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The Who, Where, What and the W Hotel
by Owen Daniel - May 7, 2015
Panda Guides talks exclusively to W Hotel’s Director of Sales & Marketing, Stephanie Choi, about life in Asia’s tourism industry, life as a Beijing expat and what to try when you visit China’s thriving capital.
Where are you from and what’s your background?
Australia, my dad’s from Hong Kong, and my mum’s from Malaysia. My dad, like myself worked as an expat in Malaysia. So I was born there and I lived there for about 11 years, then we moved to Australia.
How often do you get to go back home?
Every year, well I try to go every year. Sometimes I don’t get to go for two or three years. Sometimes, it depends, I don’t get a lot of time off so I use my time to go travelling.
How long have you been in China?
I’ve been in and out for about 8 years. I first arrived in 2005, then I went and worked in Malaysia since the beginning of 2009 and I came to China again in 2010 (working for Guangzhou’s Westin and then Huzhou’s Sheraton Hot Spring Resort.
When did you first come to Beijing?
It was only about 8 months ago. My first job in China was in Haikou, Hainan (the island province south of Guangdong / Macau), that’s opening the Sheraton in 2005.
And Sheraton is the same parent group of companies?
Yes within Starwood Group. Starwood has got Sheraton, the Westin, Le Meridian. Then W Hotel is the upper luxury together with St Regis luxury collection. Then you’ve the spinoff of W is the Loft, and then our spinoff for the Westin is Element. And then you’ve got Four Points by Sheraton. There are currently nine brands that we have; but there is one coming – well it’s just been launched and it’s called Tribute. I can’t tell you so much about that as it’s very new on the market. So now it’s ten brands ‘cause Tribute has just been launched last week.
When did you start learning Chinese?
I actually learned it in school in Australia, they actually let you pick: you can either do German, French or Chinese. You get the choice in high school then you can also obviously take it up as an elective as well at university. I also picked up a little bit as well before we moved to Australia but that was very elementary.
Do you speak any Cantonese as well?
I’m OK, but I’m not very good. I’m not very eloquent. I can’t understand the news, I can only understand snippets of the news and I’m not very good when it comes to business meeting language either.
When did you first get into the tourism industry and what attracted you to this field?
For me I started in the hotel industry in 1999. That’s a really long story, my father’s also in the hospitality industry.
When I first started university my background was actually in biotechnology; I did that for two years – it was very interesting. Then I thought I’d give hospitality a go, I did my advanced diploma for hotel management study in Australia – after that I went back to university again to finish my B.A in commerce.
Just one day out of the blue, I thought how hard it would be to work in a hotel. It’s probably easy because I was working in the government sector in Australia at that time. It wasn’t a plan to get into the hospitality industry; it was more out of curiosity. And it wasn’t on the floor because my first job was as a revenue manager. So it was more of a strategic role, rather than an operational role. There was a lot of marketing involved which is what I studied and plus I had the hotel management background so it was kind of the right mix.
There’s a fire during the winter time, it keeps everyone warm, and then you’ve got that big TV. It’s got some really cool design elements at this hotel. A lot of it is taken from the Forbidden City, that yellow box (that feature there) and that Water Cube in reception... it’s a modern interpretation.
We’re about to launch on a Friday, we will do a BBQ and a DJ out here [in the Sunken Gardens] – from 5 pm to 8p m and then people can go upstairs to the W Lounge.
How long have you worked for the W brand?
Eight months, since I arrived in Beijing. Sheraton and Westin were my previous brands. Whereas W, this is the second one here in China. We have one in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taipei (Greater China), Seoul, Bali, Singapore, respectively and that’s just in the Asia Pacific region. I think in total there are about 46 W hotels worldwide.
What does the W brand mean to you?
Our passion points are design, fashion and music. Then when we do any event, it always encompasses those. Obviously W has the cocktail culture. Then you have yoga, we might bring Tara Style here (she’s amazing). She’s our yoga guru but she doesn’t do the normal quiet Indian yoga. She’s very energetic and uses a lot of the W Music. If you have the W App [from the App Store] you can get the W Music for free.
With W Music you have specific DJ/producer that curates the music for each region?
Yeah, there’s one for worldwide. One for each division: Asia Pacific, North America, EAME and Latin America. So Has Sidik is our Asia Pacific curator.
What are the most challenging aspects of the job?
You have to love it, but there are a lot of challenges in any job. If I were to pin it down. I think it’s always trying to come up with a fresh idea; coming up with something always different. Not doing something that’s already been done and rehashing it. Being really really innovative with the W brand: because that’s what the W brand is really about. It’s not just doing something young and fresh, but something that’s innovative energy. That’s what draws people to the brand – rather than doing the same thing as everybody else. Just to be different all the time.
What are the best parts of the job?
I think the most challenging part of the job, is also the best part; being able to be creative with this brand. Compared to the strict guidelines with regards to what you can do at other hotel brands, here with W you can be very creative. The brand is very passionate about being innovative – and this is as much a challenge as it is a joy.
The food here is excellent, who’s responsible?
That’s Gunnar X. He and his chefs put together the menu then the chefs Gunnar is from W Hong Kong and our Chinese executive Chef is from W Taipei.
Favourite thing about Beijing?
The culture of Beijing, I think that’s what draws me to Beijing; the rich culture and the history of Beijing. The richest history in the whole of China, that’s what really attracts me to Beijing.
What’s the worst part of Beijing?
Traffic and pollution; if they could clear the air and the traffic this would be a very good place to live.
It was quite a scoop to get Dita von Teese here…
It was amazing to have her here. She did a whole birdcage tour for W Beijing. So the launch of the birdcage tour started in W New York, and Dita performed there – she had three birdcages, one went to London at the same time, San Francisco, Hong Kong and came back here – and she performed the start and here for the finale. That’s the one in the lobby.
The birdcage is quite symbolic for Beijing, a lot of Beijing locals like to have birds and they carry their birds. Our private bar area upstairs in the X25 bar is designed like a birdcage.
What does your average day consist of?
Lots of meetings; planning meetings, communications meetings, strategies meetings but it’s all different. I look after sales and also marketing, and I’ve got a convention as well to look after. A lot of marketing and sales stuff is looking at accounts and strategies. Marketing wise is all about being creative, what events are we doing, what we are doing for social media, what we are doing for advertising, what’s the next event we are planning for media etc. It’s quite full on. I’m also involved in meeting customers at the same time, our accounts – where are we at in terms of our accounts strategies.
Best Beijing food?
Peking Duck probably.
What’s your favourite restaurant in Beijing?
If I choose to eat, I would rather eat at Yen – our Chinese restaurant in Beijing (W Hotel) – than go anywhere else.
What’s your best bar?
W Lounge – I spend more time there than anywhere else.
I don’t go to a lot of clubs, the only one I go to is Destination: it’s a gay club in Sanlitun/Gongti. It’s one of the largest gay clubs in the city. I have a lot of gay friends that go there. It’s a huge place and tends to be very busy at the weekends.
We did an Over the Rainbow event (here at W Hotel), then we had a fashion after party. We’re planning to do another one – on a Wednesday night; May 13 is the next one. W Hotels support the LGBT community and we also support recyclable goods as well.
What things to do would you recommend for people coming to Beijing?
Definitely have to do the Great Wall, but not the usual normal spot: I’d go to Simatai, go off the beaten track, those are a lot better to than the Badaling or Mutianyu. Forbidden City is also a must do but probably not on the weekend. It’s just too busy, we took some media there on Saturday and it was packed, you could hardly move. I’ve heard they are starting a night time tour for the Forbidden City.
For more information check out www.WHotels.com/Beijing