I was in Li Jiang China this past winter on an amazing project on the far southern tip of the Himalayas. The hotel staff’s treatment of both Chinese nationals and foreigners was wonderful in the hotel that I was staying. They made every guest that stayed there feel that they were the most valued guests in the property. Outside the walls of the hotel however, everything changed.
After checking out, we arrived at the airport only to find out that due to bad weather, all flights bar one had been cancelled. If we didn’t get on that flight, we would have to stay another three days in Kunming. The flight was with another airline that the one we had tickets for.
I called the hotel to see if there was anything they could do. Their suggestion was that I go to the desk and don’t let them know that I speak Chinese and demand that we get on the flight. I did so and next thing you know, despite the fact that my ticket was for another airline and thousands of other people trying to get on the flight, we found ourselves with boarding passes for the last two seats on the plane. Even better luck, they were business class. Should we have accepted the seats? It was a moral dilemma, but we did and we arrived home safely that evening.
Contrast that situation to one that happened just a couple of months ago at a five-star hotel in Bangkok. A Thai friend had her Italian parents-in-law traveling to Bangkok on a medical insurance trip where her father-in-law needed to have an operation performed. Their insurance covered and even encouraged them to get the procedure done in Thailand, as it would be faster, of equal standard and much cheaper. The Italian insurance company paid for the accommodation and allowed them to choose the hotel that best suited them.
Arriving from a long flight from Italy at around midday, the Thai daughter-in-law tried to check them in while they waited in the lobby. When she as a Thai tried to check her frail parents-in-law in, the Thai staff at reception were very short with her and told her to come back after 2pm which is check-in time. Reception wouldn’t budge. Several minutes later my Thai friend contacted the insurance company in Italy and within five minutes after a call from the company to the hotel, they were checked into their rooms.
I have worked as a consultant for almost twenty years across Asia, going onto the ground in countries like China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, to find out what is actually happening in the field when things start to go wrong in multinational companies.
More often than not, the foreign management doesn’t speak the local language, so the only communication channels that they have with the locally engaged staff are through their secretary, personal assistants or some middle-management staff member. Otherwise expat-local communication is limited to awkward smiles and broken English that go back and forth between the foreign management and the locals. There is always a disparity between how much the local staff understand and how much the local staff actually understand when being spoken to by senior foreign management. The management may not realise how idiomatic the language they use really is.
Not having the language skills, foreign management are often shielded from the nuances of what is really happening on the ground in their companies and especially in hotels and hospitality settings. The show that the foreign management gets might well be just a ‘screen saver’ masking the reality of what is really going on.
In any situation in many Asian countries where locals are serving an international market, the term ‘foreigner’ can evoke different things for different people. Some locals will take pride in their international education and / or their language skills and use them any time that they can, setting themselves apart from their peers.
Some other locally engaged staff who don’t have the same level of language proficiency or cultural understanding might hold a degree of resentment towards those who try and use every opportunity to place themselves in the path of foreigners. This can cause a volatile situation where excessive treatment both positive and negative toward foreigners or locals could be the result depending on the internal culture of the workplace.
In many cases where this ‘Locals Looking Down on Locals’ syndrome is occurring, both the perpetrators and the management might well be oblivious to it.
I have helped companies overcome this by slowly, cautiously and with a dash of humour, addressing the topic in small group discussions and even through larger training sessions and role-plays. Having the staff bring the topic up in discussions themselves is one of the more powerful techniques that I have used to address the issue and get people talking about it and doing something to counter it.
It might mean bringing everyone’s language skills up to par, or it could mean going out of their way to make locals feel welcome no matter what rung on the social ladder they perceive those guests to come from.
For most Asian countries having quite strict and complex hierarchies in society, trying to change this is going against thousands of years of programming. It is possible though. To ensure that it’s sustainable in hotels and hospitality based businesses, it’s important to consciously create and maintain a corporate culture that rewards providing equally outstanding service to everyone..