The Brass Tacks on Chinese Travellers

Chinese is booming and has been for coming up on 25 years now. As you’d expect from that, there’s a proliferating bourgeoisie that demands great traveling experiences. With a population of over 1.4 billion, this nouveau middle class is a demographic that should be pique can keen hotelier. And yet, as a nation, China is shrouded in mystery; one perception to the outside world and something else entirely to its own citizens.

But China does not have to be an enigma, nor do its travelers. Here to help bust some myths and inform on reality is Joseph Cooke, the North American Director for Web Presence In China, a company that specializes in helping Western organizations get their names out on the Chinese internet.

To dispel any naysayers, could you give some metrics on the growth of outbound travel in China and the importance of appealing to Chinese travelers where they searching?

One can Google terms such as ‘China Outbound Travel Market’ and come up with no end of articles like this one – http://news.travel168.net/focus_on/20120417/28949.html. Key findings from this: bigger than US market, 30% of international tourism growth, 70 million travelers, $20 billion market. And that article is from April, 2012 with no news of any kind reporting a decline since but rather only more astounding year-over-year growth. So it may be instructive to examine why the naysayers are saying “Nay”, why they don’t see the evidence of this China outbound tourism boom more directly:

  1. The majority of this international travel is still to Asian destinations such as Singapore, South Korean, Taiwan, Thailand, even Japan. This is partially due to distance/convenience/direct flights. It partially explains why Australia has no credible naysayers of the Chinese tourism boom, however, nor do foremost European cities such as London and Paris.
  2. The majority of Chinese, like travelers the world over, want to visit places where they can be understood and enjoy themselves without too much extra effort. The profusion of Chinese signage proceeding from the Melbourne airport indicates why Australia is viewed as ‘China friendly’. Vancouver, for obvious reasons, enjoys a lot of Chinese visitors, who are organically building the destination’s reputation online, although the city is doing much on the Chinese internet to boost its profile further. Moreover, on the Chinese internet, word-of-mouth rules, and destinations which aren’t actively engaged in influencing the conversation and building advocacy are going to wait longer than others to be perceived as ‘China friendly and convenient’.

What makes Chinese travelers unique? Elaborate on a few key points.

Nothing, but our insistence on perceiving them as aliens from another world is a unique situation the wise can exploit to the detriment of their competition. The boorish, nouveaux riche Chinese tourist vilified in European press a few years ago had nothing to concede to the Russian boorish nouveaux riche tourist. Now, with the age of the massive Chinese tour group coming to a rapid close and self-planned traveling on the uptick, the differences between the Chinese and Western tourist are rapidly diminishing. The global tourist is rapidly becoming as generic as the global tourist destination, the obligatory no-car street where all the tourists mill to see what KFC and Starbucks in other countries are like.

This means that the wise will follow the Golden Rule: don’t pander to the Chinese tourist, but give them an authentic, friendly experience. There aren’t many westerners who would take the trouble to go to China, only to be led to westernized locales where only forks are available to eat with, the teahouse is playing Celine Dion music and the minority dance troupe is doing the Harlem Shake. The Chinese, too, want as authentically Western an experience as possible if they’ve come all the way out for it, with, of course, a modicum of Mandarin-communication available to enjoy this experience to the fullest. Chinese food options should be available with Western ones, too, but in this the Chinese tourist is just like his western counterparts in China, who after two days of the local cuisine are desperately seeking the nearest McDonald’s for some comfort food.
What are some simple changes hotels can make to better appeal to Chinese travelers? Again, elaborate on one or two key points.
At least one fluent Mandarin speaker with competent customer service skills at hotels with over 100 rooms. Mandarin on the menus, and, rather than bilingual everything for signage, a Mandarin pamphlet which takes care of as many concerns as possible: power conversion, check in/out rules, concierge service, info and rules for business center, gym, etc.

What are the most important channels or social media networks in China to reach consumers?

Travel is the key inspirational activity in China. Therefore, there is a huge and diverse layer of the Chinese internet featuring all aspects of it. That’s why the forward-thinking western hospitality organization will de-emphasize official travel news portals, which only fellow industry workers pay attention to. Weibo as well, the Chinese version of Facebook/Twitter, is no channel to emphasize promotional efforts on, as standing out with messaging among the hundreds of accounts the average Weibo follower has is a hopeless task.

Instead, consider sites such as http://www.mafengwo.cn/. This site’s runaway attraction is picture-focused travel blogs from people who have been there and who interact through the comments section, not by asking for emails and phone numbers. Such sites are a locus of consumer advocacy that can be leveraged by organizations willing to invest in honest communication rather than ads and more traditional branding efforts. A resort in British Columbia, for example, that posted regularly with varied themed photo-sets of the surrounding nature, the food on offer at the lodge, people enjoying the activities and running descriptions through Google translate (including follow-up comment Q&A) would get far more traction from the effort than a far more expensive campaign of ad banners on more well-known social media sites like Weibo.

What special precautions must hotels be aware of when trying to do commerce in China?

  1. Your Chinese partners will not be invested in long-term scenarios.
  2. Loss of a little control of your branding and distribution will be a total loss of control.
  3. Contracts are worthless for the westerner, so is pursuing justice in court as a corollary. Your relationships and superior offerings are your protection.

Is marketing in China something that is only really available for those hotels or management firms with lots of capital, or can independents also get in on the action?

Independents willing to tackle the language barrier have a greater prospect of ROI, in relative terms, than the large firms. One Chinese intern from a local university spending a few hours a week posting picture sets with descriptions and following up on comments will bring in more leads for the effort than a traditional, pricey media blitz wherein the Chinese tourist is held at arms length with a barrage of marketing bluster and no firsthand look with one-to-one follow-up. Those travel-focused social media sites are also ideal for forging relationships with Chinese travel agents, who naturally are all over them.

What destinations will be most influenced by the growth of Chinese travel?

Alternative destinations within a day’s drive of traditional or established hotspots: the wine country near San Francisco, Whistler and nature resorts outside of Vancouver, and so on.

How do you see Chinese travelers influencing the marketplace in a decade’s time?

The Chinese government’s stated goal is to bring 600 million Mainland Chinese to middle class status by 2020. Without going into the many shortcomings of the Chinese government, we can say that failing to deliver on economic growth is not one of them. So, if this goal is only partially realized, we can expect a Unites States’ worth of Chinese with the means to travel internationally as well as a much more burning desire to do so than the average American (who has so many more world-class destinations domestically) from a fun and leisure perspective.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on May 10, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyThe Brass Tacks on Chinese Travellers