Europe businesses have their eye on Chinese travellers
I WAS engrossed; trying different scents of perfumes at a duty-free shop in the departure hall of the Charles de Gaulle airport recently, when a suave and smartly dressed sales assistant sidled up to me and said: "Ni xu yao wo bang mang ma?"
I was momentarily confused.
Individually, each syllable sounded alien. But strung together, I understood he was asking if I needed any help.
"You don't have to speak to me in Chinese," I said.
He gave me a broad smile and went on to show me a whole range of Christian Dior scents.
I left the shop 200 euros (S$325) poorer but pleased with the service.
This little exchange underscored how Paris has become a more cosmopolitan city in the past few years. In the past, the French would not deign to speak to you in English, even if they could, much less Mandarin.
But a stagnant economy that is being shored up by its booming tourism sector meant that many French retailers are hiring staff who are well versed in English, Japanese and, increasingly, Chinese.
One is able to find many Mandarin-speaking sales assistants in Paris these days, said Lee Chee Koon, chief executive of The Ascott, a home-grown Singapore company that operates serviced apartments under the Ascott, Citadines and Somerset brands.
According to Global Blue, which monitors international shopping and spending, the Chinese are the biggest tax-free spenders by nationality, averaging 815 euros per transaction. Paris is their preferred destination.
Last year, almost a million Chinese tourists visited Paris, up by 23 per cent.
Many hospitality players have reshaped their business model to cater to Chinese tourists.
In 2011, Hilton Worldwide launched its Huanying programme in its hotels worldwide, with Chinese speakers at the front desk, and providing Chinese breakfast items and traditional Chinese tea pot and tea pouches in rooms. Huanying means welcome in Chinese.
Ascott is also gearing up to attract more Chinese nationals to stay in its properties.
It has 45 properties in Europe, including 16 in Paris and seven in London.
However, the percentage of Chinese nationals staying in its European properties is insignificant, at well below 8 per cent, a figure that Ascott executives are working hard to grow.
Said Mr Lee: "We send our colleagues in Europe to China to take part in sales and marketing events in China, so as to market and increase awareness of our properties in Europe as well."
Chinese nationals staying in Ascott's properties in China grew by 30 per cent in the first six months, indicating "they have accepted our serviced apartments as a product they can choose to stay in when they travel for business or holidays", he said.
Alfred Ong, managing director for Europe, reckoned that Ascott can tap on its experience and expertise in China, given its big presence there, to make Chinese guests feel at home at its European properties as well.
"We have spent 120 million euros on renovating the properties. Our next focus is tapping the Chinese market," said Mr Ong, who, ironically, may have been mistaken as a Chinese national initially when he was posted to Europe in January.
The Singaporean has found a macho solution to his dilemma - he grew a moustache.