Give Chinese tourists a hotel room on the fourth floor, deal with the wrong member of their group or make them wait too long to check in and you might unwittingly ruin the holiday mood.
Navigating the cultural world of Chinese visitors can be a challenging business, but it has the potential to be an increasingly rewarding one.
Chinese travellers are the world's number one spenders and Ireland is benefiting from greater flight connections with China. The numbers who travel to Ireland, though small, are building – from about 17,000 in 2012 to almost 80,000 last year. By 2025 it is hoped some 125,000 will arrive. Business is there for the taking, if you know how to take it.
In a small hotel function room in south Dublin, Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism development authority, is busily training its clients how to appeal to visitors and, crucially, how best to deal with them when they get here.
The beginners’ “China Ready” workshop has been completed by about 300 businesses, while a more advanced certified version has been taken by almost 30. Companies availing of Fáilte Ireland’s training programme range from hotels and restaurants, to B&Bs, distilleries, museums and camper van companies.
"It's a result of issues like Brexit. We have to look at diversification and other markets," said Fáilte Ireland's Tara Kerry who says the Asian market was not previously one it specifically focussed on.
Ireland’s clean air, blue skies, open green spaces and hospitality appeal to the Chinese, however, there are considerable stumbling blocks both cultural and practical that need to be understood by the Irish tourism sector.
At Monday’s event, businesses were given a guide to catering for Chinese customers. Hotels are advised to avoid giving rooms with the number four – associated with death – but rather to opt for lucky numbers six, eight or nine.
Basic Chinese words and phrases should be used by staff, check-in should be fast, documents should be handled with two hands and business cards should never be put away without careful inspection.
"[I] experienced a very big culture shock when I first came to Ireland," said Wynne W Liu, Fáilte Ireland's "China trainer" who arrived in Ireland 18 years ago and now instructs businesses on what to expect.
“I think it’s 100 per cent normal and it’s also acceptable if the Irish side were not fully ready or understanding [of the differences].”
Of all the taboos, however, she points to the importance of dealing exclusively with the leader of a group – an important recognition in a hierarchal culture.
The course also takes businesses through China’s online world. The country is virtually cashless so businesses here need to make sure they can process electronic payments (using services such as Alipay, WeChat Pay and UnionPay).
Reaching potential travellers through western social media is also not possible – companies are advised to embrace the country’s WeChat network.
While Chinese signage and logistics are still rare in Ireland, Malahide Castle in north Dublin has just printed off its first map in Mandarin. Tour guide Bronwyn Kenny recalled having a group of about 20 and finding it difficult to gauge their mood until they presented her with a box of tea.
“What we want to learn about is their culture . . . it’s easy to get lost in translation,” she said.
The Dos and Don’ts of catering for Chinese tourists
Never . . .
Give gifts in batches of four, or of clocks, cut flowers or objects white in colour.
Allocate fourth-floor hotel rooms, or rooms with the number four – it is associated with death.
Discuss bad weather or bring up any negative conversation topic.
Raise politically sensitive issues such as human rights or independence without great care.
Reproach groups for being noisy – Chinese people are used to being in loud environments.
Correct or contradict people in public – or say anything that causes them to lose face.
Show negative feelings or emotions.
Use too many milk products, as many Chinese are lactose intolerant.
Put someone’s business card in your pocket without being seen to read it first.
Expose groups to long queues or make them wait for service.
Always . . .
Incorporate the lucky colour red into any scenario.
Smile – Chinese people value non-verbal communication.
Pay compliments and offer other forms of respect such as giving small gifts.
Allocate hotel rooms with the numbers 6, 8 or 9, all are considered lucky.
Use some basic Chinese phrases as a mark of respect.
Treat complaints seriously and be prepared to formally apologise.
Deal with the group leader or most senior member.
Serve all food courses simultaneously.
Handle items such as dishes and documents with both hands as a sign of respect.
Offer a large varied breakfast, the most important meal of the day.