by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | September 01, 2011

MICE Advisory BoardIf the hotel industry could speak in one collective voice, it likely would be chanting "China!" In a modern business-world equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush, U.S. hotel companies are engaged in a fierce expansion race eastward to plant their individual chain flags. The prize? The attention and, ultimately, guest loyalty of a new and growing contingent of deep-pocketed Chinese customers.

And arguably no hospitality company is more focused on gaining the high ground than White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. This past June the chain, in an unprecedented move, relocated its entire eight-member leadership team to China for five weeks. It was a strategy that immediately set competitors speculating and the media humming. But for Starwood's chief executive officer, Frits van Paasschen, the relocation made perfect sense. "I didn't go to China to have some kind of epiphany or close a big deal. It wasn't some kind of watershed moment," van Paasschen says. "Our team went to make sure that we are supporting our local teams there in every reasonable way that we can."

Van Paasschen addressing attendees at the Starwood Asia Pacific Divisional ConferenceDuring the five-week effort, M&C shadowed the Starwood team's progress through a series of early morning phone interviews, as members crisscrossed the country from Shanghai to Chengdu in the west, and Beijing to Guangzhou in the south. Among detours along the way, they met with their 26-member Asia Pacific advisory board at the W Taipei; attended a divisional conference at the Royal Orchard in Bangkok, Thailand, with some 700 general mangers, directors of sales and others; and attended a board of directors meeting in Shanghai.

"It was," reflects van Paasschen, "the most intense five weeks of my life."