Mr. Shangkong

Shanghai cooks up five-star goals, but the salt is missing

Disappointing episodes at some supposedly top hotels show the city's 'hardware' and 'software' need to be retooled to reach world-class levels

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 10:59am

People often talk of how important "software" is for a truly international city after it has already established very good "hardware". They are just like two legs for a person: you can't walk well without either of the two.

Let me give you some examples from my personal experience. I made a few trips to Shanghai recently and stayed at three five-star hotels. Two of the three are international chain hotel brands and I once stayed in the New York hotel of one of the two global names.

What is the difference between the Shanghai and the New York hotel? Call me a picky guest but the difference in fact exists in the detail.

Initially, everything went well at the Shanghai hotel for me until I tried to use the coffee machine in my room to brew some coffee. I took a cup and happened to see four letters at the bottom of the coffee cup. The four letters were I-K-E-A, the Swedish home decoration chain that has branches all over the world.

Perhaps from a picky guest's point of view, this small detail meant a big disappointment to me, especially after I had fond memories of my stay at the New York hotel under the same five-star brand earlier this year.

If you have an ordinary IKEA cup for guests at five-star hotels in New York, the chances of getting them to stay with you again will be slim.

Separately, I went to dine with some foreign friends at another of the three hotels in Shanghai where I stayed recently. The food was great and the atmosphere was nice until one of my foreign friends asked the waitress for salt.

Apparently, the waitress didn't really catch the word "salt", although my friend's accent was pretty standard English. She was suddenly nervous as she didn't know what my friend wanted. Then she left and a couple of minutes later she brought her supervisor to us and my friend finally got his long-awaited salt.

Shanghai is my hometown and the two stories somehow make me a bit embarrassed.

A family friend in the hotel business in Shanghai describes my first story as a "normal practice" in the city. The reason behind this, he explains, is mainly because most of the five-star hotels in the city are not owned by those foreign luxury hotel brands but local businessmen or just the state-owned assets commission of the local government in Shanghai.

In other words, those foreign brands are hired by the hotel owners to manage. It is usually the hotel owners who control the budget, for example, to buy coffee cups, rather than the foreign manager. When it comes to cost, local businessmen will be very cautious, and in most cases those foreign managers will compromise to avoid any risk of losing their jobs.

The second story is a typical "software" problem widely seen in the city's hotel business. The more hotels, the more experienced staff you will need, of course.

Well, some Shanghai fellows are ambitious enough to say their targets are to catch up with the world-class financial centres such as New York and London.

If the Shanghai government does hold to that ambition, do something to get your "software" and "hardware" to international levels to gain more compliments, not complaints.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit