CEO of Argyle Hotel Group, Kevin Zhang: "17,960 Keys & Counting"

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Kevin Zhang knows a thing or two about hospitality. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Argyle Hotel Group, a leading hotel management group founded in 2002 with nearly 100 properties throughout China and Fiji with a total of 17,960 keys.

Argyle Hotel Group manages hotels under six distinct brands including Argyle Grand Hotel, Argyle Resort, Argyle Hotel, Ausotel, Argyle Boutique Hotel and Metro Hotels – these brands cover every segment of the market ranging from stylish business hotels to five star luxury hotels.

Kevin graduated from the University of New South Wales where he obtained a Masters of Commerce degree. Kevin also serves as a Board Director for the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Beijing.

 Tell us a little bit about the Argyle Hotel Group, and your journey to becoming their CEO.

The Argyle Hotel Group (AHG) exports the highest standard of hotel and resort management services from Australia. AHG was established in Australia in 2002 and launched its operations in China in 2005 – it has since grown to be one of Australia’s largest hotel management group and the largest Australian hotel management group in China, with 88 hotels in over 40 cities. As one of the co-founders of the Argyle Hotel Group, I am proud of the achievements of AHG today. It has definitely been a labour of love.

Do you like to infuse an Australian influence into your hotels? How do you go about achieving this?  

Our hotels provide hospitality services to over 1,800,000 customers a year. The hotels not only serve as a social function for the community but are also a window for locals to see and experience Australian culture and lifestyle.   

AHG hotels all showcase Australian videos, Australian art, and Australian cultural representations. The Tourism Australia video is played on loop throughout the hotel’s CCTV network. AHG hotel restaurants serve Australian wines, imported Australian beef and seafood.  Additionally, the AHG mascot, "Kora the Koala”, is often given out to guests during their stay. The geographical diversity of our hotels allow us to raise the profile of Australia and the Australian culture with many Chinese people that would otherwise not have the opportunity. 

Additionally, AHG member hotels also act as an outlet for Australian products. Starting 2016, "Bondi Shack", an Australian themed boutique store will be placed in all our member hotels. The store will sell Australian specialty products. This will allow our customers and the local people to take home and experience the Australian lifestyle. 

AHG works closely with Australian suppliers across a wide variety of industries and promote the use of Australian products to all our member hotels. Some of the Australian companies that we work with include Smidge Winery, Vanity Amenities, ANS Design, as well as hundreds of food, and wine producers and exporters. Since 2015, we have undertaken a project to build an online platform, Bondi Shack. We aim to be the largest online retailer of Australian products in China in the next three years. By doing so, AHG lifts the profile of many Australian products and companies to create a business ecosystem and bridges Australia and China relations. 

These are just some of the examples of the work we do as a proud ambassador for Australia in China. AHG hotels do not just serve as a hotel function, we are an Australian culture exchange centre. AHG has been instrumental in introducing Australia, the Australian culture, and Australian businesses into many cities in China. We are consistently strengthening the Sino-Australian ties of business relations and friendship. 

Do you have many Australians staying at your hotels?

Yes, up to 10,000 Australians stay in the Argyle properties all over China every year.

How did your Masters of Commerce degree at the University of NSW contribute to your successes in the hospitality industry?

The theories I learnt during my time at UNSW were very helpful in the business world. The principles of marketing applied to business on a daily basis in particular areas such as services marketing, consumer behaviour research, marketing communication and brand model building.

What do you think Australians do well in the hospitality industry?

Firstly, a comprehensive operation system that allows for work efficiency sees Australians excel in the hospitality industry. The hospitality industry has mature systems and standards in place to support the brand and operations. Secondly, Australian executives are very hands on which sets a great example for the team.

Lastly, the Australian hospitality culture is friendly and genuine.

What do you think is the key component for a good experience at a hotel?

Hotels in modern society have far exceeded the basic requirement of being a lodging facility. A good experience will bring comfort, convenience, but more importantly, it will infuse the local culture and community into the experience. Attention to detail will always give guests a pleasant experience!

What has been a career highlight for you? 

My career highlight is Argyle’s success in China. We started from scratch with one hotel in 2006 and that has grown to 88 hotels. Under the Argyle Group, we also have Argyle Academy, which provides hospitality training.

What are some of the challenges you have faced that didn’t expect in operating a hotel group in China? 

A big challenge has been the culture and social difference in terms of the respect for intellectual and intangible assets in China. Things move quickly in China and we have to be able to deliver flexible, tailor-made solutions for our clients. As an Australian company, we must have efficient risk management systems in place that’s easily adaptable to the environment.

Why do you think it’s important for Australian expatriates to maintain a global network while they’re overseas?

It is very important for expats to maintain a global network while overseas. We work in a traditional business of hospitality but it is an international business and caters to world travellers. As a result, we need to have global thinking in operations and strategy. Additionally, new concepts and technology are constantly evolving and we need to keep up to date and be sensitive to the changes. Therefore it is very important for international leaders to have a global vision when looking to business in China. It is important to expand your industry network. A lot of Argyle’s success has been a result of industry support as well as government support from Austrade and Australian Chamber of Commerce.

What’s the most inspiring thing about Australian expatriates that are making their mark in the hospitality industry overseas? 

The most inspiring thing about Australian expatriates in the hospitality industry is the influence in the local community. Through the work that they do, they’re adding value to the local community.

Argyle Hotels perform a social function in the local communities here, especially in 2nd and 3rd tier cities. It lifts the standard of service provided and can help shape people’s perception of hospitality. It gives opportunity for young adults in the area to receive formal training and start a career in hospitality.