A veteran hotelier with over 25 years of worldwide hospitality-industry experience, Jonas Schuermann was officially introduced as the General Manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong on September 1st, 2009.
With more than 15 years in senior management positions at luxury hotels in Hong Kong, Beijing, Macau, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, Mr. Schuermann recently visited Shanghai to offer insight into the future of the Mandarin Oriental and the overall growth of the hotel industry in China.
In addition to revealing the tragic loss of Mandarin's intended Beijing property, destroyed by the CCTV Tower fire in 2009, Mr. Schuermann also mentions his fondness for the city of Shanghai, as well as his personal predictions for the future of China's hotel industry.
China Travel: You've now been the General Manager of the Mandarin Oriental for a little over four months. How has your experience been thus far?
Jonas Schuermann: Fantastic, to be the GM of the Mandarin Oriental is a dream because it's sort of where it all started in '63. It's still the most important contributor to the success of the company and it's 100-percent owned by Mandarin Oriental.
[In Hong Kong] you're the landlord of the brand to a certain extent. What one does at the Mandarin in Hong Kong has impact on the whole company because it's the 'mother property' so to speak, but I've thoroughly enjoyed it; the people are great, the clients have been coming back since day one -- it's much more than a hotel, it's a place where many people, be they clients, as well as staff, including myself, have had great memories and great experience and I don't really know how to describe it, I've had a blast. Some people want to become a pilot and some people want to become a doctor or a lawyer, and I think for me to be the General Manager of one of the very few hotels in the world with such a rich history and legacy is a dream come true for sure.
China Travel: What separates the Mandarin Oriental apart from other luxury properties in Hong Kong?
JS: If you switch off the light at night in the bedroom they all look the same; that is no secret. It's really the people that make the difference, and for me that's clear. I think in our hotel if you do not like people there's no point for you to get in our business.
China Travel: Hong Kong is obviously one of the most dynamic cities in the world. What are some of the challenges and obstacles you face being the GM of a luxury hotel in one the most competitive markets in the world?
JS: The destination changes everything, both from what you have to produce as well as what the expectations are. If you want to, as a consumer, travel to Guangzhou, you have different expectations from a 5-star luxury hotel than you have when you go to Hong Kong. What makes it easier for us, not easy but easier, is we have been doing it for so many years. You have to do different things for different people. I think that's one of the traits in our industry that's changed quite a bit. You know we were not, as an industry, focused on the individual as much as we are today. In the old days we all had a Chinese restaurant and we all had a Western restaurant and a coffee shop, that was it, and today, the tastes and the expectations are very different so we as an industry have become much more prone to really listen to the individual guests' needs.
I think we are quite lucky in Hong Kong because we have the resources. I was just in Sanya, and to get fresh imported food to international newspapers on a daily basis can be a struggle. In Hong Kong we have everything on our doorstep so there is no excuse. In Hong Kong that's a different expectation . . . you just have to throw your net much wider. It challenges you daily, and with the speed things happen today you have to be snappy, you have to make it happen. If you think about it, who wanted, 5 years ago, iPod docking station, and today if you don't have it you're in the "pre-Facebook age."
China Travel: How does customer interaction contribute to improving the overall hotel experience?
JS: One of the best resources is the guests: they travel, they see, they tell you fairly fast what they want and what they don't want anymore, and I think sometimes we as an industry lose that touch a little bit. [We] have somebody in the lobby who actually speaks to you to basically transmit right there and then what you feel. For me as a manager it's absolutely paramount to get this first-hand feedback. Guests tell you what they expect today and tomorrow.
China Travel: How has Hong Kong changed since your first arrival in 1993?
JS: In '93 it was sort of the Chinese and the non-Chinese, it was rare that you mixed on your day off with Chinese colleagues, it was sort of the guailos sticking together, going to Lan Kwai Fong. Hong Kong has become a real cosmopolitan city like New York, like Paris, like London, and I think that's very enriching for a city.
From a work point of view, Hong Kong has always been extremely efficient; the resources you can tap into are almost endless. It's never been a cheap city, it was always a city which you had to spend a bit of money, so today that has not changed really, but I think from a social aspect, I really think the lines have become much more blurry and I think this is very enriching for a city and society.
China Travel: You also worked at hotels in Macau, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Beijing. How would you compare working in these parts of the world to Hong Kong and Mainland China?
JS: In Southeast Asia the service industry is probably more part of their DNA so to speak. I don't know where that comes from, it could be the weather: it's always warm, it's always cheerful, it's always fun. The weather could bring that in to context; in the south, where weather is warm, I don't think we take each other so seriously. We have more of a laugh. I lived eight years in Thailand, and Thais like to make other people happy and I think the service industry lends itself perfectly to that.
On the other hand, in North Asia, I think the biggest resource in China is the young people, and the inquisitiveness of the young people. In Sanya, everybody [at the Mandarin Oriental Sanya] is Generation X and Y, and people are just very curious. I think that China has made gains . . . the opportunities for Chinese today are much wider than they were 15-20 years ago, so if you don't want to work in a hotel you can go work somewhere else. So there is continuous improvement in China and I think we're at the beginning.
China Travel: What are some factors you attribute to the growth of the service industry in China? And how do you plan on continuously keeping your levels of hospitality at the highest possible standard?
JS: If you think about it, the first time you were able to book a hotel from outside China in China was 1982. People will say in the west we have this and China's service industry is still so much behind, but how many centuries of service industry did we have in the west? Hundreds of years. In China, the first hotel that opened was in Beijing in 1982, where you were able from outside of China to make a booking.
The distance China has covered in the service industry in 28 years is phenomenal. So I think we're just at the beginning. We still have a long way to go and I think it's gonna be a fun ride. We have to make it attractive for people coming to work in our hotels and we have to become an employer who you want to work with. At the end of the day service quality basically starts with attitude and if you find the right attitude and the right people, the training part is easy. It's really to hire the right people, to hire the attitude and the pool of people you can find the right people is vast and enormous so I think we have seen, we're still at the beginning.
China Travel: Obviously this is a very exciting time in China with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo beginning in May. How do you think these events will impact the local hotel market?
JS: Look at the Olympics, just the opening ceremony . . . had a natural effect on people to sort of say "wow!" It was magical and I think that has changed, to a large extent, many peoples' views, many peoples' perception of what China is. We all sort of have perceived ideas on places we don’t know and have never been to, but once we go or once we become more accustomed with it perceptions change and I think the Olympics have opened many people's eyes.
The [Shanghai Expo] – I think it's gonna be similar, maybe less. There's not gonna be an event like the 14 days in the Olympics, but Shanghai will be mentioned all over the world for five months continuously and hopefully it creates curiosity which eventually spurs the interest to travel and I think that has an impact on everyone in this part of the world: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing. Those "mega –events" have a very positive impact on how the world sees China and how China sees the world so I think it's great, so I'll wait until the World Cup is gonna be in China.
China Travel: Maybe the Chinese soccer team needs to be good enough to make the World Cup first [Zing!]
JS: You never know, but the perception of China before and after [the Olympics] was like day and night. We know it's the workshop of the world and we see Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall very often on TV and that's sort of what we see, but there are so many more different dimensions and layers and the more the West and the outside world sees of China the better.
20 years ago how many flights did you have directly into China from the US or Europe? Very little. You had maybe British Airways who came, and you had maybe United via Japan and that was it and everybody was going to Beijing. And today, how many non-Chinese airlines fly directly to China? Not only into Beijing and Shanghai, buy also now into other cities? I think it's the direct result of people being more interested and being more open to what China's all about.
What I said before about Honk Kong being more cosmopolitan [also applies] to Shanghai. When I came to Shanghai the first time, there was the Shangri-La, which is now the [Portman Ritz-Carlton] and the [Hilton Shanghai], that was it. And today all is free and open . . . as free and open as it can get.
China Travel: How have you witnessed the Mandarin Oriental brand grow? Where is Mandarin Oriental headed? Do you have any new properties opening up in 2010?
JS: The brand has not changed much because it always stood for great values and the Asian qualities of hospitality – that's really what the brand was when I joined in '94, when we had nine hotels, only one of which was not in Asia. I think that's been the major change; now there are seven [hotels] in North America, and five in Europe. The values and the brand have not changed because it's the core values that are really: people, sense of place and the Asian way of hospitality and I can't see that changing.
The company will change; I think we're building 17 more hotels as we speak, we are opening another new hotel in Macau in a few months, we are opening a hotel in Marrakech, we will be opening a hotel in Guangzhou, we are opening in Taiwan, so we definitely will become more of a cosmopolitan group but our core values are Asian.
We are the only [hotel] company which is based in Asia – that originates out of Asia – that's global. No other company has the global presence we have that's Asian. Mandarin's always stood for tradition without being stuffy, the Asian way of embracing hospitality and service.
More on the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong
The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong: China's flagship of luxury
Opulence without pretention: Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong's guest rooms
Health, wealth and relaxation: Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong's facilities
A king's feast: Dining at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong
Center Stage: Hong Kong's Central District and the Mandarin Oriental