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THE CHINA SYNDROME
By Joe Brancatelli
September 4, 2014 -- I have this theory: I was born Chinese and then kidnapped as an infant by a roving band of Italian mothers.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it because I can't figure out any other reason why a knockaround Italian-American kid from Brooklyn has such an affinity for all things Chinese.
It's also my way of getting into this column for all of us who have to travel to what is now colloquially referred to as Greater China.
CHENGDU'S 15 MINUTES
Considering that the United States and mainland China are the world's largest economies and that Chinese business travelers will soon spend more than us on the road, it's distressing that there's so little nonstop U.S.-China service. The Chinese carriers serve Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and China Southern may add a San Francisco-Wuhan route before the end of the year. But U.S. airlines have limited themselves (or have been limited) to Beijing and Shanghai.
At least that was true until United Airlines in June launched Boeing 787 nonstops from San Francisco to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and a key hub for Western China. And this is clearly Chengdu's 15 minutes as a raft of luxury hoteliers rush into the market.
St. Regis opened its 279-room Chengdu branch this week, just a few days after Ritz-Carlton opened its 353-room Chengdu outpost. Hong Kong's Shangri-La group and the German-Thai Kempinski chain also have luxury hotels in Chengdu and there are more mainstream brands from InterContinental, Starwood and Marriott represented, too.
But the Chengdu property that I'm waiting for is Temple House, the third in a series of House properties from the lodging arm of Swire, the Hong Kong conglomerate that also owns Cathay Pacific Airways. The Upper House in Hong Kong quickly rocketed to the top of the city's very crowded luxury lodging ranks and Opposite House in Beijing has delighted upmarket travelers since its 2008 debut.
Yet even Brian Williams, managing director Swire Hotels, seems awed by what is going on at Temple House, a 100-room luxury hotel being built around an historic Chengdu temple. "To say it's like nothing we've done before misses the point," he told me over breakfast recently. "No one's done the amenities and service features we are going to do in Chengdu."
We'll know soon enough what Williams is promoting. Temple House is due to open its doors by the end of the year.
GO EAST, HONG KONG GUEST
When I was in Hong Kong recently, I spent some lovely days in Kowloon at the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui. I was also in Central at the Conrad, which sits atop Swire's uber-swanky Pacific Place mall along with the JW Marriott, Island Shangri-La and the Upper House. But then I took the Island Line metro to Taikoo Shing specifically to spend some time at East, another lodging concept from Swire.
Williams promotes the 345-room East as "a business hotel with a life." I don't understand what that means, but I'm not worrying about it, either, because East is one terrific hotel for business travelers. It's almost totally paperless, a relief especially during check-in and checkout, where Hong Kong hotels delight in burying you in paper. Most everything in the East guestrooms is controlled by an iPod. There's a trendy rooftop bar, a round-the-clock fitness center and pool and a nice restaurant. There's also a grab-and-go food counter.
Everything works well at East, especially the connectivity. In-room Internet is strong and fast. There's a bag on the desk that contains a plethora of plug converters and connecting cables. An entrance to the Island Line's Tai Koo station is at the hotel's front door and that means you can connect at the Central/Hong Kong Station complex for fast trains to Hong Kong International Airport. Want some local action? East is connected to Cityplaza, a Swire mall that has all sorts of shopping, an ice-skating rink and everything from a Starbucks to a dim sum joint.
To my mind, the most interesting rooms in East are actually the basic ones. Because there are floor-to-ceiling windows and an open space layout, the accommodations feel gigantic even though they are only around 320 square feet. And rooms with Harbour views look out at Kai Tak, Hong Kong's former airport, which is now the city's cruise port. Prices are gentle by Hong Kong standards and start at about US$210 a night. And if you can't make it to Hong Kong, an East is coming to Miami next year as part of Brickell City Centre, still another Swire project.
If we don't have enough nonstop service to Chinese cities, at least we're getting more nonstop gateways to the Chinese destinations that are already on the route map. Case in point: Boston's Logan Airport.
Hainan Airlines launched New England's first China nonstops in June when it linked Logan with Beijing. The well-regarded Hainan is flying Boeing Dreamliners configured with flatbed seats in business class and (regrettably) 9-across seating in coach. Cathay Pacific announced two weeks ago that it will launch Boston-Hong Kong nonstops in May.
What struck me about the Cathay move is the decision to operate the four weekly Boston flights with a first-class cabin. Outfitting the Boeing 777-300ER with coach and Cathay's top-notch premium-economy and business classes makes sense, of course. But when Cathay launched its Newark-Hong Kong nonstops earlier this year, it omitted first class. I expected a similar call on Boston.
"We think there's enough first-class demand," says Tom Owen, Cathay's senior vice president for the Americas. "The tech and university markets should be good and we'll be drawing from all of New England for the flights." Besides, Owen says, he expects there will be enough first-class seats from Boston for some upgrade and frequent flyer award travel, too.
The other intriguing point about Cathay's Boston service is that it doesn't connect to a Oneworld Alliance hub and that means no feed from American Airlines or US Airways. And when you consider that US Air's Philadelphia and Charlotte hubs don't have Hong Kong nonstops, Boston flights are even more notable.
"Boston jumped out because it was the largest market that we didn't cover," Owen explains. "I know that we'll have to build our own feed and not rely on Oneworld, but I think the traffic to Hong Kong and beyond will justify our decision."
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
For all of the good news emanating from Greater China, it is impossible to ignore the big, black cloud now hanging over Hong Kong and, by extension, the mainland.
The tin-eared Communist overloads in Beijing have decided that honest, open and fair elections won't be allowed in Hong Kong and that is sure to provoke a response from the Occupy Central movement. The often uneasy peace between free-wheeling Hong Kong and party apparatchiks in Beijing since the city reverted to Chinese suzerainty in 1997 may be permanently broken now. And Hong Kong's financial engine relies on social peace and stability.
I have no idea of what's going to happen in the weeks and months ahead. But odds are it won't be pretty. Both sides are convinced of their rectitude and that's always bad for business. And since the business of Hong Kong is business, well, this could get very ugly very fast.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
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