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COVER STORY: The Astor Hotel, Experience the Glamour of 19th Century ChinaThe Astor Hotel Experience the Glamour of 19th Century China
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The Astor Hotel

Experience the Glamour of 19th Century China

An exclusive interview with Peter Nast,

General Manager of the Astor Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Tianjin

By Nelly de Navia

BT 201507 50 Cover story Astor Exterior Wing 02German hotelier Peter Nast first came to China in 1998 and now he has returned to this country, taking charge of the Astor Hotel, Tianjin, a flagship of Starwood's Luxury Collection brand in China. Mr. Nast has a vast range of experience in the hospitality industry having worked at a variety of high end hotels across three continents for almost three decades. He is now the proud new General Manager of the beautiful and glamorous Astor hotel. Full of charm and history, through the years the Astor has played home to a variety of well-known personalities, including, Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the last Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi. Even former American President, Herbert Hoover, walked through the Astor's corridors, stayed in its rooms and enjoyed dinner in its famous restaurant. In an exclusive interview with Business Tianjin, Mr. Nast spoke offered his views about the hospitality industry in China, discussed his working experience and elaborated on the rich history of the Astor Hotel, Tianjin.

You have a vast range of experience and expertise in the hospitality industry, working at hotels across three continents. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to work in the Middle East? How did it compare to working in your home country, Germany?
When we talk about the Middle East and Europe we are talking about completely different cultures. In the Middle East you have to compare between the eastern side, with the countries located next to the Red Sea and on the other side, you have the part of the Persian Gulf, with countries like Qatar, Bahrain, the Emirates, which are all very developed nations. I have worked in different parts of the Middle East. Talking about the Arab Peninsula, it is a very dynamic region and the hospitality industry is very much supported by the local ministries of Tourism. There are a lot of incentives and activities happening in that region. Places like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar host plenty of economic and sports events. Therefore, the tourism industry is very strong there. The Middle East is a very dynamic hub that attracts tourists from all over the world and caters to very high end customers.

BT 201507 47 Cover story 97A2527You first came to work in China in 1998 to help with the rebranding of the Sino-Swiss hotel in Beijing. How much do you think China has changed in the years that you left?
My first assignment was in Beijing. Those were the "golden days" for Beijing and Shanghai. Those were the main cities for tourists and businesses. But over the last six or seven years, China has developed a lot in terms of the economy and tourism, which I think is normal for a country of this size. Nowadays, the competition inside China is much stronger between cities and provinces and there are many more opportunities for both, the domestic and the international market.

You have only lived in Tianjin for a short period of time. But can you give us some of your first impressions? How different do you find living in Tianjin compared to Beijing?
The first time I came to Tianjin was also seventeen years ago, when I first came to China. I think both Tianjin and Beijing are very well developed cities. With the celebration of the Olympic Games in 2008, Tianjin also benefited from the overall development in the infrastructure industry. Do I have a favourite city? Well, each city is different and unique and I don't think it is fare to compare them with each other. But I think Tianjin has been developing and changing a lot and what makes Tianjin special is that it enhances and maintains the old European flare from the concession areas. This is what distinguishes Tianjin from many other cities in the country and is one of its main tourist attractions. That is why so many people are coming to visit this beautiful city.

How do you think the Chinese service industry is developing? Are there any areas you think need improvement?
China is a huge country and also one of the leading tourist destinations in the world. In recent years, the hospitality industry has become much more competitive. You need to rely much more on qualified staff as the market demands a certain level of service. The hotel industry is very service driven, especially the luxury sector. We believe in motivating our staff through education and training, which I think is very important in delivering an excellent standard of service. Nowadays, you have in China many properties, managed by international brands, but to distinguish yourself from the competition, definitely the better the staff is trained and the more educated, the better you can deliver service. That is what is going to set you apart from your competition.

You have worked for the Starwood hotel group before. How does the Astor Hotel compare to other hotels you've worked at in the past?
The Starwood group has ten different brands each one is different and can't really be compared. The Small Luxury Collection has hotels in China in places like Sanya, Nanjing, Suzhou, Dalian, Shanghai and Hangzhou but the Astor is the only heritage property in this collection. It is a landmark and it is very well known throughout China and across borders. The Astor Hotel motto is "Extraordinary Indigenous Experience" and I think this summarizes the experience our guests have at the Astor. I think this hotel is a great representation of this brand in China because it reflects the local indigenous experience. If you want to experience the modern history of China from the mid-19th century onwards, you should come to this city because Tianjin reflects how China developed and opened its doors to the world.

BT 201507 49 Cover story Astor Victorian LoungeWhat do you think makes staying at the Astor Hotel so special?
First of all, the Astor Hotel was opened in 1863. It is a landmark property with a long history. We have the oldest lift in the country, which dates to 1924. Many celebrities, politicians and other famous people used to stay or visit the hotel, including the last Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi, who used to dance with his concubines in the ballroom! I think the history is what makes it so special. When you walk into the hotel, you can immediately feel that the property has character and charm, plus it has a great location. We are also very proud of our established museum where you can see and experience the history of the hotel. We have a very well known bar called "O'Hara", named after the first Managing Director of the hotel. We have our famous restaurant "1863", where we cater and serve European cuisine. Of course, our beautiful lobby, which connects all the wings of the hotel, and last but not least, we have in the old part of the building, Victorian-style themed rooms. In the old days, most of them were occupied by famous celebrities.

For people who live in the city, what does the hotel have to offer? Do you think more people should consider a staycation at the Astor Hotel?
Absolutely! It is a very unique property, has an amazing location and great history. Our court imperial rooms as well as our traditional rooms, plus our museum and the overall facilities make this place the perfect place to stay, no matter if you are visiting Tianjin or if you are a resident here and want to have a staycation.

How many people does the Astor Hotel employ?
Right now we have more than 200 employees. Most of them are from Tianjin, but we also have people from almost every other part of the country.

BT 201507 48 Cover story 97A2556The Astor is one of China's oldest hotels and, like you mentioned before, some very famous people have stayed in this property. Could you tell us some other famous names that have visited the Astor Hotel over the years?

Of course! We have had plenty of politicians, like the Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Popular Republic of China, Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th U.S. president, who visited during a two-year world tour following his second term, and Herbert Hoover in 1899, who lived in Tianjin when he worked as an engineer for the oil company Bewick, Moreing & Co, just to mention a few.

How do you make sure that the highest standards are consistently maintained at your hotel?
We strongly believe in getting the right staff on board, that is recruiting talent. We are constantly developing our staff through dedicated training programmes. We have Luxury Collection standards.

What events or special offers can we look forward to from the Astor Hotel?
The Astor Hotel is a very unique property and we want to distinguish ourselves from other hotels in Tianjin and in the luxury market. So in order to blend the history of the Astor Hotel with Chinese culture, we have recently started a special high tea event called "Qipao". We do this in association with the Qipao association here. People that come to enjoy our special high tea can also see and get dressed up in the beautiful Qipao dresses. This has been a very successful event that we will have on a regular basis.

Any final comments four our readers?
Come to the Astor Hotel! Everybody is welcome at any time. It is a beautiful property. I think Tianjin is a city that has a lot to offer, especially in our area. The river and shopping malls are right on our doorstep. The Astor Hotel is definitely worth a visit!


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