A Hong Kong tourism success story: teaching hotel the industry derided has spearheaded change and earned a top ranking
Hotel Icon, opened by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a test bed for hospitality innovation, a highly respected teaching facility, and among the best places to stay in Hong Kong – so why does city’s tourism industry largely ignore it?
The image of Hong Kong’s tourism offering has been tarnished recently by losses at its theme parks, an idle observation wheel, and news that the reopening of the popular Avenue of Stars has been pushed back to 2019. However, there is one home-grown success story that is rarely reported.
When the foundation stone for Hotel Icon was officially unveiled some 10 years ago, many observers dismissed the concept of a smart, upmarket hotel staffed by students as a recipe for disaster.
“There was nothing like this … it was revolutionary,” says Professor Kaye Chon, dean of the school of hotel and tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who conceived the idea. It was the first of its kind in Asia, and the world’s first purpose-built teaching and research hotel owned and operated by a university and set in a busy downtown area.
For all the scepticism, once the 262-room hotel opened in the city’s harbourside Tsim Sha Tsui East entertainment district in September 2011, rather than being derided as a high-rise equivalent of the fictional Fawlty Towers, it earned glowing reviews. Hotel Icon has since received a series of international awards and commendations, including the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) Grand Award 2017 for Education and Training. Furthermore, it has consistently been one of the highest ranked Hong Kong hotels on the TripAdvisor travel advice website.
“We have never been below number five in Hong Kong and this is very tough to achieve – every top- brand hotel is in Hong Kong and competition is very stiff,” says Chon. Hotel Icon’s occupancy rate is usually above 95 per cent, he says.
While the government recently announced a HK$310 million (US$39.5 million) bailout for loss-making theme park Ocean Park and will fund over half of a HK$10.9 billion expansion at the loss- making Hong Kong Disneyland, the HK$13 billion budget for Hotel Icon was fully financed by Polytechnic University. It can now reinvest the profits in education and training at its school of hotel and tourism management, which is housed within the same building.
Much of that research and innovation is shared with industry, and Chon says it has helped raise standards and introduce new ideas at Hong Kong hotels.
Hotel Icon was the first hotel in the city to offer guests a free minibar, something Chon insisted on after once being “held hostage” in a luxury hotel in China for failing to pay for a can of cola missing from his minibar, even though he insisted vehemently to staff that he didn’t even like cola.
“Our research showed that 95 per cent of all hotel guests never use a minibar,” says Chon.
Many of the innovative ideas at the hotel have been pioneered by general manager Richard Hatter, an experienced troubleshooter from the Shangri-La group, recruited in 2009 to run the hotel.
“I looked at all the superfluous stuff we did at Shangri-La, like chocolates on the pillow, and thought about what guests really wanted,” he says.
Hotel Icon was also the first to introduce complimentary smartphones for guests, offering unlimited Wi-fi access and international calls to 27 countries. It launched a Tesla limousine hire service, and a special lounge where guests can shower and relax if they arrive before their room is available.
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Check-in and check-out is paperless. If guests need to print a boarding card for their flight, they simply email the document from their phone to an in-room printer for an instant hard copy.
It was Hatter who convinced the university’s board not to aim for the safe, mid-range bracket but to create something more ambitious and exclusive. The private sector was not so easily won over, and unhelpful media reports about the new luxury university hotel made others in the industry panic at the prospect of a subsidised competitor using students as cheap labour.
“We were greeted with a lot of cynicism and criticism from the industry and some bad press coverage,” Hatter admits. Even now staff are reluctant to use the term “luxury”, preferring to refer to the hotel as “unique and upscale”.
Whatever the semantics, Hotel Icon is undoubtedly cool and stylish. The building was designed by prominent Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim’s firm, the interiors by Britain’s Terence Conran, and the ground floor Green restaurant boasts a vertical hanging garden designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc.
“I had a clear idea of our clientele. They were looking for something sophisticated, authentic and local – it was a trend,” says Hatter. He had to be careful, though, that the hotel’s teaching status would not deter customers who might fear soup being poured over them by overeager students still learning the ropes.
The potential negatives were turned into positives by using a subtle ploy. The teaching and research aspect is not emphasised in marketing materials, but revealed once guests are settled in the hotel. As Hatter points out, no one complains if the pilot of their aircraft is a training captain or if they must undergo surgery at a top teaching hospital.
The cosmopolitan guests don’t seem to realise they are staying at a teaching hotel, nor do they have qualms about paying about HK$2,500 a night per room to be guinea pigs in a hotel laboratory.
“Sure, I know some of the staff here are students at the university, but it makes them eager to learn and very enthusiastic,” says Shama Kothari, an insurance executive from Antwerp, Belgium, who is waiting in the lobby with her colleague, Holly Jiang. They both stay regularly at the hotel.
The 40 interns who work closely with the Icon’s 400 hotel professionals add a creative spark that is missing from many chain hotels.
Intern Harry Ha, from Seoul, believes Hong Kong is the hospitality centre of Asia. He feels empowered to share roles and ideas with his full-time colleagues, he says.
One elite management trainee, Pavithra Senevirathne, is from Kandy, Sri Lanka, where her family own a hotel, and she was determined to train in Hong Kong.
“This is one of the best two hotel schools in the world,” she says, as she expertly places bread rolls onto plates with silver tongs.
Charles Yeung Tsz-ho, a trainer and mentor at the hotel, says: “The interns are always contributing creativity. The more you work in an industry the more you gain experience, but you also lose creativity.”
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Elite management trainee Scarlett Chan Shuk-yee, a Hongkonger, says she considers it part of her role to introduce what she calls “the real Hong Kong” to visitors, and Yeung is also on board.
“Since the introduction of Airbnb, everything has changed. Now it’s about living with locals and sampling local culture,” says Yeung. So many guests have asked about local markets and temples that the hotel has produced a booklet called “Kowloon’s Hidden Gems” to help them explore, he adds.
“This is now the big trend in Hong Kong and visitors have high expectations of a personal and individual experience and being listened to, not treated like not robots,” he says.
It’s a theme much of the Hong Kong tourism industry has been slow to embrace. Last month, Hong Kong Tourism Board executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon said 60.6 million people were expected to visit Hong Kong in 2018, 46.2 million of them from China. But per capita spending by tourists in the city last year fell by 2.3 per cent year on year to HK$6,447 (US$824), and a decline of another 1.5 per cent is predicted this year.
Many tourism professionals fear quality is being sacrificed for quantity and trends are being missed because of city tourism operators’ high reliance on low-value mass tourism from China (about 20 per cent of Hotel Icon’s guests are from China but are typically professionals and independent travellers, Hatter says).
“This trend for authentic cultural tourism is growing like wildfire,” he says. “Hong Kong has a wonderful and unique offering that is not being fully explored. It’s not all about Ocean Park and Disney.”
Hatter thinks the Tourism Board recognised this global trend – which he identified in 2009 – about 18 months ago. Since then there have been initiatives such as the Old Town Central campaign, and similar schemes are planned in Sham Shui Po and other districts.
“Most of our customers are what we call Western explorers – they tell us Hong Kong is still dynamic, exciting and very safe. The safe city aspect should really be played up more,” says Hatter. He points out that the hotel supports local artists, culture and business. That the fruit juice in the free minibar is from Hong Kong supplier Vita is not an accident: it’s policy.
The success of Hotel Icon would appear to offer some important clues as to how the city could refresh its offering to tourists and respond better to current global trends, but for now few are taking much notice.
“If this hotel was in Singapore, everyone would be making a huge fuss about it,” Hatter says.