It feels like there are very few sectors where China isn't a leader. The hospitality industry will also have to watch out in future, because NUO Hotels, the Middle Kingdom's first national five-star brand, wants to start competing with western luxury hotels outside its own country.
text: Anke Pedersen
When Michael Henssler is asked to speak about China and his experience of the hotel market there and developments in the country, he leans back with obvious pleasure – and starts talking about Europe. "Did you know," the COO of Kempinski Asia asks, "that the "Made in Germany" seal was originally introduced by the British? At the end of the 19th century? Because they wanted to warn against inferior goods from the German Empire?"
The hotelier doesn't actually expect a reply; his question is purely rhetorical. Henssler's real aim is to make the person he is talking to wake up and take notice. To point out that a tangible paradigm shift has taken place in the People's Republic, away from quantity and towards quality.
One result of this change is China's first domestic luxury hotel brand, NUO. NUO is the child of management company Key International, a joint venture between Beijing Tourism Group and Kempinski, on whose expertise it is built. The Managing Director of Key is – Michael Henssler. He and his team spent five years developing the new brand and, with representatives of well-known universities, researching what makes the Chinese spirit tick. The result is a five-star product that pays tribute to the country's 5,000-year history and cultural heritage.
The timing could hardly have been more perfect. With the adoption of its twelfth five-year plan (2011–2015) in 2011, the National People's Congress in Beijing set the course for a historic reorganisation of its economy. Instead of exports, as in the three previous decades, domestic consumption was to drive the Middle Kingdom's growth in future. From that point onwards, the focus was therefore on developing quality "made in China" products and brands – at China's usual pace. It was thus perfectly in keeping with the country's new-found confidence that, at its opening in summer 2015 – shortly before the twelfth five-year plan ended – the NUO Hotel Beijing not only presented itself as "proudly made in China", but boldly stated that it was doing "pioneering work for the future of the Chinese luxury hotel industry".
In particular, Henssler's Key partners from Beijing Tourism Group – the biggest tourism company on the Chinese mainland – have an extraordinary appreciation for the luxury product in east Beijing, which is inspired by the Ming dynasty. Again and again, they are reported to have brought business partners and proudly told them: "Let me show you what China is like!"
Above all, this pride encompasses the NUO's story, which has been carefully considered down to the smallest detail and reflects both the former and the current glory of this millennia-old nation, as well as its forward-looking self-assurance as a leading player in the 21st century. It begins with the five gigantic moon gates – a traditional element in Chinese landscape design – leading to the conference area, which is constantly booked up, and extends to the wide variety of contemporary paintings, graphics and calligraphy throughout the hotel. "We're a Chinese product for the Chinese market," Michael Henssler explains his narrative, "and an international product for those who wish to experience China."
The name NUO stands for nothing less than "the golden promise", symbolised by a Chinese vase, the sign of hospitality, prosperity and commitment to a bright future. Visitors to the NUO Beijing will see how seriously the hotel's creators mean this when they enter the light-filled lobby, which is the size of an exhibition hall, and are ceremoniously greeted by no fewer than ten two-metre vases. These blue-and-white artworks of Chinese porcelain appear even more impressive mounted on marble plinths and flanked by masterpieces, such as the three-tonne stone sculpture "Le Shan", a homage to an intellectual from the golden era of the Ming dynasty.
The colours in the 438-room hotel are also a nod to the Ming dynasty. While luck and prosperity are commonly associated with red in modern China, blue and grey tones predominate at the NUO Beijing. Blue is "more sophisticated" in any case, James Koo explains with a solemn face. As Marketing Director at the NUO Beijing, he is only too familiar with the demands of his mainly Chinese clientele. It was therefore clear from the beginning that the brand would have to meet the highest international standards not only in terms of service, but also with regard to facilities and technology.
Accordingly, "luxurious" is one of the four pillars on which the brand is based, along with "Chinese", "contemporary" and "green". The furniture, which is made of warm wood and leather, is as distinguished as the patterned silk walls and the wood and structured marble floors; the air purification systems are of the same high quality as the sound-proofing, and the all-marble baths with rain showers are as exquisite as the free-standing bathtubs. It goes without saying that there's also free broadband and internet access, as well as high-resolution flat-screen televisions, Bluetooth-enabled Bose stereo loudspeakers and Nespresso machines.
Beyond that, however, it's the many carefully thought-out details that make the NUO truly special. All the rooms are naturally fitted with floor-length windows, to let the daylight in. "Natural light gives people energy," says James, explaining the principles underlying the feng shui theory of harmony. That means it's not only the corridors that are extremely generously proportioned and spacious, but also the standard rooms, including walk-in wardrobes.
One of many other details is the NUO's reverence for China's national drink, tea. In keeping with the brand pillar "green", the Key Group manages its own tea plantation. China's first luxury skincare brand, Ba Yan Ka La, produces exclusive tea-based bed and bath accessories for the NUO from the tea varieties cultivated there; in addition, tea culture is celebrated in the rooms of the "Yuan" teahouse and the adjoining garden – by a certified tea master, naturally.
As of now, NUO guests can also enjoy their tea in the Heavenly Peace Square at the group's second hotel. Key Managing Director Henssler took over the former Raffles with 164 rooms in 2017. Having been gradually brought into line with the four NUO pillars, it is now officially open for bookings. So what happens next? "With NUO, we've created a growth platform for our joint venture," Henssler says, explaining the strategic goal. That means that further hotels are already planned in major cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou; in the long term, NUO will then be rolled out internationally. Before that, however, the hotel manager and his team want to use their domestic market to demonstrate to the world that from now on, "made in China" is just as much a mark of quality as "made in Germany".