Attracting guests from overseasby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
One of Rochester's oldest hotels is trying to revitalize its business from the Middle East. After a decline in 2001, more Middle Easterners have been visiting Rochester and in particular the Mayo Clinic in recent years. The Kahler Hotel recently opened a five-star facility to attract more of those visitors.
Rochester, Minn. — The International Hotel is on the top floor of the Kahler, and it's a mere skip to Mayo's Gonda building.
Marble entryways, luxurious bathrooms including bidets and aroma therapy are a few perks. The rooms run from $350 to $2,800 per night. Concierges escort guests to the clinic and blood work can be done in the hotel room. The phone service, "Ask Mayo" is on speed dial in each room.
General Manager Bruce Fairchild says Mayo was very helpful in offering insight into patient needs and desires.
"They provided us with a number of different staff members from the translation staff to we have their computer system run into our hotel. If their staff is over here and they need to change an appointment or check availability of an appointment they can do that," Fairchild says.
In the past the Kahler would earn upwards of a million dollars each year from Middle Eastern guests. Their stays tended to be longer, and they often came with large entourages. After 9/11 all international travel dropped-off significantly.
The International Hotel opened in April, and so far most guests are Americans, former heads of state, CEOs and rock stars.
"Wherever you come from in the world we want you to feel important," Fairchild says. "I think we spent a little more time on the Middle Eastern because that traditionally has been a larger market for us and for Mayo. And it appears to be growing again, maybe not back to the levels pre-9/11 but we have a group that just checked in yesterday here."
Mayo Clinic's Dr. James Garrity is the Chair of the International Activities Committee. He says two percent of Mayo's patients are international. But a quarter of those are from the Middle East.
Garrity says after 2001 patients went to London or Paris instead of travelling 24 hours to Rochester. To encourage patients to still use Mayo, the clinic opened a cardiology center in Dubai.
Garrity says international patients can now make appointments online. U.S. patients can't.
Garrity sees the five-star hotel as an additional perk that helps the Kahler as much as the Mayo. He emphasizes that Mayo doesn't treat any group of international patients with more interest than another. But Middle Eastern travelers do face a special set of complications. Garrity says it's harder to get visas, especially for large groups.
"When this first happened with the visa issues, some of the numbers I recall being bantered about were that medical services that the U.S. provides to foreigners is about a $2 billion business," Garrity says. "So it's something that the state department is aware of as well."
It's one of the reasons the International Hotel staff is translating its Website to Arabic. They're also visiting Dubai. Mayo wants to support the effort. It works with embassies, particularly in Mexico City and Dubai, to facilitate getting patients' visas.
Dan Erkkila is a professor of tourism at the University of Minnesota. He says the average international traveller each day spends twice as much as a Minnesotan, and stays about 20 days. He says the people coming to Mayo tend to be above the average.
At a time when there's a lot of anti-western sentiment in the Middle East, Erkkila admits it might seem strange that the Kahler is focusing on the region to develop its customer base.
"That's why I start to say there's got to be more," he says. "I mean I don't mean to imply that I have any inside knowledge, but they've been around. I have to believe they have a sense of their customer."
He says one reason may be that Middle Eastern health tourists, as the tourism industry calls them, have enough money that as a group they transcend politics when it comes to travel and medical decisions. And Mayo's Dr. Garrity says international guests tell him if the choice is between Johns Hopkins or Mayo, they feel safer in Rochester.
- Morning Edition, 08/18/2006, 7:25 a.m.