China: The Quest for Returnees.
By René J.M. Schillings
Sunday, 27th March 2011
Part of the attraction of entering a hotel career has surely always been the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.

Many a hotel school program attracts it's students with the words ‘international career' and many an international hotel company advertises themselves as having a world of opportunities, and sporting a worldwide network of sister hotels where a successful employee may transfer to.

In addition, wherever hotels and resorts are booming, hotel staff needs to be attracted, often from far afield, often from other countries.

Young chefs are encouraged to go and work in different places and discover other tastes, other techniques. Stages, internships, apprentice-ships and certainly the career of a young and up & coming hotelier working for international 5* hotel companies is interwoven with a move to the unknown, some thirst for adventure, and the desire to move out into the wide open world.

And for those who do so, often career opportunities that couldn't be found at home are open to be exploited. But what about the hotels back home? Would it not be odd if those hotels that sparked the initial interest of a young hotelier at their home location would not want to make use of all that experience gained, and welcome back with open arms one of their own who has gone away, seen the world, learned a lot and now returning home packed with knowledge? 

That depends of course if the state of the industry back home is at an equal level. Whether those hotels can offer the same sort of opportunities and dynamic environment and a similar salary is a question employers most ask themselves.

In an age of rapid urbanization where it is commonly understood that small-town provincials who have tasted the big-city life are unlikely to go back and settle on the farms of their ancestors, so will the hotel industry have to face that finding a ‘local' who has seen it all, done it all, and been everywhere is not so likely to come back, and do so with great enthusiasm and for a lower pay. Perhaps only personal family reasons, in Asia mostly the factor of aging parents, may make hoteliers become returnees.

On an international level we see a general interest of hotels back in Europe, Australia and North America who are keen on hoteliers with overseas and in particular ‘Asia experience'.

The hotel industry in Asia is widely acclaimed for having the best service in the world, and hotels in the ‘Old World' think they may be able to copy that by hiring those of their own nationals who have been for Asia for a while. However that Asia experience seldom comes at a premium, i.e. higher pay or higher level job opportunities for those returning. The fact is that somebody who has been an expat in Asia for 3-5 years or longer will find it very hard to adopt back in the smaller set ups with fewer staff back home.

Working in Asia is addictive for expatriate hoteliers. The same applies to Asian expatriates. We are recently seeing a demand in various countries in Asia that are hoping to hire their own ‘nationals' i.e. local staff, but persistently targeting those who have gone abroad.

Malaysia is such a country that saw many of it's nationals move to Singapore, China and into the wider Asia region, if not further where they could earn higher salaries, make faster career, and (with exception of Singapore) enjoy expatriate status, and in any case could make better lives for themselves.

This caused a sort of brain-drain where the best and most ambitious hoteliers have left for greener pastures. We see a similar emerging demand in Japan. Perhaps not because the best and brightest left, but because those who have gone overseas are seen as more flexible, international-minded, able to speak good English and less ingrained in the same old practices as of those who stayed loyal and back home.

In the case of Hong Kong it was for years the case that once an hotelier had gone over to work in the Mainland China, he wouldn't so easily be seen as somebody who was up-to-date and a topper, as hotels in China were behind in their facilities and services towards what Hong Kong had to offer.

Many Hongkongnese left to Mainland China in the late 1980's and 1990's for more opportunities to grow fast in Mainland China when China was re-emerging as a place with opportunities rather than a place to escape from (as most parents, grandparents of Hong Kong citizens at some point left China, in search for a better life in British Hong Kong).

Today Mainland China is actually recognized as more dynamic than Hong Kong, certainly when compared to Shanghai and Beijing and with the increasing demand for hoteliers to speak Mandarin in Hong Kong, hotels in Hong Kong are no longer averse to somebody who has been ‘too long in China'. Although the stigma still persists.

Is the same happening to hoteliers from the People's Republic of China?

Yes it is. First of all, the hotel industry has for 20 years been so short of hoteliers with international, overseas work experience that any local Chinese with overseas experience was brought back as the lost son (our daughter) and would have plenty of opportunities. Whereas up to the 1990's Chinese have tended to leave China for a better life overseas with the idea to settle and never return, there has definitely been a shift in the motivation to go abroad.

Today Chinese are going to study or work abroad with the clear idea to improve their opportunities for a career back in their home land and have a clear plan to return one day with experience and degrees and determined to ‘make it big' back home. Working and studying overseas clearly changes ones outlook on the world and this applies to any nationality, the question is if the folks back home change too (and often they don't).

The earliest Chinese hoteliers who had the opportunity to work and study abroad were often privileged and had the right connections to obtain the permit to go overseas. Studying hotel management or working for a hotel company was just a tool to get overseas, not a means to become an excellent hotelier with the ambition to one day go back to China and continue the hotel career there.

These earlier ‘returnees' would often not be content with entry-level, rank and file jobs, being classified as ‘local' back in China and easily be lured to do other things but working in a hotel. Those early days of hotel development in China, the 1980's and 1990's also saw the emergence of ‘returnees' as in Overseas Chinese, i.e. those American, Canadian Chinese or various Diaspora, often of 3rd and 4th generation who simply came to China out of curiosity or because of their Chinese ancestry where sent to China as expatriates.

However in the context of this article they are not the returnees we are talking about as China was a foreign country to them also, as for any hotelier going to a different country. In this article we talk about those hoteliers who left as a youngster and are now wanted back in their original home town/land. At a local level we also see a strong request for returnees in the many cities in Northern & Eastern China.

For more than 2 decades the East Coast, South China and the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai would attract migrant workers from all over China. With often only 1 or 2 international hotels and a good local 5* hotel in Provincial capital cities like Shenyang, Dalian, Chengdu, Kunming etc. etc. hoteliers were flocking to the cities on the East Coast, South China and Beijing/Shanghai where there were more opportunities.

Every hotelier in China is familiar with the batches of trainees they get every year coming from Sichuan or the 3 Northern Provinces, known as ‘Dongbei'. These young and ambitious hoteliers were grateful to find a very plush & exciting working environment in a 5* luxury hotel like they had never seen before back home. However in this decade, modern 5* and luxury hotels are also opening in Kunming, Chengdu, Dalian and Shenyang, and many more places.

Hotels in Shanghai & Beijing are now facing again shortages of rank & file, and mid-level management for there are opportunities in more cities than only these 2 in China. Beijingers and Shanghainese who went out to work in secondary cities when opportunities for them to make promotion came up as the first international hotels were moving beyond Beijing, Shanghai into the secondary cities were willing to spend a few good years in those secondary locations but once they made it to the top of their career, are basically looking to return to where they came from.

Every hotel in a secondary city like Shenyang, Dalian, Kunming, Chengdu is hoping to find that 1 local manager who has gone away and wants to come back. Although salaries in secondary cities are often behind to what is paid in more advanced cities, some hoteliers are willing to take a cut in salary for the sake of being closer to relatives, but it is not a natural thing to do, and the quest for returnees is driving up the salaries in the secondary cities.

There are currently 100 cities in China with populations ranging from 5 to 10 million people that are developing faster than ever before, with 5-year plans to develop 10 – 60 hotels in addition what was hitherto available, along with the economic development of these cities.

Although China's hotel market will never be 1 coherent market, the differences between the primary cities and secondary cities are fast disappearing and hoteliers are a driving force in bringing deep inland China closer to the world.

About the Author:
René J.M. Schillings, a Dutch National, is the owner, founder and Managing Director of TOP Hoteliers, the first specialized hospitality recruitment agency to open offices in the People's Republic of China (in 2004). Based in Hong Kong he devotes most of his time managing the 2 offices in Shenzhen and Beijing, where his team of consultants recruit hotel managers for all major international and some local hotel companies in China. His company was very early to recognize the need for local talent, Mandarin speaking expatriates and China experienced expatriates. His knowledge of the China Hotel Industry stems from his career as Hotelier in China that began in 1997. He has a BA in Hotel Management from Stenden University, a.k.a Hotel Management School Leeuwarden, The Netherlands and an MA in International Tourism & Leisure Studies from Metropolitan University in London, England. He is a keen observer of industry trends and has published numerous articles on HR issues in hospitality in China.

Company website: www.tophoteliers.com
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