For a culture that places a heavy emphasis on official accolades and rankings, it may come as a shock that China doesn’t have an existing institution to recognize outstanding staff in the country’s booming hotel industry. This fall, the inaugural Hotelier Awards China will fill that gap as the country’s first award ceremony to showcase the best of the best for hospitality in China. In order to learn more about it, Jing Daily spoke with the award’s director and co-founder Benoît Thebaut about what inspired the award.
Thebaut is also the co-founder of Shanghai-based Riviera Events, known for organizing epic pool parties for the better part of a decade. So it was a bit of a surprise when I found the shared office of Hotelier Awards China and Riviera in the Anken Green building, a carbon-neutral, mixed-use converted warehouse on a quiet stretch of Jing’An District that currently houses several creative agencies. As Thebaut would explain, the pool parties actually started when he and a friend, both bored with their day jobs, wanted to create something fun for the weekend.
Thebaut is mild mannered, muscular, tattooed, and bespectacled. He first came to Shanghai 14 years ago by way of Paris while working for Air France in logistics, selling aircraft cargo space, and accepted a short-term position in Shanghai that proved to be a crucial stepping stone. Thebaut stayed on, working three years for a Hong Kong-based freight forwarder. “Business was booming and it was not hard to find clients. It was just not very interesting.” During this time, driven largely by ennui, he and a friend started their own company, what would become Riviera Events.
Reflecting on his experience as an entrepreneur in China, Thebaut says: “We were at the right place, at the right time. It used to be marketers would spend money to create exposure for an event. Now, it’s more about driving sales. The company business has shifted a bit from nightlife to hospitality.”
Today, 60 percent of the company’s business comes from five-star hotels, including anniversaries, conferences, and grand openings (15-20 annually, including the Four Seasons in Pudong, Renaissance in Beijing, St. Regis in Chengdu, and Hyatt Regency in Suzhou this past year). With so many hotels as clients, the award seems an organic extension, not to mention good client relations management, for Riviera Events. Addressing concerns of bias, Thebaut said, “We also felt like because we work with hotels, we didn’t want to seem biased in the selection process, so we decided to come up with panel of judges; people with a good background to lend legitimacy to this award.”
The nomination round for Hotelier Awards China closed with over 250 applications representing 85 properties and 40 brands. Winners will be announced on December 11, 2014 at the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong. Click here for a complete list of finalists.
Why did you decide to start this award?
We have worked with the industry for a while now. We realized there are no awards in China that recognized the people. You have awards for the best hotel, brunch, spa, etc., but hospitality is a people business and yet, there were no awards for the people. We also thought few people really have the contacts we have. Obviously, we are an events company, so the event part is easy. We also felt like because we work with hotels, we didn’t want to seem biased in the selection process, so we decided to come up with panel of judges, people with a good background to lend legitimacy to this award. Nowadays, most awards are given by a publication that nominees advertise in. So we wanted to pick well-known, trusted people so the award actually means something.
Can any hotel apply?
Yes, that’s one of the reasons we have the Unsung Hero award category as well. We don’t have a category for everyone but we understand there must be talented individuals from other hotels that are not five-star, and who really go beyond what their job profile and duty are.
You don’t have to be five-star hotel, but obviously, we expect a lot of the five-star hospitality to be among the applicants.
How did you decide to partner with Forbes Travel Guide?
They know the industry well and we needed some way to filter applicants. Forbes Travel Guide has a mystery client database we want to utilize. The first round of applicants go through the hotels, since applications require authorization from hotel management. We will use Forbes Travel Guide’s database to filter down to five nominees for each category. However, Forbes Travel Guide doesn’t influence the final outcome.
The panel of judges will hold face-to-face meetings with the top eight nominees.
How would you describe the state of hospitality in China?
It’s hard to work in China in any industry, especially in the five-star hospitality industry because there is a very high standard and yet no one is really there to thank you.
Nowadays, there are a lot of hotel openings. Hotel groups are investing a lot in China because it’s a new market, a huge country. There are [many] more openings than anywhere else in the world, but the talent pool is small by comparison and it’s hard to find good staff.
It’s a difficult industry; you work holidays, weekends, odd hours. But if we have a chance to make it more attractive and say, hey, if you work hard you will be able to choose any property in the world, anywhere—paid—maybe it will make it more attractive for people, help our clients get more quality employees, and just help the general industry. Obviously, industry growth is good for us too.
What are some trends in the premium hospitality industry in recent years?
They first arrived in major cities and expanded to suburbs. Now, you see more development in second- and third-tier cities. They are also developing their brand portfolio. They are coming with new hotel brands that exist overseas but not in China yet just to be able to differentiate themselves in the market. Five to 10 years ago, five-star hotels more or less looked the same and targeted the same clients. Now they are actually differentiating themselves. There’s also the development of “ultra-five” hotels, such as the upcoming Rosewood Hotel. In Shanghai, it’s the Waldorf Astoria and Peninsula. Then you have five-star hotels for everyday business people. You obviously have group hotel brands trying to tap into the trendier and leisure travelers, such as W Hotel, which belongs to Starwood, or Renaissance, which belongs to the Marriott Group. But it’s become a very competitive environment. I think the Marriott alone has 22 properties in Shanghai. In the end, they will also have to differentiate themselves from the others.