The hotel industry is facing many challenges and undergoing major transformation worldwide. The travellers are evolving with penetration of internet & mobile and the hotels are adapting fast to this change. They are embracing technology and experimenting with newer ideas to engage with guests. Starwood, with its multiple brands is expanding the network of hotels rapidly in Asia-Pacific to cater to the fast growing tourism market in the region.
We had a chance to have a quick chat with Stephen Ho, Starwood’s Asia Pacific President about his role and the group’s plans in APAC.
Stephen heads over 300 hotels of the group across 26 countries while around 260 hotels are in pipeline in the region. He has been associated with this industry for over three decades.
Talking about the changes he has seen over this long period, he said, “In the early days, there was no technology in this industry. Our customers have changed a lot and we see large number of younger travellers now. The way they book hotels has also changed and the bookings now come from different sources. Earlier people either walked into a hotel or booked through conventional travel booking agents. Now with the internet penetration, markets like India and China have shifted towards mobile devices. The expectations of guests have gone up significantly and we have to constantly keep evolving and innovating to offer the best experience.”
Of course with all the new travel startups and major brands coming up, it has become tougher for hotel industry to find the best talent. According to Stephen, “In old days this industry used to attract some of the best talent but now you have to compete with multinational companies as well as local startups. So the playing field is very different now. There can be long hours at times, especially if you are on the service side. There are talented people with strong passion for this business and such people make great team for us”.
As WTTC predicted earlier, the Chinese market is one of the fastest growing travel market and that is why Starwood has a strong focus on the Chinese market in this region. The second largest is India and due to their strong growth, these two markets take a higher spot on Starwood’s list. Stephen shared that they have already opened around eight new properties in India this year and they plan to take the number upto 10 before the end of 2015. They are also introducing the St. Regis hotel in India and will be starting the millennial friendly W Hotel next year in Goa.
In Indian market, they have to strike the perfect balance between consistency across all the brand hotels while adding a hint of local connect to match the different expectations of customers.
China comes with its own set of challenges. While in most geographies, people book directly or through conventional OTAs, WeChat is a preferable choice in China. For payments, debit and credit cards take a back seat there as Alipay accounts for close to half of the online transactions. When asked to weigh mobile bookings against desktop bookings, Stephen said that individual travellers usually rely on mobile while people travelling in groups or for business prefer other booking platforms. That is why they have to focus on all the platforms.
Stephen thinks that hotel brands should diversify their marketing towards travellers from different regions and segments so that factors like economic slowdown in some regions can’t put a dent in their business.
Staying at the forefront on technology, Starwood will be introducing the keyless entry feature across all 5 Aloft properties in India very soon. The feature was introduced earlier this year at Aloft Bengaluru.
The conversation with Stephen took place during TravelRave. You can find our other stories from TravelRave here.