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Frits van Paasschen

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Shanghai or Bust

Posted: 06/07/11 10:13 AM ET

As I prepare to relocate my home and headquarters to China for more than a month, I have a lot on my mind. Not the least of which is dealing with the complexities of packing for five weeks. The last time I took a trip of this duration, I was also going to China. But as a 25-year-old with a backpack, all I needed then was T-shirts, shorts and sneakers! Just as China has grown so dramatically since my first visit in 1986, so too have my wardrobe requirements!

Speaking of growth, there is no question that China is the fastest growing hotel market in the world. In fact, China recently became Starwood's second largest market behind only the United States. Today we have more than 70 hotels there and another 90 under construction. It is not hard to imagine that one day we will have more hotels in China than we do in the U.S.

Having lived and worked in different countries, I believe you can't truly understand a culture until you buy groceries there. It was this notion that served as the genesis for moving our entire Senior Leadership Team to China for a month.

I have to admit though that this management experiment started as kind of an off-the-wall idea. Last summer, my wife and I were on a rare weekend getaway, just the two of us. We were out kayaking on a beautiful lake in Northern Connecticut, and we were talking about all the challenges and opportunities that come with our growth in China. I jokingly said, 'I'd almost like to just move our headquarters there.' As is so often the case, Laura suggested a wiser and much more practical course, and said, 'well, why not go for a month?' Just goes to show you that not all ideas are baked in a boardroom!

During our month in China, we will do a deep dive into our business there, visiting our hotels, doing hard hat inspections of hotels under construction, even touring some of our competitors' hotels. We will meet with owners, customers and many of our associates throughout China. And, at the same time, we can't put our business in other parts of the world on hold for five weeks. I suspect that we may quickly learn the challenges of operating on the other side of a 12 hour time difference with our "usual" headquarters in New York.

My schedule is pretty full, but what I've learned from my travels is that what you glean on your downtime is often invaluable. Generally when I do a typical 3-, 4- or 5-day business trip, it's a real whistle stop tour... I'm going from sun up to sun down. What I'm really looking forward to on this trip is less structured time -- the insights gained and the relationships built over long, casual dinners or during morning runs with my colleagues.

This relocation is also meant to be symbolic -- something that I hope will become part of our company lore. We're at an interesting moment in our history. Today, we have more hotels outside the U.S. than inside, and 80% of our future pipeline is also outside the U.S., mostly in emerging markets. With hotels in 100 countries, Starwood is a more global company than most, but I do think for most of our life we were an American company that happened to do business overseas. Today, we're a global company that happens to be based in New York (at least most of the time!). There is a big difference between "Americanization" and "Globalization." And the companies that will really breakaway in a growing global marketplace are those that are most globally fluent, who understand, appreciate and ultimately capitalize on different cultural perspectives and approaches to business.

I hope to take you with me as I blog my way from Shanghai to Beijing to Guangzhou and Shenzhen and many points in between. I look forward to sharing my observations of China, both from a professional and personal perspective -- I'm hoping for some play along with lots of work. Many of us are bringing our families for some of the stint -- in fact my 14-year old son Max will be our family translator -- he's studied Mandarin for three years.

With that Zài jiàn... next stop Shanghai.