotels built pre-2009. And if you've stayed in an old 5-star hotel in China (and by "old" I mean a property built at least 10 years ago), then you know you have to practically dismantle the wired-to-the-wall-bedside-nightstand that is literally connected to every lightbulb in the room in order to find an empty socket -- if there even is one. (And to the hotel managers of those properties, please clean behind those nightstands. It's an abyss of filth.) This is such an easy and relatively inexpensive glitch to fix, and I have noticed some hotels have changed the bedside lamps to include a socket or USB port on the base. Well done. But other technical issues are flaky WIFI and room key cards that are easily wiped clear if placed next to your smartphone (which is always), and wifi routers that are flashing with lights but not actually broadcasting a connection. So expect technically difficulties.
An overall lack of deep cleanliness
Having filmed a travel show all over China for two years and staying at the "best local hotel" in tiny towns and cities, I know a clean hotel room is actually possible. And surprisingly, many small 2- and 3-star hotels are out-cleaning their older siblings in the industry. You would be shocked at the number of times that I've had to call housekeeping to come and change the sheets after I've checked-in because there were hairs in the sheets from previous guests -- this is at five-star hotels. I never use the bathroom drinking glasses, because there is always toothpaste residue or lipstick marks from previous guests. And never ever reach under the bed for a lost item. I once found a used condom. That resulted in a room upgrade and a loss of appetite for the entire stay. By all means, wear the disposable slippers in the rooms because I've never actually seen a vacuum cleaner used by house keeping in the guest rooms. But check to make sure the slippers haven't been used before -- even if they are in the clear wrapper. I've found hairs in those too before.
Empty promises of unavailable services
You probably already know that for a hotel to receive a 5-star rating in China, it must offer a list of very specific services and amenities like the aforementioned swimming pool. But the list also includes a Western style food restaurant, beauty salon, florist and other goods and services. I've learned to lower my expectations as each hotel should be judged by itself (with the 5-star rating being a very generous title for some), so after check-in, I routinely read the info book in the guest rooms to see what sets this particular hotel apart from the others. At one 5-star local brand in Beijing that prides itself with technology set in a traditional Chinese architecture design (which was cool), I found the hotel room guestbook was an iPad that also controlled the room's curtains and lights (no hard-wired night stand there -- and it did have outlets next to the tatami floor bed). But the hotel's intro said something interesting. It said that each guest could have one dress shirt pressed for free upon arrival. As I had just arrived with a suitcase, I wanted a shirt pressed for the following day's meeting, so I called the front desk. Long story short, the hotel never offered that service and wasn't even aware that they said they offered it. Later I found out they had copied and pasted the text from another hotel for the English section of the iPad's introduction of their hotel. No one had ever read it. The worker laughed when she finally realized I thought they would actually iron a shirt for me. In the end, I ironed my own shirt on mini-ironing board I had to kneel down to use. But the lesson is, you can't even believe what the hotel says about itself, even when you meet with a manager to show them, as I did on check-out. He politely nodded and said, "we will remove that immediately." (Sadly, he didn't say, "what a great idea; let's implement it.") So getting this far, you may win the battle, and perhaps get your shirt pressed. But you will have lost the war. So what's the lesson here? Double-check all advertised amenities when booking online, and book through the hotel's own site if possible. C-Trip is notorious for outdated and over-promised hotel amenities, so call the actual hotel (or have a Chinese friend help you call the hotel) to see if the pool is open or if there are western breakfast items served at the buffet. (That is highly recommend, but remember to BYOC -- bring your own coffee -- if you're uncertain and traveling to second- or third-tier city.)
Now that I've ranted, let me list a few positive features of five-star hotels in China. First of all the cost: compared to the room rates of 5-star hotels in major cities around the world, 5-star hotels in China are easily half the cost. You can find a good hotel room in a great location in China for only about $70 to $200 USD a night, depending on season and brand name. But compare that to New York City or London, and it would be impossible to find a $80 USD/night hotel room in a 5-star hotel in the heart of the city. Another benefit is room amenities; apart from the free slippers and toothbrushes in every room, you'll also find kettles and high-quality loose leaf Chinese tea. Another advantage with most new properties -- while may have their quirks -- is that they will have spacious and luxurious rooms and bathrooms. A friend from Shanghai recently told me that Chinese travelers are disappointed with famous name-brand five-star hotels abroad in major world cities because the buildings are old and needing repair, the rooms are noisy and small, there are no electric kettles, and the cost is $300/night. (I guess we all have a gripe list.) Fortunately for them, major brands are beginning to stock these items when Asian guests ask for them. But it's hard to compare an 50-year-old hotel abroad that's needing refurbishment with properties like the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai that is high above the clouds with stunning rooms and views of the modern metropolis and historic Bund along the Huangpu River. And I suppose that's because China has skipped a generation in the hospitality sector similar to the automotive industry (going from bicycles to brand new cars) and finance (going from no bank account to mobile banking with no need for antiquated check-writing). In hospitality they've gone from not-being-used-to-staying-in-a-luxury-brand-hotel to newly opened five-star resort properties in such a short amount of time of about a decade or two.
Before I close, I also want to be a devil's advocate to myself. As for my disclaimer, I believe the Four Seasons hotel brand is ahead of the game in China -- in terms of amenities and customer service. I remember wanting to exchange some RMB to US dollars to put in a red envelope for a friend's son for the Chinese New Year. But on that day (the eve of the festival), the banks were already closed for the holiday. I went to the Four Seasons lobby to see if they could change the money at the front desk. It was a small amount, but they said even their systems were closed. Then their concierge said he had an idea. He had a $20 USD bill a guest had given him as a tip. He was glad to change it with me to RMB. I was so surprised and glad that my plan to observe a cultural tradition was saved by a problem-solving concierge. Once I also stayed in a Four Seasons and I spilled red wine on the only dress shirt I had brought with me and needed to wear the following day. I called housekeeping, they picked it up immediately, and while I went to the hotel gym, my shirt was clean, pressed and spotless in my room by the time I returned. Amazing.
Another ray of hope for better customer service in China can be found at the newly opened Shanghai Disney Resort. I have been there a number of times, and I'm blown away by the delightful customer service I've encountered from ticket counter, to rides, to restaurants. And it's not just for me as a foreigner (as is sometimes the case in China). I've watched the workers throughout the park with all of the guests. Although Disney isn't a 5-star hotel, they are in the hospitality and entertainment industry, and if they and the Four Seasons can be successful in achieving customer delight, then there is hope for the industry. So my next article will be "Shanghai Disney: The Magic is in the Details." Stay tuned.
Steven Weathers is an American TV personality in Shanghai who is fluent in Mandarin. He also works in media, marketing, PR, advertising and cross-cultural training for conducting successful business in China. He has interviewed over 120 CEOs for a television show called "Minds of Millionaires", and he has filmed a cultural travel show in almost every province in China. While still in media, he is also a shareholder at a boutique hotel property in MoGanShan called Arcadia, so he is becoming familiar with the operational side of the hospitality industry, meaning he is becoming much more understanding of the foibles that come with it.