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9 Months as a Hilton Hotel Resident

From Conde Nast Traveler's "People who live in hotels"

Full Interview and questions by, Mark Ellwood; freelance travel journalist, TV producer and host

https://www.cntraveler.com/contributors/mark-ellwood

As excerpted for the story in Conde Nast Traveler

https://www.cntraveler.com/story/people-who-live-in-hotels

- Tell me the story of why you lived at a hotel. What were you doing in China, exactly?

The hotel accommodations were included as room and board in my job package. I was in China working in an international management program as a Management Assistant in both food & beverage operations and marketing communications departments at the Doubletree by Hilton, at their first flagship hotel in Asia. This was also my first job abroad.

- Had you ever lived in a hotel before? Never - but spent several years working at a resort between high school and college.

How did you select that hotel for your long stay? I was offered several hotel traineeship programs in China (by AIESEC.org) so I applied and Doubletree selected me.

- Tell me about the room: how did you make it feel like home? Quality you would expect from a Hilton. Plush pillows and an amazingly soft bed. Trendy window couch. A closet, minifridge, drawers, a glass shelf...it was a bit small for a living situation but the glass wall at the bathtub made watching news/movies a nice way to relax at night. And the wifi was usually stable enough to make calls back home. At my desk, I kept a few souvenirs from guests as decorations, and a mini makeshift bookshelf and a framed family picture.

Did you customize it at all? Couldn't really do much customizing. Kept the room arrangement as it was.

What was the toughest part of making a hotel room your home? The bed took up most of the room. I like to grill, so not having a stove (or kitchen) took some getting used to. I'd have to go down to the restaurant to warm up foods. I made the most of my mini fridge.

What would you change about the design if you could? An all-around larger space between the bed and window. Better lighting.

- Tell me about all those stories:

Riverdance: the entire Riverdance production stayed there for about a week. I'd converse with their crew, from producers to musicians, and hear their recounts of touring the world as Riverdance. I recall the bagpipe player was the most refreshingly authentic bandmate of all. He was carefree and merry as you may envision a jolly, rugged Celtic bagpipe player.

Princess Cruises: the first time these group arrived, it had been many months since I'd seen more than a few 'fellow' Americans in one place. So in a way, it was my first brush with reverse culture shock. Introspectively like being on the outside looking in at being an American abroad. Talking to them was also somewhat curative to my slight case of homesickness.

Iranian tour groups: They were most interesting; some even mistook me for Iranian (I'm actually of Sicilian descent). It was the first time I ever knew let alone befriended anyone from Iran. They'd invite me to sit and talk with them at breakfast. Truly perspective changing indeed. One Iranian professor who taught English schooled me on a number of things. At that time, Obama was his hero. This was early 2010.

The "Everyone is Doing It" guy from the banned Modern Warfare video game commercial: I sat and had coffee with him. I wasn't' aware of his commercial until after we met. He just achieved newfound fame as an elder actor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vmvi-jeU4z0

A British High School Trip: In Spring 2010, a group of about 100 high school students and faculty were visiting China on a field trip when Iceland's volcanic eruption spewed clouds of ash and disrupted all of Europe's airways. The school group was lost, stranded and desperate to get out of the "tolerable" cheap business hotel they were supposed to stay in for just one night before the flight. The school's administrators learned our hotel was down the street and immediately walked straight to our lobby. I saw them come in and recognized their desperateness, and later the ensuing severity of the situation right away. Ultimately Doubletree became a hero in accommodating the entire school group for a week - they just happened to have enough rooms. Our staff's treatment of this group gave the hotel good media exposure in the UK too. And their reviews nudged up 30 ranks on TripAdvisor.

Other memorable guests: Frequent African politicians from Zambia, Namibia and more, there on business; Caterpillar construction executives and engineers building Beijing's new subways; Filipino Jollibee franchise owners association (the Phillippines' #1 fast food franchise), and a fun Italian physician delegation.

- How did you benefit from living in a hotel: what were the unexpected bonuses?

When I got the job offer, a near-year stay abroad felt daunting at times.

This was my first time ever overseas and I admit to being a bit naive on some things. It helped the offer was from a recognizable, international brand like Hilton. I do credit living in the hotel's greatest bonus was providing a smooth transition into expatriate life, which I'm now into my eighth year.

Doubletree does give out free cookies at the reception.

I had daily access to the gym, steam room, and sauna. Unlimited dry-cleaning.

I met guests from countless countries. It was like the entire world had opened up after living my whole life in one area in the US.

My Spanish resurfaced and improved because of travel groups from Spain needed help and couldn't speak English or Chinese.

Not to mention, all the hotel's main staff were Chinese, so frequent chats and language exchanges helped me improve my Mandarin from zero to basic rather quickly. I had no prior study of Chinese beforehand.

Accommodations: Very easy to get accustomed to;

Daily room cleaning when needed. And no monthly utility bills. A direct phone line to the front desk if I wanted more water. I still preferred to use my own shampoo. Fresh towels and robe. Never had to clean, but kept the room tidy.

Food: I lead a fit lifestyle and eat more than the average person. I'd been used to making many of my own meals. I never made one for nine months.

In the first few weeks, I ate lunch in the staff canteen. This was my first time ever eating real Chinese food, nothing like what the Chinese restaurants serve back home. I recall the moment all the sudden I could use chopsticks after a week of failed attempts.

But I had a decent daily allowance in the hotel's international restaurant. After a while, I got used to choosing the restaurant over the canteen, and then the buffet over the menu. After all, the hotel meal allowance was one of the major job perks, and the buffet was (for my appetite) a better value and budgeting that allowance.

Transportation: Taxis were mostly efficient but sometimes aggravating. The bellman and concierge arranged them and made sure I got to and from the hotel without trouble. I'd also carry the hotel taxi card with its address. Most taxi drivers knew where it was. If they didn't I'd call the hotel and the concierge would translate. But that didn't always solve things.

Prior to China I wasn't used to taxis at all, admittedly. Once the weather warmed up in the Spring I bought my first electric scooter and also started using the subway more. If you're living in a foreign country it's best to not get too reliant on the hotel's concierge and learn some basic directional phrases and words.

And the unexpected downsides?

Losing track of time, not leaving for days on end.

And not making the most out of the city or place you're in, or the experience overall.

With digital nomadism (aka remote workers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs) folks can travel and work wherever they choose.

Some opt for hotels when overseas. Staying day and night in the hotel to work and eat or enjoy whatever amenities

I can still relate as my career is in the travel industry. Sometimes I stay in one hotel for about a week on business. On none meeting days, I try to stay cognizant of how long I work in my room. Setting up in the hotel restaurant/lounge or a nearby cafe can be conducive if Wifi and noise are bearable.

I think feelings of isolation can creep in if not managed. Maintaining mobility and healthiness are important both mentally and physically, so utilize the hotel gym and pool and make a routine.

- How bored did you get of room service? I tried to order sparingly. The first few weeks it felt novel. Eventually, I stopped ordering altogether and kept a protein shake or snacks in the room.

Or did you create a routine? During, I'd only order one or two particular meals, Nasi Goreng, or a Club Sandwich, and usually at night if too tired to go out. I didn't want to make room service a habit, let alone deal with the constant side effect of the room smelling like food.

Talk to me about outsourcing all your clothes washing - what was it like to return to real life where you had to do it yourself? As housekeeping goes, put clothes into a linen bag along with articles checklist. Can't deny laundry service was one of the best perks. Clothes always came back fully pressed and steamed within 2 days, folded neatly on the bed. And I could dry clean my suit or winter coat without extra charges.

Returning to normal life wasn't so bad, but you realize how time-consuming it is (in China it's normal to hang dry your clothes) after almost a year of not doing it at all. This may be the one chore I would always outsource if I still could.

- How did living in a hotel in China differ from doing the same thing elsewhere in the world, do you think? International hotels in China are considerably larger in scale than many hotels elsewhere in the world. If I recall correctly, my hotel had about 500 employees and 27 floors, and it was a Doubletree. The one in my hometown is a smaller fraction of this size.

Staying long term in a developing country provides so many intangibly rich and eye-opening experiences. Other first-time visitors that I met said they felt same. You can't help but be awestruck by the enormity of China.

Generally, as a foreign guest, you might be perceived as different but (it should be) in a good way. The dynamic is different than if you were also a local, kind of like a welcomed guest in their home. If you're staying in an international hotel with frequent foreign guests (and you are capable of being outgoing and polite) it's easier to strike up light intro conversations about where you're from, what you're doing there, and how you think of life in their city or country.

Comparing to being in hotels back home, it was noticeable for guests to "come out of their shells" - be more open to talking with strangers as fellow abroad travelers, no matter their nationality.

Living in a hotel elsewhere may have not been so fresh and exciting on a daily level, especially for me during Beijing's rapid development.

The eclectic social scene was mixed with expats and locals. And the energy was high, much faster and different than back home.

(I was there as China overtook Japan to become the second largest economy in the world, right behind the USA)

- You’ve ended up back in China: did you always know you would live there long term? Like many other long-term expats' origin stories, I'd only planned to stay the duration and then go home. I had no plans or ambitions to go to China before arriving the first time. But half a year in I knew China was where my foreseeable future would be. So much was (and still is) happening here.

Friends and family saw me live and work abroad and were like, hey, he did it..(at least I'd like to believe) and later some did pursue life overseas.

How did your stint in a hotel impact your ongoing connection to China?

I was certain after the traineeship was over that I didn't want to make a career working inside hotels, but somehow still to work with hotels. After meeting many intriguing guests doing interesting things with their lives, I urged to be "on the other side of the table" and not as a staff member. The year after I worked at a travel startup, an Airbnb competitor, that tried to launch in China. The following years I was a foreign talent recruiter and consultant for hotels in China. Today, the destination wedding company my partner and I founded works with various luxury hotels and resorts and our clients are mainly Chinese.

- What is your single favorite anecdote from the stay? All the free cappuccinos and lattes...but really, constantly meeting and learning from people from every seeming corner of the world, including all the local staffs. Those memories are priceless.

- What advice would you give to someone else who might be about to undertake a similar stay?

Act as if you're a guest in someone's home and apply the golden rule. Everyone you'll meet in the hotel will benefit from this.

Try communicating with hotel staff using equal kindness and some dignity.

Things like room service or laundry might not always arrive on time.

It's easy to take those privileges, and consequentially, staff, for granted after a while.

Be courteous but firm when necessary if things go wrong.

Chat with the front desk and get familiar with your surrounding city or place.

Locals usually know a few tips that websites and apps don't.

Hotel life can be lavish and super convenient but don't barricade yourself in.

Make an effort to get out to local restaurants and walk or bike around your area.

- What proportion of your fellow travelers were also long-staying? 1%

How many of them did you get to know? Tell me about them.

A Japanese businessman and his Harvard grad assistant - there for a few months trying to set up a restaurant in town.

An elder Singaporean businessman named "Mr. Ng" - short, stern, but sweet at his core.

He stayed the longest. Several months on and off.

Both of these gentlemen were genuinely nice and made great mentors.

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