It’s tough enough running a five-star hotel, it’s even tougher when it’s in Shanghai, a city set to become even more cut-throat as an avalanche of premium properties open their doors in the next couple of years.
But to keep your five-star hotel running at full occupancy and in addition take on an eight-day, offsite hospitality operation that turns over as many meals as your hotel does in a whole month, would have most hoteliers leaping off the Bund into the Huangpu river.
Yet Hilton Shanghai’s general manager Volkmar Ruebel relishes just such a challenge.
His hotel has taken on the outside catering for the Tennis Masters Cup (TMC) at the Qi Zhong Stadium for the past several years and made the tournament its own.
As the official championship hotel, the Hilton Shanghai accommodates the players, their families and entourages as well as dozens of match officials, ATP administrators and fans, some of whom travel across continents to attend.
Tennis is beginning to take off in China too, as the crowd of young fans standing outside the hotel entrance, seeking a photo opportunity, autograph or just a glance from one of the stars, testifies.
Corporate hospitality as a marketing tool is catching on fast in China.
More Chinese companies are seeing the benefit of wooing clients, thanking customers or simply guanxi networking among those with power and influence.
Sponsoring a prestige event like the TMC allows their firm’s brand to be seen up with the already-famous global marques, such as Mercedes-Benz, Lacoste, Longines and Sony Ericsson, among others.
Charles Humphrey Smith, managing director of the international division of TMC organiser New Sports and Entertainment, says: “Corporate hospitality simply didn’t exist in China 10 years ago. Now the TMC is one of the biggest corporate hospitality events in Asia.”
When tournament winner Roger Federer picked up his prize cheque for a cool US$1.2 million, a brand new Mercedes CLS 500 was driven on to the court as an added sweetener, the photographs gave the car giant worldwide media coverage.
For sponsors, the TMC provided an ideal chance to impress future clients and reward existing ones. Options were many but the combination of providing quality food and drink alongside the chance to see today’s tennis greats gave many firms an unmissable opportunity.
“When the first tennis championship, before the TMC, was held in Shanghai in the late 1990s, we pitched for the contract. But, when I told my executive chef what I planned, he almost walked out on me. I calmed him down and said ‘We can do this if we plan properly’,” Ruebel says.
“Now, the TMC is a sporting institution in Shanghai. We simply can’t afford to fail, if we do we fail not only the Hilton but the whole city. It’s an eight-day operation, very gruelling. We have field kitchens serving five-star food. This is a very demanding and tiring event, we have to keep up spirits and energy levels.”
The operation has to be handled with military precision. Some of the ingredients for the dishes can be prepared in the kitchens at the Hilton and then carried by a fleet of trucks to the stadium which, depending on traffic, is around 45 minutes to one hour away. However, the only solution to providing fresh quality food is to cook onsite and so the Hilton team established a satellite system.
Surrounding the VIP Hospitality Village are the kitchens themselves. Huge woks handle the Chinese stir-fries, other units concentrate on fruits, others on vegetables, meats, drinks and so on. A bank of refrigerators keep certain foods chilled, while cleanliness and hygiene standards have to match the highest level.
Aside from cooking itself, the process demands a keen eye for co-ordination. Although there was a steady stream of guests at all times of the day, lunch and dinner rushes coincided with the changeover from the singles matches to the less popular doubles games.
The whole process was co-ordinated by Hilton staff. Some casual and part-time staff were hired specially for the event but the core of the system is based on Hilton expertise and standards.
However, one area where the players are understandably choosy is their food. High-energy food and drink keeps players like Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick at the peak of their performance. Today’s professional sportsmen are obsessed by their calorie intake, controlling their fluids and avoiding food allergies or anything that might affect their fitness for the gruelling week-long event.
Barclay Doring, the Hilton Shanghai’s food and beverage project co-ordinator, says: “The players love pasta because of its nutritional value. So we not only make it fresh to order in the players’ hospitality room, we also have the chef on hand at a live station. It makes it so much more interesting.”
The Hilton Skybox had a bar fully stocked with wines, beers, soft drinks and gallons of champagne. Hilton service staff were on hand to top up glasses and respond immediately to guest requests. Inside the Skybox lounge area was a fridge, bar, small seating area, some high tables and stools. The snacks were delicious, especially the sausages. Outside on the open area of the Skybox, two rows of seating provided a marvellous view of the games.
Stefan Schmid, director of operations, says: “We call on our sister Hilton properties across China to assist. Staff members are loaned to us during the event. They bring their knowledge of Hilton methods and help us maintain the quality of the operation. It also means we can keep at least some of our other key personnel at the hotel, running it as if nothing else was going on.”
On top of the VIP Village and the Skyboxes, Hilton Shanghai also ran a smaller catering operation in the main public eating area, serving hot dogs and beer.
In 2009, Shanghai will become a permanent location in the World Masters Series, which will change its name to ATP 1000. There will be about five times as many players and matches.”
While some outside catering contracts may come and go, the Hilton has stamped its mark on this event. As a result, like any other sponsor it has benefited from the enormous international publicity but the effort and style with which it was accomplished should be seen as a benchmark for others. The Hilton team are already limbering up for 2009.