Timothy Tong has a piece of advice for struggling hoteliers – if you want to boost your profit margins, target Russian tourists.
It may seem like an unusual message from the president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). But the institution is one of a handful of higher education institutions across the world that also runs its own luxury hotel.
The five-star Hotel ICON, which opened in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district in 2011 and boasts views of Victoria Harbour, is partly inspired by Cornell University’s Statler Hotel: both are “teaching” hotels in which students are trained and work alongside professionals, in a similar way to medical students at a university hospital.
But while most other hotels on university campuses are run by established brands, Hotel ICON is owned and run by the university itself, Professor Tong told Times Higher Education.
The advantage is that academics can run behavioural studies and experiments to determine how its services are being used and then adjust the business accordingly – something that Professor Tong said a hotel company would not allow.
“For example, a few years ago the Russian economy was very strong so we were attracting a lot of Russian tourists to our hotel. That actually required us to understand their behaviour because we had never entertained Russian tourists before,” he said.
“What we found out was very interesting. On a per capita basis they were the highest spenders. They used the spa, and they used the bar as well.”
PolyU is taking a similar data-led approach on its main campus to ensure that it is best serving the needs of its students.
Professor Tong said that the university is collecting data to establish the peak times of year at which students require certain equipment.
“That would allow us to prepare our laboratories better to serve their needs,” he said.
While Professor Tong admitted that Asian universities do not face the same challenges around the decline in the perceived value of higher education as many of their Western counterparts, he said that the general public “expect more and more from universities”.
And the fact that Asians still have faith in the worth of higher education and experts does not mean that the region’s institutions “should not strive to do a better job in making sure that the general public benefits from what we do”, he added.
PolyU is looking into building a new development next to its main campus and one of the key considerations is how a pathway for local residents to walk through the campus to the other side of the city could be provided, said Professor Tong. The lack of designated walkways means that even citizens living close by currently have to drive, he explained.
“Our campus is an open and small campus right in the middle of the city. That’s why we can’t just think of ourselves as an isolated island – we are part of the community,” he said.
Like many Asian university leaders, Professor Tong studied in the US, receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Oregon State University in 1976 followed by a master’s and PhD in the same discipline from the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to his homeland of Hong Kong in 2009, after stints at several US institutions, most recently as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University.
But Professor Tong said that he expects the trend of Asians studying and working in the West to “reverse” in the next “10 to 15 years”, with “Westerners studying at Asian universities and returning home to serve their motherland”.
He added that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to promote connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, will increase globalisation and mean that the number of students from countries along the Old Silk Road route studying at universities in Hong Kong and China will increase.
Brexit also “provides new opportunities for universities in the UK and Asia to collaborate”, he said, whether that involves joint research projects or providing joint education to students.
“We are very much looking forward to exploring those opportunities,” he said.