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Looking up, venturing out
Published on Friday, 10 Feb 2012
Tourists admire the view across Victoria Harbour. Bursting with visitors, local hotels are adding rooms.
Photo: AFP

With rooms full and demand high, many hotels in Hong Kong found themselves hanging out the "No Vacancy" sign during the Lunar New Year holidays. That, though, only applied to last-minute guests who hadn't booked ahead.

For prospective recruits, the relevant message is quite the opposite. In their case, the operative sign says "Vacancies Here", as the local hospitality sector continues to enjoy an almost unprecedented boom, allowing employers to create new jobs and plan for further expansion.

At one level, government estimates suggest an extra 50 hotels will be opened in Hong Kong by 2016, taking the total to around 240 and representing an additional 9,000 rooms. To support this, various initiatives are in place to make available "hotel only" sites in the land sales programme and to redevelop or convert industrial buildings, where suitable.

At another level, key players in the sector are aggressively pushing ahead with commercial and recruitment schemes to capitalise on the current buoyant mood and give visitors reasons to return.

"Our group achieved an outstanding business performance in 2011, with the significant growth of visitor arrivals in Hong Kong," says Connie Kwok, communications manager for Miramar Hotel and Investment Company. "And we will continue to exploit a favourable market position to expedite the development of our core businesses."

Noting that the Mira Hong Kong saw year-on-year occupancy increase by 4 per cent and average room rates by 22 per cent in the first half of last year, Kwok says that the leisure, consumption and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) markets all contributed strongly.

Thanks to this, a number of ambitious Miramar projects are now taking shape. These include a new hotel in Wanchai, renovation of serviced apartments, a shopping mall and up to seven restaurants. Similarly important - from the group's point of view - is the investment in people, to ensure they have the service skills and management know-how to keep everything on track.

"The hospitality industry has a high turnover rate, but we believe in nurturing the expertise of team members and encouraging personal development," Kwok says, calling it a two-fold commitment.

Firstly, it gives recruits and management associates the training necessary to build a successful career. And secondly, it helps the community by creating an understanding of and respect for quality service standards.

Typically, core training programmes will range well beyond operations and corporate culture, by also embracing language classes, team building, communication, and leadership development.

"We put a lot of focus on executive education and building an internal talent pipeline," Kwok says. "And we look at each person's potential, their ability to adjust, adapt, respond and be resourceful in the face of change."

These qualities are essential, not least because customer needs and expectations keep changing. For that reason, among the more crucial skills is being able to understand guests, communicate effectively, and play different "roles" suitable to the situation.

To prepare for the new hotel and restaurant projects, there will be openings across the board in everything from guest services and engineering to restaurant management and housekeeping.

"We will also keep an eye on new business opportunities in mainland China," Kwok says.

Richard Hatter, general manager of Hotel Icon, is similarly upbeat about general prospects for the hospitality sector. Although economic uncertainties may reduce the number of inbound long-haul travellers, tourism from China should help to compensate, even if the rate of growth slows.

Being part of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and providing scope for students to learn the business, the hotel has a unique position in the city. As such, while making a commitment to service excellence, it has the freedom and flexibility to carve out its own identity.

"For example, we will continue to promote our products through social media to reach a wider market and compete with the international brands," Hatter says. "We are also launching a campaign to attract tourists from a number of emerging markets, such as Russia and the Middle East."

These days, he notes, guests are looking for "added value", wherever they come from, so it is especially important to react quickly and encourage a certain creative energy among employees.

New hires, whether PolyU students or more experienced external recruits, must exemplify this culture and be ready to work in an open-minded, supportive and caring environment.

"They must demonstrate passion in the work and be confident, sophisticated and naturally responsive," says Hatter, who insists on the traditional values expected of Asian hotels. "If people have a positive attitude, we can then train them to have the necessary job skills."