Seafood key to Beijing hotel marketing efforts

Even as restaurant business declines with the slowdown of the Chinese economy, high-end Beijing hotels see seafood as a sure-fire way to draw customers, according to a veteran of the local F&B sector.

Lobsters and oysters are key tools to marketing a five-star hotel in Beijing, according to Tim Hunt, executive chef at The Westin Chaoyang in Beijing’s business district. Hunt also pointed to the agility of Canada’s state-led marketing efforts in China, pointing to the efforts of the Alberta authorities, in particular, in approaching hotels.

Spending power has also grown, with average per-person checks at The Westin’s restaurants topping RMB 400 (USD 64), exceeding the average check at luxury hotel restaurants in Vancouver, where Hunt previously worked. Spending in the Westin’s restaurants however is down in 2012 compared to last year, said Hunt. He blamed tighter purse strings at local corporations, a key client base for the hotel.

A slower economy hasn’t dented the enthusiasm of Canadian seafood promoters, the most energetic in the local market, said Hunt. He credited a strong promotional effort by Canadian government agencies, in particular the Alberta authorities, which run an office in Beijing. Although, noted Hunt, some Canadian product may in fact be American because shipments are aggregated in Vancouver for shipment to China and then stamped as Canadian in origin.

The Westin also purchases Australian lobster, preferring the claws “for the different textures in the meat.” Hunt, who changes the menus about three times a year, uses local shellfish as well as imports. The most expensive oyster is a Mont Clair at RMB 85 (USD 13.51) per piece.

Hunt’s staple purchases are salmon, sea bass and tuna. Seafood is key to the marketing efforts of the hotel, explained Lika Huang, marketing manager. She placed autumn advertisements in Chinese lifestyle magazines like New Orient Cuisine highlighting the hotel’s lobster and hairy crab offerings. The Westin hopes to get more of a growing and lucrative local wedding banquet trade, said Hunt: Seafood items typically make up 20 percent of menu items at wedding and corporate banquets.

“Whereas in Vancouver you sell yourself on the name of the establishment (hotel) here you promote yourself on your offerings, such as lobster,” Hunt added.

Canada’s success in penetrating China’s demand for prime seafood is seen in data, which shows Canada is well ahead of Thailand as China’s No. 1 source of crustacean imports. From January to October 2011 it sold 28,120 metric tons (MT) to China, whereas second-placed Thailand shipped 6,908 (MT). The full year figures for 2011 were 33,486 MT (Canada) and 14,366 MT (Thailand), respectively.

Seafood menus certainly appear marketing tools for Beijing hoteliers. The Four Seasons is promoting its restaurant, Cai Yi Xuan, which focuses on the seafood-heavy Cantonese style of cuisine. EAST Beijing meanwhile, operated by the Hong Kong-based Swire group has heavily advertised its Japanese sushi restaurant, Hagaki, in the local media.

Hunt, who previously spent three years at the Kunlun, a prestigious Chinese-owned five-star hotel, believes 2013 will be challenging as he’ll battle with new entrant Four Seasons, which has a bigger banquet hall. More competition is on the way. The Hilton group, which had seven hotels in China in 2007, currently has 34, with 100 more in the pipeline. Hoteliers have based their confidence in China on rising affluence here. Average Chinese salaries will rise by 10 percent in 2012, compared to 8 percent in 2011, according to a recent survey of employers by the German Chamber of Commerce in China.

Lobsters and oysters will remain high on the menu choices of Chinese diners at the Westin, predicted Hunt. Face is as important as taste in Chinese dining choices. “The more expensive the better, it shows you’ve got money,” he said.


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