Vivian Chau, general manager of J Plus Boutique Hotel, tells Wong Yat-hei that small is beautiful in the hospitality sector
Like most discriminating travellers, Vivian Chau says she finds the service and design of traditional hotels boring. As general manager of J Plus Boutique Hotel in Causeway Bay, one of the city’s first boutique hotels, she is in a position where she can inject new life into a rather jaded industry.
“I love boutique hotels because I find them creative and unique. When I was studying in Britain and Australia, I got to see a lot of them. At the time, it was a pity that Hong Kong did not have such hotels,” she says.
“Today, I see an increasing number of hotel groups opening boutique hotels and small-scale hotels re-packaging themselves as boutique hotels. I am not sure, however, if what they are doing is really boutique hotels.”
Chau says there is no official definition, but one key element of a boutique hotel should be that it must make guests feel at home – something she thinks many of Hong Kong’s so-called boutique hotels have failed to do.
“Boutique hotel staff should remember the name and face of every guest and be able to provide a personal and caring service. Some boutique hotels get staff to look up pictures of guests on the internet as they can’t remember their faces. I don’t think this is serving from the heart and making guests feel like home.”
The problem with some “boutique” hotels, Chau adds, is that they have too many rooms. J Plus has around 50 rooms and only about 20 guests check in every day. This makes it easier for staff to remember guests’ names and their preferences, allowing for a more personalised service.
“Many so-called boutique hotels have too many rooms and it is not possible to for their staff to remember such a huge number of guests. If you want to be intimate with your guests, you cannot have too many of them at the same time,” Chau says.
Low staff turnover has also been key in providing quality service at J Plus, she says. “Guests like to be served by familiar faces. Many of the staff at J Plus have worked here since the hotel opened. They enjoy working here because they get to know the guests. In big hotels, with so many guests coming and going, staff tend to get robotic with their service, but this is not the case for us,” she says.
Chau started out in the hotel industry 10 years ago as a sales co-ordinator at a three-star hotel.
“My goal was always to become general manager of a hotel. One of my previous supervisors told me I needed to have experience in operations or food and beverage, otherwise the best I would ever be able to do is sales director,” she says.
Not long after joining J Plus as a sales manager, Chau was sent to Shanghai for 18 months to market a new boutique hotel. It was there that she got to learn about other areas of hotel operations and develop her management skills, which led to her being promoted to hotel manager after returning to Hong Kong.
She left the hotel for a few years to help a high-end department store design its VIP lounge, before being tempted back to J Plus with an offer to be GM of its Causeway Bay property.
Chau thinks boutique hotels have a huge potential, as travellers are increasingly looking for unique places to stay, but the sector needs to be more serious about serving from the heart. “My ultimate career goal is to promote boutique hotel culture in Hong Kong. At the moment, however, boutique-hotel service standards are not quite up there yet,” she says.
“In terms of style and design, local boutique hotels are also more trend-followers than trendsetters, which needs to change as I think they should have their own style.”
Chau says guests at boutique hotels tend to be travellers who have grown tired of ordinary hotel service and are looking for something different. “Many of them work in the creative industry, such as fashion designers, writers and artists. They enjoy creativity and artwork and want a home-like place to stay,” she says.
“Our rooms do not come with any promotion materials. I don’t want to swarm our guests with promotions. They can help themselves to drinks and food in the room free of charge, just like taking a can of soda from their fridge at home.”
Outside of work, Chau loves nature and enjoys surfing. “Exercise really helps me release stress from working. I am an outdoor person and I love water sports, but I only get to do them when I am visiting other places. In Hong Kong, I mostly go jogging and swimming,” she says.
“When I am working out, I can take my mind off all the stresses and problems at work. I think knowing how to take care of one’s body is the first step towards knowing how to take care of one’s career and life.”
Vivian’s vacation views
- Best hotel experience: “Metropolitan Bangkok. Though not especially luxurious, the stylish design and thoughtful service won me over.”
- Most promising boutique market: “Vietnam. The country is attracting huge numbers of visitors, but there are no boutique hotels.”
- If I opened my own hotel: “It would use timber and bamboo as a theme because I love nature. Of course, it would also be a boutique hotel.”