Think big

Updated: 2012-11-10 08:07

By Matthew Fulco (China Daily)

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 Think big

A bedroom of a suite at the hotel offers guests plenty of elbow room. Photos provided to China Daily

Hotel profile | Shanghai

Space matters at Hilton's Hongqiao hotel. Matthew Fulco reports.

'The sheer size of things in China amazes me," says Michael Williamson, the new general manager of the Hilton Shanghai Hongqiao, as we sit down to afternoon tea in the hotel library.

Williamson, who studied politics before embarking on a 30-year hospitality career, arrived from London a fortnight ago to take the reins of the 675-room business hotel, which boasts spacious guestrooms - Hilton says up to 50 percent larger at the entry level than competing hotels - and the largest ballroom in Shanghai west of the Huangpu River. The ballroom spans 1,700 square meters and can accommodate a thousand guests comfortably.

All that room to stretch out aside, the hotel stands at the crux of a massive government infrastructure project in western Shanghai's Hongqiao Zone combining a transport hub and new business district focused on service industries. The transportation interchange, with an international airport, high-speed rail station and more than 30 bus lines, is the world's largest. Two metro lines and surrounding highways connect it to downtown Shanghai. Daily passenger traffic of 500,000, already the most in China, is forecast to rise to 1.2 million by 2020.

Also in the Hongqiao Zone, a colossal exhibition center is under construction that will be the largest in the world upon completion in 2015.

To capitalize on the infrastructure building boom, international hoteliers have aggressive expansion plans of their own for Hongqiao. Between 2013 and 2015, at least six new properties are slated to open, adding more than 1,600 rooms to the market, analysts say.

"The speed of development in China is remarkable," Williamson says. "A slowing economy that still expands at more than 7 percent beats zero percent growth back home (in the UK) or contraction elsewhere in Europe."

Think big

He adds: "I see the pie for hotels continuing to grow steadily, but we'll have to work harder to get a sizable piece."

The native of the northeastern British city of Newcastle is well-poised for that challenge, having grown up in a family of hoteliers.

Williamson' parents owned and ran two English townhouse hotels in Newcastle - the Osborne and Cairn - for more than thirty years before selling them in the early 1990s. Both hotels are still independently owned and operating today.

"Growing up in a busy hotel, you get a commercial view of the world from an early age," Williamson says. "As the owners and chief operating officers, my parents were always on their feet, working 15-hour days, but they were able to sell the hotels and live a comfortable retirement."

Hilton, meanwhile, will leverage the core strengths of the Hongqiao property, Williamson says, adding that as the surrounding district further develops, the location will become more of an asset.

For now, the Hilton Hongqiao's ability to execute the largest corporate events has earned it acclaim among meeting planners. At the Golden Pillow Awards held in June to honor top-performing hotels, it was recognized as China's best MICE hotel. The awards are decided through a rigorous selection process that involves professional judges, industry experts and netizens.

In May, the hotel hosted "You are the Chef," a 450-person gala dinner attended by the executive chefs and general managers of China's top hotels. The event featured a massive tent in the hotel ballroom with a stage in front. Waiters dressed as chefs walked over the stage and into the tent to serve guests.

Planning to stay in China for the long term, Williamson looks forward to studying Chinese in his spare time. "I know that learning Chinese while working full time is a tall order. I still want to try," he says. "Prospects for my children, aged 9 and 2, however, are more than optimistic."

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