When international luxury brand Raffles Hotels & Resorts, world famous for its opulent properties—and for creating the Singapore Sling—chose Boston as the site of its first North American property in April, it came as a shock to many in the travel industry.
Now, as the $375-million project rolls toward construction, it’s looking like the 131-year-old brand has a strategy: to welcome the booming demographic of Chinese tourists to Boston. In part, visitors are increasingly drawn by its selection of prestigious colleges and secondary schools; in other words “educational tourism.”
“Hotel staff speaking Mandarin in Boston is now just as important as staff speaking English at a hotel in Warsaw,” said Jeffrey Saunders, CEO of Saunders Hotel Group, one of Raffles’ partners in the venture, in an interview with Jing Travel. The two partners, along with Boston real-estate developer The Noannet Group, plan to launch a 5-star, 33-story hotel amid the picturesque setting of Boston’s Victorian-style Back Bay by 2021. The “mixed-use” enterprise will offer 293 hotel rooms and private residences.
Saunders points to the hotel brand’s international profile and presence in Asia and China as a driving factor to a U.S. market like Boston. New York City and San Francisco were obvious contenders for the first Raffles but “Boston is now one of the top destinations for Chinese tourism,” said Saunders. Brand recognition factors into strategy as well: of Raffles 12 worldwide hotels, one is already located in Hainan, and another two are planned for construction in Shenzhen and Suzhou in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
The year 2021 could be a strategic date to open a luxury-branded hotel: The Greater Boston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau expects Chinese travel to Boston will reach 570,000 visitors by 2021, about double the number of 2016. The bureau even sent a delegation to China last year to boost interest.
Chinese educational travel trend accounts for some of this rise. The city of Boston has geographical access to 114 state colleges and universities, not to mention proximity to a wealth of public and private day high schools and boarding schools. According to a 2016 survey conducted by a Shanghai-based research firm, 83 percent of China’s millionaires plan to send their children to school abroad.
It would seem that Boston’s old money traditions and ties to leadership, power, and institutions like Harvard make the city irresistible to the new-moneyed, status-driven Chinese. Harvard has educated more U.S. presidents than any other university,” according to The Harvard Gazette. A prestigious New England education figures so high for this newly minted crowd: “Even President Xi Jinping, who is presiding over a crackdown on Western influences in China’s schools, allowed his daughter to attend Harvard,” reported The New York Times.
Saunder’s firm, meanwhile, was looking for a hotel with which to partner and build on his company’s site. “It was a dating game,” he said. “Of all the hotels in contention, Raffles brought something to the table—their individualistic approach to each property and that they could work with us to maintain the history of Boston in design and feel.” Saunders notes that, from the Raffles perspective, “they were looking for an entrée into the States…and careful growth for the brand.”
With roots anchored in Paul Revere’s ride plus an organic red brick charm, the Back Bay’s on-going transformation to a potential world-class city may be part of its allure. Raffles is taking the position that historical importance is part of the draw: “We are proud to announce the introduction of Raffles Hotel & Resorts to Boston, an American city with a powerful history of cultural significance and landmark events,” said Kevin Frid, COO of Accorhotels, (Raffles’s Toronto-based parent) North & Central America in a press statement.
Meanwhile, Raffles is betting that its multilingual staff will add value for foreign markets. The hotel plans to include the “signature Raffles butler” on its list of services for Boston guests.