A decade and a half ago, in 1997, when fire-driven pollution in Singapore hit what had been a record high, tourist arrivals dropped about 15% in a month.
I was living in Beijing in 1997 and I remember this being on TV for weeks. People were wearing masks and landmark buildings were shrouded in a thick haze. Hospitals were reporting record intakes of people with respiratory problems. Singapore is generally regarded as one of the cleanest cities in Asia, and far away from Beijing in many ways.
In those days, in the late 90's one could still smell a distinct smell of coal fire in Beijing as many people still warmed their houses and cooked on coal brick stoves, and indeed only after 2-3 months in Beijing there was finally a clear day that I realized that there are mountains not far from Beijing, that can only be seen on clear days.
But young, innocent and perhaps un-informed, I would take a bicycle and enjoy a whole day discovering the city in those days. In June 2013 I was in Beijing again, for business, and Singapore-in-smog was in the news again. It was like a déja-vu, however now Singapore seemed closer to Beijing. Beijingers laughed at those whining, sissy Singaporeans: "We live in such smog every day'.
My recent trip to 4 of the most polluted cities in China became a real eye-opener, especially when put against a trip a month earlier, to 2 Southern Chinese Provinces of Yunnan and Hainan. I visit Hainan yearly since 2005 and had also been to Yunnan a few times before. I remember my first time to Lijiang in 2006 when I noted how clean the air felt in my lungs. Recruiting talents for the Hotel Sector in China is challenging for those resorts and secondary cities that have little to offer in terms of city-life and facilities except for the job in often stunning resorts. I have written several articles about how hard it is to attract and retain talents for such pretty places in Paradise.
In essence, in a market where talents are in short supply, one has to ‘sell' the destination and it is a fact that when we would contact 10 potentials for a job in a remote resort location, or not a major city, 8 out of the 10 eligible potential candidates will decline the opportunity just based on the location. The 2 that show interest are only lukewarm but willing to explore the opportunity without a solid commitment that they will eventually take the opportunity if the job should be offered to them.
For a recruitment firm, jobs in these locations are therefore also more work to get them filled with quality candidates, and the risk that an employee, once-hired, decides to leave within a short period is also higher. It therefore takes a different and specific approach in pre-selection and guidance toward accepting the job to achieve solid job placements, where 2-3 years later we can see that those who we got a job in those locations are still happily working there. However, through the years we have seen success with our specific approach, and managed to get Hotel Managers jobs in placed like Lijiang (Yunnan)) and Sanya (Hainan) where they happily served 4-5 years, or at least completed a 2-year contract, with a transfer to another location within the same hotel group as a result of having stayed long enough a the location where turnover in both management and rank & file is high.
And while I visit Sanya yearly, I speak with many a Hotel Manager who admits to be there against his/her choice, and just biding their time till a better job offer or promised transfer & promotion would come along. Turnover among hotel staff in Sanya, both rank & file and management is higher than other locations in China, despite the salaries being among the highest in China, and the hotels stunning, and this tropical island being labeled as the Hawaii of China due to its palmed beaches and year-round sunshine. But it is improving and every year I encounter more and more hoteliers who actually like being in Sanya and who don't' mind being there for a while.
However this year, 2013, while visiting Kunming, the Capital of Yunnan plus Sanya, the main tropical island resort destination of China, as well as Haikou, the Capital of Hainan Province in May, I noticed a distinct change in opinion. Many Hotel Managers now told me that they quite liked being in these locations, because the air was clean and the climate pleasant. These Hotel Managers, both Expatriates as well as Chinese from other parts of China have had their experiences in other Chinese cities, and now cherished their time in Hainan, or Yunnan.
So great was the contrast on my next business trip, when going to Chongqing, Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang a month later. The Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University recently released a National Environment Analysis report, which reported that among the world's 10 most air polluted cities, 7 are in China: Taiyuan, Beijing, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Chongqing, Jinan and Shijiazhuang. The report also points out that only 1% of China's 500 cities have met the air quality standard recommended by the World Health Organisation. Moreover, China's heavy air pollution is thought to be responsible for annual financial losses equaling to 1.2% of the Chinese GDP.
While the harsh winters in Northern China do not suit everybody, especially those who have worked in lived in the warmer parts of Asia, with Beijing for sure we never found it difficult to find top-talents interested to work there, it being the Capital City and in general of course a major city in China with many attractions and facilities beyond the job that is offered. Especially in the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympics and China's growing importance, Beijing became certainly for international hoteliers a place to be.
But lately we also noted that potential candidates whom we contact for a job opportunity in the Capital of China are declining the opportunity for they heard about the pollution, and indeed we were also getting more applicants seeking a change from those working in Beijing now, claiming that the pollution was driving them, or their families to be looking for another location, and employment elsewhere.
So how bad is the pollution then in Beijing? I believe it is a fact of 21st century life, certainly in Emerging Markets or Asia in general that if you want to live in a big city, you have to take in a bit of pollution and all the inconveniences that come with big city life, such as traffic jams and smaller but expensive housing. If you want space, calm and clean air, then go find a job in Norway, Canada or Bora-Bora, or Yunnan perhaps but then do not complain that there is little to do in the weekends. No theaters, big shopping malls or a lively restaurant & bar scene, and a large expatriate community at least not comparable to great Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok and in recent decade also Beijing & Shanghai, if you rate clean air and living space as more important to your general well-being versus the attractions big cities offer.
Chongqing, (Population 32 million) is another tough nut to crack when it comes to recruiting and retaining talents. If one looks at the map of China one can see 2 major cities in the South-West of China, which are Chongqing and Chengdu. Chongqing being the larger of the 2, and when seen on city-marketing brochure or website looks like a big Metropolitan City, a sort of Manhattan on a confluence where the clean water of Jialing River meets the brownish yellow water of Yangtze River. Chengdu (Population 15 million people) is perhaps most know for it's Panda Sanctuary and also approximately half the size of Chongqing but nevertheless both are major cities within China, with most international hotels present, or planning to open more hotels.
There is also a large hinterland surrounding both cities that sees resort development, attracting tourists with natural scenery, hot-springs or simply the ‘escape from the city' experience. While both cities are nowadays 2 hours from each other by high-speed train, it is also in Chongqing where 8 out of 10 potential & eligible talents approached by us as Executive Search Firm decline the opportunity just because it is Chongqing, and in the reverse, the much smaller Chengdu is reported as those who work there calling it quite pleasant and not minding to be there for a while. Most Hotel Managers I meet in Chongqing though, declare to be just doing their time, and hope to move on soon. The difference lies in the climate and the pollution, and/ or the perceived drabness of Chongqing versus the greener and fresh feel of Chengdu.
Shijiazhuang, (Population 10 Million, number of international hoteliers: Less than 15) is a city I have been to for the 4th time and is unfortunately notorious now for 1 thing only, and that is the pollution. It seems to be the only talking point there people whom I meet have in common when they find themselves sent to Shijiazhuang for a job. As a Search Firm we have to and have successfully recruited Hotel Managers to work in this city, which is after all a Provincial Capital, with a faster GDP growth than average in China.
And despite its negative image we did get hoteliers to work there, who stayed after all 2- 4 years in that city. And I feel it as my courtesy to come and show my face every 2-3 years, but have to admit that with my 2-day visit in the city, I hardly can measure up to those who have to spend 2 years or more of their life there. The people I meet in such cities all over China are of course Hotel Managers who have worked in various other cities, within China, or worldwide, and now find themselves working in such city because their hotel career brought them there. Sometimes we helped them with that move, and therefore are we somehow co-responsible for their well-being?
So how bad is it, for your health and in daily life to live in those polluted cities? Based in Hong Kong for almost a decade now, Hong Kong isn't quite famous for clean air either. But the pollution is less visible, and you don't taste it in your mouth. In Tianjin you can see the pollution when you simply get into a taxi and see how the whole cab is covered in a sandy yellow dust. In Beijing you can feel that your throat hurts if you spent a day walking in the park, or being so crazy to take a bicycle to ride down to Tiananmen Square on a bad pollution day.
In our Beijing office I notice the dust on the shelves and in the window benches, when we sometimes open a window. Not to mention that we can't see much most of the days of the great view onto the tallest building in the city and the CBD area of Guomao we have from our office. Whereas in Hong Kong many people check the Hang Seng Index a few times a day to see how their stocks are doing, in Beijing I noticed how most Hotel Managers have an App on their phones to check daily what the pollution level is like, and decide on the day whether they go out of the hotel, or stay in. Some Hoteliers told me how they inform their guests about the Air Quality inside the hotel being 85% cleaner than outside and there is one hotel in Beijing that has a unique selling point namely a glass dome over the hotel, creating an separate bio-sphere, so that you have the feeling to be outside (on the balcony of your hotel room) yet in-capsulated in a clean air environment. Cool in the summer and warm in the winter as well, but most of all; clean, filtered air.
Science-fiction has become reality in Beijing; this particular hotel is in any case being a surreal place, filled with the largest private collection of Salvador Dali artworks outside of Europe. It is also not uncommon to see people in the streets of Beijing, most often foreigners, who wear a Darth-Vader like mouth-caps, going about their business with a look in their eyes as if the protective gear they wear is as common as baseball cap or hip-looking fashion accessory.
Tourism, including Business Travel and the resulting Hotel Bookings are affected often by negative publicity. Whether it is political unrest, terrorist attacks, outbreaks of this or that swine-or bird flu. Whenever a city, region or country is in the news, the tourists will stay away and business travelers will think twice about going there. The trip may be postponed or only done when strictly necessary. Beijing which after the Olympics was banking heavily on MICE business and in general still a major destination for Leisure & Business Travel has seen some MICE Events cancelled, for the Conference Bookers are concerned about health issues for the attendees when organizing a worldwide conference in Beijing, while the severe pollution is reported in the worldwide media.
In addition, multi-national companies find it harder to find senior managers willing to relocate to such cities that are reported to be seriously polluted. Expatriates with families have a serious challenge to weigh the career opportunity of a posting in China, versus the general well—being of the family. Whether the situation is really life-threatening or just a media-hype; it is all a matter of perception. While a China posting has become a top post & career highlight for Career-Diplomats and Business Executives with the growing importance of China as a leading economy, the expatriate may ask for extra compensation, turning China again in a hardship posting which it was in the 1980s and early 1990's and which it was no more from 2000 – 2010 the decade that things got better in China, and the place to be.
And while this recent trip was an eye-opener, I did have to get some eye-drops from a pharmacist in Beijing because my eyes were irritated. A clear sign that pollution had also affected my health. So when it comes to Executive Search and recruiting & retaining talents, when needing to ‘sell' the job to potential candidates, we find that a high salary, excellent career opportunity and whether a hotel has 5* stars and is bedecked with Italian marble and golden chandeliers or carries a top-brand is set off against the pollution index of a city.
We may now find it easier to find top-talents interested to go work in Hainan or Yunnan, and need to do more effort to find good & qualified managers for Beijing and a handful of other cities, including Chongqing, Urumqi, Taiyuan, Jinan and that hard-to-pronounce capital city of Hebei Province, Shijiazhuang. René J.M. Schillings, a Dutch National, is the 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 3 offices in Hong Kong, 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. René lives since 2005 with his wife and 2 children in Hong Kong.
Company website: www.tophoteliers.com