Neil Labatte is one of North America’s leading hotel experts. With a master’s degree in finance from the University of Utah, he spearheaded the purchase of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts by CP Hotels. In 2008, he launched his hotel, travel, and investment advisor, Global Dimension. Widely travelled, as you might expect from a hotel executive, Labatte began travelling to China extensively in 2008. There, he met Justina Chen, who owned her own travel company in Beijing. Soon, they became partners to launch MYWAY Concierge, an in-hotel service that provides sightseeing and other arrangements to North American travellers in Beijing and Shanghai. Advantage recently spoke with Labatte and Chen about their company.
Advantage: What led you to found MYWAY Concierge?
Neil Labatte: I’ve done a lot of travel in Asia over the years, but until 2008 I didn’t really travel to China too much. After that, I began to focus on China and began travelling there once every month or so, looking for business opportunities. While there, I met Justina, who was running her own tour business. With the downturn in economic activity, I didn’t get back to China until 2010. I reconnected with Justina, and we put together a plan looking at inbound business travellers to China. We combined my relationships with major hotels with Justina’s experience arranging tours in China, to manage tour desks and tours for travellers in China.
Justina, what were you doing prior to MYWAY?
Justina Chen: After I graduated from Beijing University, where I studied tourism management, I started MyWay Beijing to provide a high level of services for business travellers. Beijing has become a very popular tourist destination. Though China is opening more and more to international travellers, many have trouble organizing their own visas and travel plans. Mostly because so few people in Beijing speak English. I met Neil in 2008. We had the idea to provide services for businessmen who come to Beijing and Shanghai for meetings and need someone familiar with those cities to arrange the accommodations for their meetings, and also entertainment and sightseeing for when they are done with business.
What led you to focus on China?
NL: It’s a huge country with a long history, and it’s seeing massive growth in travel and hotel activity, as well as real-estate investment in hotel properties. Of course, that attracted my interest. I knew that there is a large amount of business that is done between China and Canada, and there is a large Chinese community in Canada.
How did you attract partners?
NL: Having been a senior executive in the hotel business, I know the CEOs of most of the large hotel and resort companies. That opens a lot of doors. Justina had an existing relationship with Expedia, so we leveraged that.
What does MYWAY provide for business travellers in China?
JC: Most hotel concierges in Beijing and Shanghai do not speak English, and they cannot understand the needs of their North American customers. We train our own people who know the cities very well, who know the best destinations in the cities, and who speak excellent English to work for us. We offer package tours and help set up meetings.
How does MYWAY benefit its hotel partners?
JC: In a hotel, guests care about the quality of service. Finding someone who speaks their language and can help them find the things they want to see and do in the city leads to satisfied guests. We also make the concierge desk a profitable part of the hotel’s operation. For example, a hotel might normally have 20 people working at its concierge desk, but if they hire MYWAY Concierge, they don’t need as many people because we handle most of the work. Also, we share our profit with the hotel.
How does your company differentiate itself from competitors?
NL: Right now, we are in Shanghai and Beijing, but we do offer customized tours throughout China in 20 cities at this point. We have very sophisticated service offerings, in terms of the type of tours we arrange for travellers. We don’t typically replace the concierge, but we work alongside of the concierge. We actually put at our cost in the hotel salespeople who are trained to sell experiences within each of the markets.
How do business travellers become aware of MYWAY?
NL: We have three areas where we gather customers: Expedia, our website, and our hotel partners. Expedia and our website primarily attract leisure travellers. The hotel customers are about half businesspeople who wish to tack on some sightseeing, and half people who are coming for tourism but don’t have specific plans.
How do you manage a small business based on both sides of the Pacific?
NL: Justina speaks fluent English, which helps, because my Chinese is challenged. It’s a 12- or 13-hour difference, so we typically talk at least once a day, usually in the morning. I travel to China at least once a month or so, and Justina visits Canada every few months. We rely on technology quite a bit. We use e-mail and have a system that distributes e-mail to our people in China and North America. Our phone system sends calls to either our offices in Canada or our call centre in China, depending on the caller.
Looking forward, what do you see for MYWAY?
NL: Right now, 80 percent of our customers are coming to China from North America, the majority from the US. Providing services to Chinese visitors travelling to North America is the next step. We are a registered service provider in Canada, so we are well positioned to do that. The Chinese outbound market is growing quite rapidly, so we hope to focus on that this year.