How a Chinese Delivery App Disrupted Hotel Dining

In years gone by, staying at a hotel in China meant that you’d become an expert on ‘the hotel burger’. Ditto nasi goreng, beef noodle soup, chicken tikka masala and their version of margherita pizza – one which usually featured cardboard-quality bread, alleged cheese and the inevitable quartered cherry tomato (above image credits: Christine Gallary).

This happened thanks to jet lag, late-evening events and letting-off-steam nights out; no matter the variety of restaurants in the hotel, you’d always be awake in the room, answering emails and just go for the most reliable thing on the bible-thick room-service menu. It cost USD 895 +16.6% for said cardboard food, but they had you by the short and curlies. Curly fries, you understand.

But no longer. Who knew that tech does actually disrupt some things? It’s helped us go from a tikka-disrupted digestive system to an ele.me disrupted in-room dining scene. Pronounced ‘er ler mah’, the app is one of the biggest food delivery apps in China, alongside da zhong dianping and meituan.

They shot to popularity well before any western equivalents had even launched, as convenient delivery was a technological god-send in China’s massive urban sprawls and busy working lives. The delivery fee is usually around 8 RMB at most, and it arrives in rapid time.

It means that wherever you are in China, you can choose from a huge variety of low-cost eateries in around a 6km range, which in a Chinese city means hundreds upon hundreds of options. Instead the saddest nasi goreng on Earth, you can go for whatever your stomach desires, and just go down to the lobby and collect it when it arrives – you’ll know exactly when that is by looking at the real-time GPS map of your delivery person’s travel.

Visit a Chinese holiday destination such as Sanya, and even if you go for a top-end hotel, you’ll see guests enjoying their KFC, or their shao kao (grilled meat on sticks), or whatever other nearby offering they’ve ordered on ele.me instead of going for the high-priced lunch buffet or whatever, saving their lavish dining experience for the dinner or travelling out of the hotel and exploring local food options in the evening.

We stayed in a fancy hotel recently and noticed that, on the desk, they had a flyer offering three options of noodle – Shanghainese, Malaysian or Thai – from just 68 RMB each, net. They were wise to the state of play (it was a Four Seasons) and realised that if a guest happened to be working in the room (or there for whatever reason), they need to offer something quick, simple, and at a net price, or they’d simply reach for their phone and have anything they like delivered in 15-20 minutes flat.

Other savvy hotel players also get it. Earlier this year, Marriott Bonvoy did a full-on partnersgip with Ele.me. It was an all-you-can-eat event and a whole bunch of Marriott brands got involved, from Westin to JW Marriott to Sheraton. By booking directly on ele.me for the hotels’ food fest, diners saved 30 percent.

That’s a smart lesson to any international brands, in any sector. Never fight the local platforms – you will never win. Instead, realise the power of the Chinese logistics network, the pioneering abilities of Chinese m-commerce and consider how you can partner with it, saving us all from hockey-puck burgers and the dreaded quartered cherry tomato.


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