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DIALOGUE: Height of Hospitality: The Life and Work of a High Flying Hotelier
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altThe St. Regis Tianjin, which is just about to celebrate its one year anniversary, brings a touch of class to the city’s hotel sector. At its head is General Manager Paul Cunningham, an incredibly dedicated, driven and down to earth General Manager. As the leader of one of Tianjin’s finest hotels, Paul draws upon his vast range of experience within the worldwide hospitality industry to ensure that the St. Regis remains the top pick for its guests. At a time when China’s hospitality industry is reshaping and evolving in line with wider economic changes, Paul’s attributes as a leader and ‘people person’ are in demand more than ever before. Business Tianjin has been fortunate enough to have a discussion with him to find out firsthand what it is like to run an elite hotel in a 21st century Chinese business city.
Can you give us some background about your life and career up to now?alt
I am originally from the UK- where I started my career. I began working in this industry in London, then I came over to China almost 11 years ago and, excluding the one and a half years I did in Korea, I have been in this country ever since. I started my China career at the St. Regis in Beijing and since then I have also worked for the Westin Financial Street and opened a hotel in the Anhui province. I have been in Tianjin since February and so far it is going very well.
What would you say have been your career highlights thus far?
When I was working at the Claridge’s Hotel in London I was fortunate enough to serve the Queen of England. That gave me a valuable insight into the protocols of VIP service and a taste for the industry. When I was at the St Regis in Beijing we used to host many heads of state from around the world. The Bush delegation came once and we also served British Prime Ministers and other high level government officials from around the globe. But in terms of working in China, I would say my biggest highlight so far has been working during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. We hosted many of the sponsors, federations and other high profile people involved in the games. It took years of planning on our part and to finally get through that period successfully was a huge achievement for me. 
What inspires you the most about working in the hospitality industry?
For me it’s all about the people. My inspiration comes from the process of developing the young people in our team. It’s great to help them to develop into their roles and guide them through their careers. By helping staff to enhance their skills and fulfil their aspirations I can drive revenues, whilst also improving people’s lives. Also of course, I am a businessman, so it is good to make money for the company- which comes from delivering a great service. So my focus and passion is all about delivering the best service possible.
altWhat do you think about working in Tianjin and China? How does it compare to other parts of the world?
Tianjin is a great city. It is developing very quickly and has a lot of potential. All the luxury brands are coming here which tells you that it is just on the verge of maturing as a city. It is exciting to be working here.
In terms of working in China, the bureaucratic side of things can be tough but specifically, in terms of the hotel industry, we have a lot of difficulties which stem from the high turnover of associates. It is a transient industry. People are looking for new opportunities and are happy to switch jobs every 6-12 months. It is really hard to retain people in this sector. It is important to keep people and have them becoming loyal to a company or brand because then you get the best out of them. Ten years ago working in a hotel was glamorous. Now it is much less so. It involves longer hours and harder work, so therefore it is more difficult to keep people enticed.
If you had to give guests some reasons to stay at The St. Regis Tianjin, rather than elsewhere, what would they be?alt
Our core services are what give us the edge. Our rooms are very spacious and our superior business facilities give us an advantage. What really distinguishes us, is The St. Regis Butler service. It is all about providing that bespoke, personalised assistance for all your needs at the hotel. That gives us the edge and takes away a lot of hassles. We also have some fantastic food and drink venues, with a riverside view to top it all off. All in all, it is a great mix for a wonderful stay at our hotel.
From your point of view, how has the company’s business model evolved in recent years?
The biggest changes have been in people’s attitudes and work ethics. Consumers’ culture and needs are also constantly evolving so we have to work hard in order to keep up with them. Everybody is online now, as well, so that is a big part of our marketing strategy. 
The demographic aspect of our client base has undergone a big shift in recent years. A few years ago, 50% of our guests were international clients who were coming to China for business or tourism. Now, 70% of my business is from Chinese people. The St. Regis Hotels & Resorts all over the world are also implementing changes to make the rapidly growing Chinese client base more comfortable during their stay.
How important is The St. Regis brand to the success and appeal of your hotel here in Tianjin?
Whenever I get asked about this, I like to talk about the history of the St. Regis. It is a company and a brand with a legacy; there is a great deal of history behind it. It was started in New York, in 1904, as a venue to entertain the lords and ladies of New York. The butler service was a borrowed concept from Europe and it is still an integral element of our service today. Our offering in terms of food and drink has also become legendary. Interestingly we invented the Bloody Mary cocktail and today every city around the world that has a St Regis hotel, has its own version of the Bloody Mary with a unique twist to it. I suppose the other asset, guests can expect from the St. Regis brand is a prime location. All of our hotels around the world are well situated for guests either in places that are currently hot locations or will become one in the future. 
A recent report suggested that ‘personalisation’ of customer services will be central to the hotel experience for clients in the future. Do you agree with that and what is The St. Regis Tianjin doing in this regard?
I completely agree! When people check into a hotel nowadays they want to be recognised. Business people want hotels to see them as individuals rather than just typical corporate representatives. They want to feel a sense of belonging and a sense that individual needs and preferences are being catered for. I always say that every hotel has a ‘guest history’ and it is just a matter of how you use it. Our job is to pick up on the small things such as which side of the bed visitors sleep on, how they like their coffee or what they want for breakfast in the morning. We have to be proactive at all times. If we can do this properly our customers are far more likely to come back to us.
Hotels such as yours are becoming increasingly important for social functions and corporate events. What kind of events does The St. Regis Tianjin do in this regard?alt
We are always in demand for various kinds of functions. Since we opened last year we have hosted a lot of weddings and parties, but we also increasingly get a lot of businesses wanting to use our venue and services to host important meetings, conferences, product launches, and that sort of thing. We are lucky to have a number of great function rooms at The St. Regis Tianjin. We have a fantastic rooftop ballroom,  which offers a great view of the city and is superb for parties, BBQs and other events. My selling strategy is to say to clients; “what kind of event are you looking to host? Is it a ‘corporate cocktail’, are you trying to impress or are you meeting up with a government official etc”? Even the hotel building itself is iconic and has won many architectural awards, so it adds to the prestige aspect of hosting an event at our hotel.
Finally, what personal and professional goals do you have for the near future?
In terms of my professional life, my main aim is to establish The St. Regis Tianjin as an elite brand within the city. I want us to be continually recognised as a great place to do business or to come for a luxurious, but affordable, weekend away. I’m really keen to establish a firm client base for the future of the business. On a personal level, I really want to continue developing the people around me and watch them grow as they enhance their personal strengths. And, of course, I want to make sure my children get a good education and make the most of family life here in Tianjin! 

By Josh Cooper 
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