The best brands succeed because they have a story to tell. As living, physical spaces, hotels are in a privileged position when it comes to fostering and communicating that story to customers. And in a country as historically and culturally rich as China, great stories aren’t very hard to come by.
China is perpetually on a construction spree, and hotels are a big part of that boom. For a year, Hyatt on the Bund in Shanghai was the property everyone was talking about, and now it’s the Peninsula on the Bund. Just before that, it was the Grand Hyatt in the towering Shanghai World Financial Center. Looking out of my window, I can see the Shangri-La being erected at breathtaking speed. So what’s there to differentiate between one and the other?
As I said in my last post, the days of one-size-fits-all hotels are over. Chinese travellers expect hotel brands to integrate their unique story into every aspect of the experience. Let’s look at two properties – one in the shadow of the Great Wall near Beijing, the other in the heart of the French Concession in Shanghai – that have mastered the art of brand storytelling.
The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu Great Wall is a village retreat created by Jim Spear, who runs China Countryside Hotels. The houses are located right in Mutianyu village and are original peasant dwellings that have been transformed into luxurious getaway homes with spectacular views of the Great Wall. Every house comes with a modern kitchen, barbecue pits and Wi-Fi.
Grandma’s Place, where we stayed, was designed by Jim for his mother who comes to visit from the US once a year – and was perfect for my 73-year-old mum. (Jim’s staff also bought a wheelchair when I made the booking, and he thanked me for suggesting it.) The houses have private gardens but once guests step out of their gate they are immersed in a living village community and can hike through orchards and pine forests to the Wild Wall. On our family trip we bought all the ingredients for our barbecue from a villager.
The Schoolhouse strives for ecological and social sustainability. They provide employment and training to people in the community, support other local businesses, promote handicrafts, and buy food locally or grow it themselves. They prefer hiring residents from Mutianyu and nearby villages. They procure all of their outdoor cleaning, gardening, and farming services from their neighbour’s company, which they helped establish. That’s their story – emerging from and staying part of the community, and passing on the benefits.
On weekends, local craftsmen drop by to teach guests. My daughter learned how to make a kite. A glassmaking factory on the premises invites master glassblowers like Jiang Jiamei to create colourful designs, which are for sale and are as pretty as the ones I saw in Murano.
As we sat outside admiring the Great Wall winding over the mountains, Jim’s executive chef, an Indian, and other staff dropped by our table to chat. It was all very warm and friendly, and we plan to go back.
The Mansion Hotel has a dramatically different story. Originally designed by French architect Lafayette in 1932, the 70-year-old villa was once the headquarters of one of Shanghai’s most notorious sons, gangster Du Yuesheng. The villa was a gift to Du from his chief financial controller and is now part museum, part luxury boutique hotel with 32 rooms.
Until the liberation of Shangai in 1949, the villa was used to operate Du’s legitimate and illegitimate business operations. At night it hosted the city’s most exclusive and extravagant parties. The hotel’s CEO, Dr Dean Yin, is a historian who recreated how the building appeared in the 1920s and 1930s when “Big-Eared” Du presided over one of the world’s most powerful organized crime syndicates.
The rooms today can best be described as “gangster –chic.” The lobby is full of authentic historical artifacts ranging from an opium pipe to a gramophone to sepia-tinted photographs from the 1930s, and first-edition books such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. Across from the reception area was once a stage where private shows were held; Du’s love of the Peking Opera was legendary.
These are two very different stories: one about community and the warmth of family, one about history and living in a gangster’s paradise. Tell me, what’s your brand’s story?