The rise and rise of five-star hotels

About 30 years ago, five-star hotels, for most Chinese, were mysterious places behind bling-bling walls, only open to foreigners or rich people. Today, however, it’s no longer a big deal for citizens to have a casual Sunday brunch, enjoy afternoon tea, throw a birthday party or celebrate important anniversaries in a luxury hotel.

The evolution of Shanghai’s five-star hotel industry is keeping up with the city’s rapid development.

In 1986, the opening of Huating Hotel, Shanghai’s first luxury hotel after China’s reform and opening-up, began a new chapter for the city’s quality hospitality industry. Huating, for almost every Shanghai local, meant anything fancy and fabulous. Its spiral staircase, sightseeing lift, indoor fountain, rooftop restaurant and cabs waiting in front of the entrance opened up a whole new world for Chinese.

One year later, the Hilton with its indoor garden, zigzag bridges and beautiful Christmas decorations stole the show as the city’s first official five-star hotel and the highest tower at the time.

From 1990 to 1997, Portman became a new landmark with its majestic space, pioneering bold red deco, archway, bridge and waterfalls as well as an underground supermarket making it the city’s first mixed-use hotel complex. In 1998, Ritz-Carlton took over Portman, and it became China’s first Ritz-Carlton hotel.

A few steps across Nanjing Road W., JC Mandarin opened in 1990, impressing guests with its seafood buffet and a five-story mural of Zheng He’s voyages (1405-1431) as far as Africa. The hotel was built on the original site of the Mandarin, the best dance hall in Shanghai in the 1930s.

Pudong Shangri-La, opened in 1998, was the prelude to flocks of more five-star hotels on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River. The hotel’s mega meeting hall and luxury rooms with brilliant views of the city’s skyline, the river or the Bund proved a wise decision by forward-looking boss Robert Kuok. As the River Wing’s 575 rooms failed to meet rising demands, the hotel later set up the Grand Tower, which offered another 375 rooms.

Crowning the prestigious 88-story Jin Mao Tower, Grand Hyatt Shanghai was an iconic landmark in the center of the Lujiazui business and financial area. Its opening in 1999 was a grand event, attracting lines of guests in front of the check-in desk who wanted to experience one night in what was the world’s highest hotel at the time.

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The early 21st century witnessed another five-star hotel surge with the Four Seasons, St Regis, JW Marriott and Westin Bund Center on the western side of the Huangpu River.

Around the 2010 World Expo Shanghai there was another hotel boom, and the Bund was the major battlefield. The Peninsula opened in 2009 as the latest architecture of modern Art Deco on the Bund over the past six decades. Its afternoon tea was so popular that it was hard to grab a seat in advance.

One year later, the Waldorf Astoria opened on the southern end of the Bund, mixing history and culture, West and East, new and old. A new-version Peacock Alley connects the new tower and a 1911 building, painstakingly using archival photographs and records while equipping it with contemporary luxuries as a modern-day travel experience.

In 2018 a host of five-star hotels competed to open one after another, such as InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland (the world’s only hotel built in a decommissioned quarry), Amanyangyun that features old trees relocated from Jiangxi Province and ancient villas carefully moved brick-by-brick from Fujian Province, as well as Edition Shanghai that attracts flows of web celebrities to take pictures.

Shanghai Daily talked to four five-star hotel insiders who have been participants and witnesses to the city’s hospitality industry over the years.

Jurgen Sterkau

Managing director of Sheraton Grand Hotel, Shanghai Pudong Hotel Complex

Sterkau came to Shanghai 14 years ago as resident manager to open Marriott’s first five-star hotel — Marriott Shanghai Hongqiao. Today the hotel group has four five-star and one four-star hotels in the city.

“The hotel facilities have been improved a lot over the years, and clients expect more today,” Sterkau said. “It’s very hard for any hotelier to keep up the facilities and the services to the customers’ demands because obviously the competition is quite fierce. If one hotel puts something new on the market, the customer will request the same in the other hotel. That’s the biggest obstacle the hotel business is facing in China in regards to hardware.”

China has, by far, been the hottest hotel battlefield in the world, and Shanghai is at the center of it. And there is probably no end for the fight to be the best and newest because another inflow of five-star hotels is coming in the next five years.

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With the incredible domestic travel boom in recent years, China still has space for more five-star hotels.

“However, I think we are saturated in regards to maintaining rates, and that’s not good,” Sterkau said. The rates of a five-star hotel haven’t changed much compared with 14 years ago, and are much lower than any other of the world’s big cities.

“So that’s not an easy job now in Shanghai as we’re having a high competition, demand on increasing salaries and lower market price,” he said.

Max Mei

Director of Style at W Shanghai — The Bund

Having been in the hospitality industry for about 20 years, Mei has worked for many five-star hotels in Shanghai. “To some extent, I’m growing with the industry,” he said.

Room service at five-star hotels changes with the times. Blankets have been replaced with down-and-feather quilts; one king-size bed gets more orders than twin beds; coffee machines, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air purifiers have become essential.

As needs are more varied and customers are becoming more sophisticated, Mei’s team even provides the Koran and the Bible. In addition, W Shanghai is the city’s only downtown five-star hotel offering rooms that allows guests to bring their pets.

Room service requests are more frequent these days, and sometimes guests ask just too much. Once a guest asked the hotel to clean the air-conditioner and the pipes before check-in. “It was excessive actually, but we did it anyway because we would do our best to meet clients’ needs,” Mei said.

Mei has been at many openings of the city’s iconic luxury hotels, such as the highest-altitude Grand Hyatt Shanghai on Jin Mao Tower, the Westin, Indigo and W Shanghai — The Bund.

“I love opening new hotels,” Mei said. “It was tiring but having great sense of success, like giving birth to a baby.”

Mei is greatly impressed with the fast changes on both banks of the Bund over the past two decades. “When I was at Grand Hyatt in 1999, there was only the Oriental Pearl TV Tower nearby. The Lujiazui area was a large construction site, but now there are highrises everywhere,” he said.

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Angela Cai

Director of Marketing and Communications at Mandarin Oriental Pudong Shanghai; Director of Communications, China at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

Cai came into the industry in 1998 as an intern at the Portman’s Business Center, the city’s first and only 24-hour hotel business center at the time.

“Laptops were not popular, not to mention WiFi. It was in the slow-connection days of dial-up Internet, faxes and long-distance phone calls,” she recalled. “So a business center was the absolute center of a hotel.”

Today, however, WiFi is everywhere and people use smartphones and laptops. “A business center has been turned from a revenue-driven department two decades ago to a thing of little value these days,” Cai said.

Technological advancement also brings great changes to the way hotels are promoted. In the old days, print media such as magazines and newspapers were the major advertising form.

Today in the digital era of new media, promotion channels are more diversified, from websites and mobile screens to various social networks and Internet celebrities. “The requests and feedback from customers are instant and requires us to respond immediately,” she said.

David Du

Chinese Master Chef at Hyatt on the Bund

Fine dining at a five-star hotel, for today’s Chinese, is no longer a luxury.

“About 10 years ago, we had more foreigners, but now there are more local guests at our Xindalu-China Kitchen,” Du said. “It’s quite a common thing for them to have a family dinner or a Sunday brunch here.”

More guests brings greater pressure to five-star hotel dining because it is losing ground to other fine restaurants.

“People have more choices. Our competitors are not only hotels but also restaurants,” Du said.

“That’s why we’re endeavoring to update new menus and launch activities every week, month and season.”

At the same time, diners’ needs and tastes are getting more sophisticated.

“Most guests were here to appreciate our dishes and service many years ago, but today they come to demand and judge as more Chinese are informed and experienced,” the chef said. “But I think it’s a virtuous cycle that urges us to do better at food safety and dining experience.”

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