Hotel giant Hilton Worldwide plans to add about 40,000 employees in China over the next few years to staff its various new properties, despite growing industry concern about an economic slowdown in the world's No 2 economy.
The Virginia, US-headquartered hotel chain operator, bought by private equity firm Blackstone in 2007, planned to focus on expanding its top luxury hotel brands, including Waldorf Astoria and Conrad, according to John Vanderslice, global head in charge of the firm's luxury hotel business.
"Five years ago, when Blackstone invested in Hilton, we only had five Waldorf hotels in the world, and now we want to be the fastest growing luxury hotel in the world," Vanderslice said, adding that the focus of the expansion would be in Asia, and in particular, mainland China, given economic difficulties in the United States and Europe in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
"It's difficult to do a new hotel in our traditional markets like Europe and America. That is really linked to financing. The traditional banking relationship changed after the financial crisis," he told the South China Morning Post in Shanghai, where the company opened its first Waldorf hotel outside the US about two years ago.
He said Hilton did not have a "definite plan" to add hotels in Hong Kong, either, citing the same financing challenges as in Europe and the Americas. He described Hong Kong as "a market that has high barriers due to high costs" which discouraged hotel operators from expanding their operation there.
The firm planned to open five more Waldorf hotels in Asia by 2017, Vanderslice said, adding that four of the five would be in the mainland, including one in Beijing and one in Chengdu and two on the well-known resort island of Hainan.
At the same time, the group planned to open 11 Conrad-branded hotels in Asia by 2020, including seven on the mainland, following its opening of Conrad Beijing in March, Vanderslice said.
Hilton, which runs the Hilton namesake hotels, has 13,000 employees in China. Over the next few years, the company expects to increase that headcount to 60,000, he said. China is already the largest market outside the US for Hilton, which was acquired by Blackstone for US$26 billion.
In Asia, Hilton and Conrad hotels are relatively well-recognised compared with Waldorf, given their long history and popularity among high-end business travellers.
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have both reaffirmed in recent months their determination to boost foreign investment in China, to help create jobs. Nearly seven million fresh graduates from local universities are struggling to find their first job.
Vanderslice said he expected to bring both mainland "old money and new money" to its planned Waldorf hotels in China over the next few years, and that sooner or later the two types of Chinese luxury customers might be attracted to stay in Waldorf hotels when they travel abroad.
"Americans will travel in the US for a long time before they go outside the US. I believe Chinese people are the same in that respect, because of the size [of the two countries]," Vanderslice said. "But given their rising affluence, [mainland Chinese] will also go outside soon,"
When asked if he was concerned about Beijing's recent anti-corruption campaign that some analysts said would hurt sales of luxury products in China, Vanderslice replied: "Government officials won't stay in our hotels. They have their own guest houses."
Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone's founder, contributed US$100 million to set up a scholarship programme at Beijing's Tsinghua University earlier this year.