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James McBride: Is Asian hospitality geared up for tomorrow's travelers?
Good service is in Asia's DNA, but bringing it out across the entire region is a challenge that needs to be met
People expect more these days. What service providers perceive as good may fall short of what consumers expect.
Today, that "Gold" service standard to the consumer means one thing -- magic. Travelers expect more magical experiences in half the time.
I often tell this story to illustrate the traveler’s growing wish list.
All that and more
When Mala Mala, one of the first luxury Safari lodges first opened in South Africa, guests slept in huts, went on safari in a Land Rover to see the legendary Big Five -- lions, leopards, buffalos, rhinoceros and elephants -- and were happy spending hours beneath the starry sky in the traditional boma exchanging stories from the wild, while enjoying a traditional braai (barbeque) and relaxing by the crackling fire.
Fifteen years later, travelers wanted all that plus their private villas, picnics on the plains and sunset drinks.
A few years later, they wanted to sip their drinks in private plunge pools within their villas, and preferably see a kill whilst in the pool, as well.
Now, they want to be whisked to their beachfront villas on private jets, get wireless access on their Blackberry, dip in their private plunge pools and enjoy an in-room massage whilst sipping a freshly-made drink -- preferably organic -- and, also, watching one of the Big Five kill its dinner with the other four perfectly silhouetted on the horizon.
With globalization and the Internet, there is now a channel for consumers to fuel their new needs and expectations with instant access to choices, thousands of them.
The truth of travel is everywhere with information readily available and plenty of hotel reviews on what is good and what is bad online -- all at the flick of a button and the click of a mouse.
The pressure is more intense than ever on hoteliers to craft unique and authentic experiences to create magic and keep consumers of today happy and coming back.
Does Asia have what it takes to create enough service magic?
Asia already has an advantage because service here comes from the heart. Set against a strong cultural backdrop of hard work and hospitality, the genuine desire to please is naturally present in Asian DNA.
However, the level and style of service is not entirely homogeneous in Asia, which in a way, makes this an interesting place to visit. In cosmopolitan and affluent cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, it is about business and efficiency.
What consumers order is exactly going to be what they will get.
It is service with precision and consistency.
Then, you have the rest of Southeast Asia -- like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand offering service that is warm, kind and spirited, and that comes from the heart, albeit more laid back and not always consistent with international standards.
Consistency -- be it a product or service -- is the foundation and bedrock for success in most industries, including hospitality.
And, consistency is what Asia needs in order to propel travel experiences in the East to the next level, as Southeast Asia prepares itself to be a top tourist destination with service and high-end offerings to match world-class standards.
Similar to that of Grand Palais hotels along the French Riviera and the best-in-class luxury resorts in North America.
The reality is that there is not enough trained talent exposed to world-class service standards to provide consistently good service in some Asian destinations, especially in the face of a surge in tourist arrivals to this part of the world.
Tourists come to Asia with the same high level of expectations for their travel experience and level of service.
Singapore is a case in point that has seen a significant growth in the industry with the recent opening of the massive Integrated Resorts. Like other developed cities in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, Singapore provides efficient service. But finding enough good and trained talent is not easy.
This is especially so when compared to other places in Asia where hospitality trade is the number one industry and there are always going to be people with the aptitude and passion for service ready to enter the trade.
Asian tourism looking forward
There is so much potential to grow tourism in Asia. Resorts in Asia offer the best value compared to their international counterparts for the overall hospitality experience, in terms of natural beauty, things to do, food and prices.
With more tourist dollars pouring into this part of the world, we must be mindful not to develop too fast and lose our way.
The challenge is in sustaining the growth while preserving the cultural integrity, service mentality of Asia and having a deep respect for the environment.
We must be careful not to over-build and over-commercialize and risk losing the natural rural beauty surrounding the tourist towns and resorts in Asia. At the same time, key industry players should continue to work with relevant government agencies to make investments to keep pace with industry growth and meet increasing consumer standards.
Training is one important area currently lacking in Asia and we need to elevate service standards in the industry as a whole.
A showcase of our commitment to long-term growth in the industry, YTL Hotels set up the YTL International College of Hotel Management in Kuala Lumpur where we tailored a three-year program to groom hospitality talents and provide placements and job opportunities for our graduates.
We believe it is important to find and retain talents. When they grow, we grow. This is why we work with each one of our employees to chart their career path and enable them to achieve their goals. We remember each one of them by name and build a culture of belonging so that they can grow personally and professionally with us.
At the end of the day, it’s about making employees happy so they will make our customers happy.
There are many places I can recall that give great service and put a smile to my face whenever I visit. The Royal Malewane safari lodge in South Africa, the Ksar Char-Bagh in Marrakech, Morocco, Muse Hôtel De Luxe in Saint-Tropez, France and The Carlyle in New York, to name a few.
I still remember the doorman at The George Club in the UK. Even though I only visit the Club once a year, I remain loyal to the Club simply because the doorman remembers me by name.
To me that is "Gold" service and it is absolutely priceless.
The opinions of this commentary are solely those of James McBride.
James McBride is the president of YTL Hotels and is based in Singapore. He has served as the general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur, as the managing director of The Carlyle, and as regional vice president for Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School.