Le Midi Hotel in Chitou, Nantou County, is courting foreign travelers after formerly depending mostly on domestic tourists. General manager Hong Wen-neng, appointed in February, is driving the strategy turnabout, guided by his experience as a former tourism official. Hong detailed his plans during interviews with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Crystal Hsu on Wednesday and Thursday at the hotel
Taipei Times (TT): What do you think needs to be done to improve Le Midi Hotel’s operations?
Hong Wen-neng (洪文能): After three decades as a tourism official, I tend to look at things from a broad perspective. I have reform plans not only for Le Midi, but for Chitou, Nantou County and central Taiwan as a whole.
The hotel’s occupancy rate leaves much to be desired, as it averaged lower than 50 percent last year. I aim to raise it to 70 percent or even 80 percent. The goal is not unattainable, but might need some time to realize. I do not have a timetable yet.
The five-star hotel Fleur de Chine near Sun Moon Lake (日月潭), which is 30 to 40 minutes drive away, has an average occupancy of more than 80 percent and daily room rates of more than NT$8,000.
Styled after a 14th-century French palace, Le Midi is also competitive and gifted with rich tourism resources. It is within walking distance of the Chitou Forest Recreational Area (溪頭森林遊樂區), allowing guests quick access to baths full of phytoncides — organic antimicrobial compounds with health benefits.
In the past, La Midi relied almost entirely on domestic travelers to fill its 243 rooms. This strategy appears in need of revision. I am seeking to expand its clientele to foreign travelers, especially from Japan where I have close connections with tourism officials and the travel industry due to my time in Tokyo from 1996 to 2002. I intend to raise the proportion of foreign guests to 30 percent from the current single-digit percentage.
TT: How do you plan to expand the customer base?
Hong: Much needs to be done, not by Le Midi alone, but through a concerted effort that involves travel industry players.
First, I have to raise the hotel’s visibility and strengthen its marketing ability. The hotel has joined forces with Japan’s largest travel agency to boost booking rates and is to take part in an international travel fair in Hong Kong next month.
Taiwan ranked the most favored travel destination among Japanese last year, but 85 percent of them visited Taipei and skipped central Taiwan.
In my view, Taichung, Changhua and Nantou should work together to promote their attractions as well as travel ease and convenience.
We are also forging alliances with online and domestic travel agencies. The hotel is providing free Japanese-language lessons for employees three times per week in the hopes that they can better serve Japanese customers.
The hotel’s owners Lee Li-yu (李麗裕) and his younger brother Lee Li-sheng (李麗生) of the Rong Hsin Group (榮鑫集團) have no intention of modernizing its facilities or adding staff amid a weak market. Therefore, I have to focus on enhancing the service quality and consulting customers on where the hotel could improve.
TT: Has Le Midi ever entertained the possibility of cooperating with international hotel brands?
Hong: The strategy is not an option for the owners, because it entails heavy costs and has no guarantee of profitability. Years ago, I helped facilitate Gloria Prince Hotel Taipei’s alliance with Japan’s Seibu Group, making it a profitable property with occupancy rates of more than 80 percent. However, membership with Prince Hotels has turned out to be a struggle for Nice Prince Hotel in Chiayi.
The Lee brothers acquired Le Midi as a bad asset with a view to cash out on resale, but they changed their minds after seeing its beauty and business potential.
TT: Is Le Midi taking a hit from the sharp decline in the number of Chinese tourists?
Hong: Indirectly. Chinese tourists rarely stay at Le Midi since its daily room rates of NT$5,000 are beyond their travel budgets and they prefer to visit Sun Moon Lake.
However, hotels that used to accommodate Chinese tourists are now turning their attention to domestic travelers and engaging in a price war to win customers.
At 1,000m above sea level, Le Midi has to compete against a proliferation of new rivals in Taichung and Changhua. Tourists increasingly like to stay in new hotels near high-speed railway stations where they can travel to Chitou or Sun Moon Lake in one hour by tour bus.
Against this backdrop, I have to help create purpose by combining stays at Le Midi with trips to nearby tea gardens, handicraft workshops and other attractions. This is why the hotel uses local produce in its restaurants and invites local artists to display works, among other activities.
TT: What are Le Midi’s competitive advantages and challenges?
Hong: It is ideal for retirement travel and corporate incentive tours, as well as ecotourism due to its proximity to the popular forest park.
The hotel could also serve as a long-stay venue. A considerable number of Japanese seniors indicate interest in long stays in Nantou County, attracted by the slow pace of life, fresh air and friendly people.
On the other hand, many guests have complained about its old facilities and relatively inconvenient access to transportation. Hopefully, the owners listen and change their opinion about renovations. Most hotels renovate every eight years.