03/03/2017 05:04 SAST | Updated 03/03/2017 06:22 SAST

Cultural Sensitivity Is Core To Business Success

New outbound travel markets are opening up and this is changing the face of travel throughout the world. A changing world means changing travel patterns.

Paballo Thekiso/ AFP/ Getty Images

A changing world means changing travel patterns, and the hospitality industry has to adapt – or face the risk of not connecting with the travellers of tomorrow. For the past 20 to 30 years, a growing middle class and improved airlift has resulted in a host of new outbound travel markets: including young people from countries that previously restricted their citizens from travel who now have the freedom of movement their parents could only dream of. In many cases today, they are taking full advantage of it, China is a prime example of this.

New outbound travel markets are opening up and this is changing the face of travel throughout the world. The traditional dominance of travellers from the United Kingdom, North America and Western Europe is now being challenged by significant increases in the number of international travellers from countries such as China, India and the Middle East.

The achievement of the travel industry in successfully catering to these new travellers hinges on a number of factors, of which cultural sensitivity is one key consideration. The corporate hospitality industry developed out of the United States and countries in Western Europe, and so the way we dealt with guests in the past was based on those countries' cultures and behaviours. But our approach has to be adapted to take into consideration the many new travellers we are now hosting from varied cultures around the world. Our need for an evolving approach is not just because of our desire to deliver relevant hospitality – it is necessary for the future success of our business.

In fact, the President and CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson, has said, "Our ability to attract the most diverse customers and reflect local cultures in our hotels will propel our future success and global growth." With a presence in 120 countries across the world, Marriott is clearly impacted by the diverse countries and cultures where it does business.

In line with this, the company established an Executive Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, chaired by our President and Chief Operating Officer. Staff training includes a learning curriculum focused on cultural awareness and competence. The company offers learning tools for language skills and cultural awareness. Staff can access information for well over 100 countries, with information covering the political, economic and historical background of a country along with societal and cultural norms and practices.

Where the Chinese market is concerned, for instance, there are very clear cultural practices that hotels have learned to understand and respect. The symbolism associated with particular numbers and colours is particularly important, and so a Marriott hotel employee will learn why it is important to allocate a Chinese guest a room on the 8th floor rather than on the 4th floor. The staff learns if the hotel places flowers in a guest's room, there should be some buds on the bunch of flowers, since this is symbolic in the Chinese culture of the ongoing journey of life.

The Chinese travel market is certainly going to be significant to the future of our South African travel and tourism sector. Visitor numbers for the country are increasing rapidly among many markets but the Chinese one shows the most dramatic growth. As such, we are encouraged by this initiative which should make our African brand, Protea Hotels by Marriott, particularly attractive to travellers from this country.

Fast and efficient service is important to the Chinese traveller, and it is with this in mind that some staff in South Africa have embarked on training to offer particular levels of service for Chinese guests such as learning the basics of spoken Mandarin, so that they can prepare correspondence in the guest's language and answer a guest's queries. They are also being immersed in Chinese cultural practices and the training includes role-plays geared to assist staff in the appropriate way of interacting with these travellers.

Being culturally aware makes all the difference to the experience of our guests, and it is especially important when they consider whether to make a return trip to our country in the future. By investing in our staff and their understanding of cultural awareness, we are in fact investing in the long-term growth of our industry.