8 China travel tips from a veteran hotel CEO

8 China travel tips from a veteran hotel CEO

IHG Greater China CEO Keith Barr shares hotel secrets and his formula for a perfect trip through China

Keith BarrKeith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group Greater China.Few people in China are in a better position to give tips on the country’s rapidly developing tourism market than those who run hotels.

An estimated three million new hotel rooms will be opened in China by 2016, putting hoteliers at the forefront of the boom.

As chief executive officer of InterContinental Hotels Group Greater China, Boston-born Keith Barr, 41, is responsible for the operation of 162 hotels.

In addition, he's traveled nearly every inch of the country during his seven years in Asia, researching the attitudes and desires of Chinese travelers and looking for up-and-coming spots to expand the IHG brand.

In an interview with CNNGo, Barr outlined eight tips for international travelers and hotel professionals in China.

For travelers

1. Don't confuse Shanghai with China

china travel tips -- shanghaiBarr considers Shanghai one of the great world cities. But he warns travelers not to form a view of the entire country based on one modern city.

“I always tell others that Shanghai is not China when they come. It’s where China is heading, but this is not the majority of China. 

"You haven’t been to China until you really go out to tier-two, tier-three cities and experience them.

“My favorite experience in China was in Lijiang (丽江). [A colleague and I] went out to this little restaurant in the little ancient town there. And we sat down and there were maybe four tables. There was a table in the corner with some guys playing Mahjong, and an open kitchen.

"We had beautiful dumplings and noodles over the bridge (过桥米线, a Yunannese noodle dish with more than 10 different toppings). The owner cooked everything with his wife.

“It was great: a beautiful day in Lijiang, we were both dressed casually, people playing Mahjong, dog running around. This is more like real China, and that’s the experience most people don’t get.”

More on CNNGo: 10 authentic China trips for 2012

2. See Jiuzhaigou, Sanya and Thousand Island Lake

china travel tips -- jiuzhaigouLocated in northern Sichuan Province, Jiuzhaigou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“From a leisure standpoint, the greatest place I would say to go would be Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟). Jiuzhaigou has stunning [natural] beauty. Real and beautiful.

Sanya is good today, and I think it will be great in the future as more infrastructure is put in place and a real understanding of what it means to be a comprehensive leisure destination evolves.

“I'd also recommend Thousand Island Lake (千岛湖) outside Hangzhou. We’ve just opened a new InterContinental there that is just stunning.

"I live in Shanghai and deal with the pace, the congestion, the challenges and frustrations. To go to a place like Thousand Island Lake, you can just feel yourself relax. You're closer to nature.”

More on CNNGo: Touring China with 8 stunning hats

3. Abide by four rules for first-time China travelers

china travel tips -- shoppingThink shopping in China is cheap? Think again. 

“First is language. People have to be prepared for the experience of not speaking their language. It can be a very humbling experience if you're in a place where no one around you speaks your language.

“Second, be open to trying new things. When you travel around China, there's an incredible culture in the cuisine, but it’s very foreign to most people.

“The third thing concerns shopping. People are convinced that coming to China, things are cheap. I say, 'It’s not cheap.' There are things you can find that are inexpensive and of good value, but it’s not so cheap.

“Fourth is to get a local contact. You can eat in a great local restaurant and get better quality for half the price [of a tourist place] if you know the right person.”

More on CNNGo: 8 China travel tips from a professional fixer

4. Eat the chicken feet. Seriously.

china travel tips -- foodAll it takes to enjoy this plate is a little bit courage and cultural tolerance.

“Chinese food isn't bad, just different. If you can truly believe this as a traveler, or [as someone] working internationally, you will be so happy because you'll appreciate more things.

“The first year I was here, I didn’t eat chicken feet because I thought there was no way I could eat it. Now I go to this little Chinese restaurant around the corner and I always order a plate of chicken feet. I love it. It’s great.”

More on CNNGo: Shanghai's weirdest foods

5. Embrace smaller Chinese cities

china travel tips -- yichangCrowne Plaza Yichang on the bank of the Yangtze River. For Barr, the development of China’s third-tier cities remains amazing.

“My most interesting China experience was in Yichang (宜昌), which is a third-tier city.

"We were opening up a Crowne Plaza in Yichang. I was the only foreigner, I think, in the city that day. It felt like it.

“About 250,000 people came that day to tour the mall when we opened up the retail space. Even in this third-tier city, the quality of the hotel, the retail and the office buildings was beyond my imagination.

“My colleagues and I walked into a cinema and they showed us a very short preview of a 3D movie. I realized that I had never seen a 3D movie before, and the first 3D movie I was seeing was in Yichang in China -- such a surreal experience.

“This is one of my most vivid memories of the progression of China and how China is changing.”

More on CNNGo: The Chinese yuan travel guide

For hoteliers

6. Chinese travelers prefer Chinese hotels

china travel tipsMany Chinese travelers prefer Chinese-branded hotels to international chains.

“We saw a lot of need coming from consumers for an offering [beyond] our international brands.

“International hotel companies have taken global brands and pushed them into China with a fairly Westernized view and [without] really understanding deeply rooted Chinese consumer insight.

“From Chinese consumers we heard things like ‘When I travel in China, I don’t find certain things on a consistent basis in hotels.' Or, 'I want to be in a Chinese hotel. I don’t want to be in an international hotel because I work for local government, I work for a Chinese company.'

“Localization to an international standard [is the way for hotels to go in China].”

More on CNNGo: China's 8 best heritage hotels

7. Focus on middle class travelers

china travel tips -- middle-classMiddle class travelers will be the backbone of tourism in China for the next decade or more.

“Our group is going see a continuous growth in Chinese guests [in coming years]. But the real growth will be in the middle class in China.

“There's a rising affluent middle class in China that’s going to be twice as large as the middle class in the United States in 10 years. [The Chinese middle class] has rising education, affluence, confidence, national pride and an appreciation for things that are Chinese.

“If you look at the economic projections for the growth of the middle class, today it’s very small. But it will grow to be a significant portion of the population in the next 10 to 15 years.”

More on CNNGo: Top 10 dream destinations for Chinese tourists

8. Make sure your Chinese restaurant is top-notch

china travel tips -- middle-classWinning Chinese stomachs leads to securing travelers' RMB.

“The quality of the Chinese restaurant [in your hotel] will often determine the success of your banquet operation and the local business and local government view of your hotel. Having a very strong food and beverage operation is important for luxury hotels [in China].

“[Hotels] put a lot of energy into specialty restaurants, their foreign restaurant, which has 50 or 60 seats, which does some business and it’s nice and good. But you’ve got a 200-seat Chinese restaurant which is your busiest restaurant, which is really the heart and soul of the hotel.

“You have to be sure you get that right much more than the specialty restaurant.”

More on CNNGo: Best Shanghainese restaurants in Shanghai

Tracy You is a bilingual journalist based in Shanghai and has worked for several publications including as Editor for CNN Travel. She's a fan of history, British TV and Wii Guitar Hero.

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