Sunny Zhu sips soy juice from a bowl during breakfast at the Hilton hotel… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)
At the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel, the aroma of green tea mixes with the scent of fried crullers and rice porridge at the breakfast buffet.
Such traditional Chinese breakfast items — served alongside American classics like bacon, eggs and coffee — will probably become more common with the anticipated explosion of Chinese visitors to the country over the next few years.
They are part of new efforts unveiled this week by hotel giants Hilton and Starwood to appeal to Chinese visitors to the U.S. The number of visitors from mainland China has more than tripled since 2000 and is expected to triple again by 2015.
Both Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide plan to provide Chinese guests at participating hotels with at least one employee who speaks Chinese, a tea kettle and slippers in each room and traditional Chinese breakfast items, such as rice porridge, known as congee. And, of course, chopsticks will be offered alongside spoons and forks.
Both chains plan to debut the efforts at popular destination cities for Chinese visitors, with Los Angeles ranking as the second most popular travel stop for Chinese tourists behind New York, according to a recent survey of foreign visitors.
"All nationalities like to explore, but they like a little of the familiar," said Andrew Flack, vice president for global brand marketing for McLean, Va.-based Hilton Hotels & Resorts. "For a Chinese guest, it's no different."
The offerings are unusual for large, international hotel chains but not for independent, boutique hotels located in heavily ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.
Chinese travelers not only are the fastest-growing foreign group visiting the U.S., but they also are among the biggest spenders. Chinese visitors last year spent an average of $6,243 per person per visit, including airfare, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Chester Chong, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, praised the plan to provide interpreters at the hotels, saying Chinese businessmen often visit the U.S. nervous about overcoming the language barrier. "It's very, very smart," he said of the hotels' plans.
Both hotel chains' programs include the breakfast food, slippers and tea kettles. The Hilton hotels will also offer welcome letters in Chinese and will make sure the television sets in the room include Chinese language channels. Flack said the idea for the program came from suggestions made by Chinese hotel guests, including those at 17 Hilton properties in China.
At the Starwood hotels, Chinese guests also get a packet of local area information for shopping and sightseeing translated into Chinese.
The Starwood program, called Starwood Personalized Travel, has been launched at 19 hotels around the world including the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point, where the number of Chinese visitors in 2010 was up 140% from the previous year, according to the hotel chain.
For Starwood, which has 1,051 hotels worldwide, China has become the fastest-growing hotel market. The company operates 75 hotels in China and has nearly 100 more under construction, with new hotel openings scheduled every two weeks in China throughout 2011.
To become more familiar with the culture, Starwood's Chief Executive Frits van Paasschen and other top executives of the company this week completed a one-month stay in Shanghai.
"Just as our hotels in China have historically catered to American and European travelers with familiar amenities from home, now our hotels globally will provide the same services to Chinese travelers," Van Paasschen said in a statement.
The Hilton program, dubbed Hilton Huanying — Chinese for "welcome" — is being launched at 43 of the Hilton brand's 540 hotels and at four other affiliated hotels, starting Aug. 16. The hotels include the Hilton Los Angeles Airport and the Hilton Anaheim.
Early this year, the program was tested for three months at three hotels including the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel, where the program continues. About 30% to 40% of the guests are Chinese visitors, said Carl Bolte, the hotel's general manager.
So far, he said, the food, slippers and other extras have won favorable reviews from Chinese guests.
"This will definitely draw more tourists from China," said Tan Yejun, a businessman from Shandong who was at the Hilton hotel in San Gabriel this week to consider investment opportunities in Southern California. He said the most difficult part about visiting the U.S. is finding locals who speak Chinese.
Ji Wei Ping, a visitor from Shanghai who was also at the San Gabriel Hilton on a business trip, said he was especially happy to find the hotel offered several types of green teas in his room. He said he would return to the Hilton because of the Chinese-friendly services.
Speaking through a hotel interpreter, he said, "It makes me feel more comfortable that the employees and even the waitress speaks Chinese."