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December 6, 2009

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Many roads lead to a hotel in Shanghai

THE energetic Christophe Lajus has been "on the road" for many years. The son of a French government employee, the family moved around the world and he became comfortable meeting people.

But the transient lifestyle also sowed a seed for a future career from which he has never deviated.

"Every time my parents had receptions or parties, I was always in the kitchen trying to help people prepare something, so I like this environment," he said last week.

The "environment" he talks about is the hospitality industry and Lajus, 50, has been moving with it almost all his working life.

"A key element I got from the family is that in order to perform well in anything, you need to know people, their cultures and the differences between them," said Lajus, the current area general manager for five Crowne Plaza Hotels in Shanghai.

And he has certainly seen a few cultures over the years, having worked in hotels in locations such as Casablanca, Geneva, Mustique, Jamaica, Cannes and Indonesia before arriving in China a little more than 10 years ago.

His work on Chinese mainland before finally landing in Shanghai in 2006 to open the Crowne Plaza Shanghai Fudan as general manager involved similar roles at hotels in Chengdu, Wuhan and Sanya.

"Shanghai was always where I wanted to be in China but before coming here I wanted to experience some other regions to understand the culture," he said.

He has since fallen in love with the modern Shanghai, a city a lot different to the one he experienced on his first trip in 1981 as a young French navy sailor doing conscription duty aboard the helicopter carrier "Jeanne D'Arc."

"I stayed four to five days in February and it was very cold," he recalled. "China had just started to open up a little bit but the churches were all still closed.

"I was with the navy officer Catholic priest and he wanted to go to a Shanghai cathedral but it was under renovation. We still managed to slip inside, though.

"We found the local priest but the two clergy couldn't communicate normally because one spoke Chinese and the other French. So they conversed with each other in Latin which to me was amazing at the time," he said.

Business hotel

Lajus' family hails from Libourne, near Bordeaux - his grandfather once had a vineyard close to St Emillion - but they have now moved to the French Riviera, near Cannes.

He lives on site in Fudan with his Jamaican wife, Liza Chang, whose family originally came from Guangdong Province and who has a career here in the spa industry.

His luxury five-star Crowne Plaza Shanghai Fudan is in the same area as the sprawling, prestigious Fudan University.

It is predominantly a business hotel servicing Yangpu District government needs, local and visiting entrepreneurs and foreign lecturers and has a strong Japanese tourism clientele.

"Yangpu is an up-and-coming district in Shanghai and they put a lot of emphasis on developing special industry sectors, like IT, culture and education," Lajus said.

With an average room rate of 600-700 yuan - "for this type of hotel you would pay two or three times the price in Paris or Sydney - the property is within 30-40 minutes drive of each major airport and 15 minutes from the Bund.

As well as his overseeing role for Crowne Plaza hotels, owned by the global InterContinental Hotels Group, Lajus is chairman of International Branded Hotels of Shanghai (IBHS), a group representing 70 of the best four- and five-star foreign hotels in Shanghai with over 28,000 rooms.

While IBHS's focus is to actively support World Expo 2010, Lajus is aware of the potential for looming fluctuating fortunes the industry could face and that might take two to three years to stabilize.

"Inventory is growing too fast because of the Expo and it will add pressure to the industry next year, even though attendances are expected to be high," he said.

"We expect 2010 to be good in occupancy for the four- and five-star hotels but still challenging in the room rates. The first part of 2011 will remain a challenge but recovery will be stronger in the second half and 2012 will be good." A man who tries to see the positive aspects of life, he believes the hospitality industry is better off as a result of the global economic crisis buffeting.

"It's good that everyone got the wake-up call and became better hoteliers than before. We 'woke up' to control costs better and give better levels of service and quality and learned how to still be successful," he said.

"Also, the second and third tier cities in China are booming like crazy because of the stimulus package which is helping the growth of the hotel industry."

Having just turned 50, he gets to the gym at 6:10am every morning and works out for an hour. "That's the secret," he said. "It will change your life by restoring energy and giving balance."

As for his three-year-old, 309-room, four-restaurant, multi-facility Fudan hotel, the hands-on veteran manager would like his customers to take away the following memories of a stay with them.

"The warm welcome of Chinese hospitality and the attention staff pay to their comfort. Also the amazing surprise of how beautiful it is and the value for money they get."


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