West Vs. East: Understanding the Chinese Travel Market

China, as you know, is a behemoth, in population, economics and overall growth. It’s a no-brainer to wonder about how this ancient nation’s hospitality industry is evolving during an era of rapid cultural change and modernization. My first trip to the Asian continent, sadly, came too late in life – a mere two years ago – and I sincerely wish I could have visited earlier. Every hotel I stayed at excelled at service with dozens of takeaway lessons for Western hospitality businesses.

In my quest to understand the situation, I was approached by Ernie Diaz and Joseph Cooke, two members of the executive management team of Web Presence in China (www.web-presence-in-china.com/). Since then, I’ve had several delightful and insightful conversations with them, getting a firsthand perspective of how Chinese travelers think.

What I’ve learned, in a nutshell, is that the present Western judgment of Chinese outbound travel is outdated and soon to be extinct. The modern Chinese tourist is just as savvy as those elsewhere, relying heavily on internet-based third-party review websites to source and choice their next foreign destination. This interview with Ernie picks up on our latest dialogue which looks more towards the current strengths of Western hospitality over that in China and how such advantages can be levered for future gain.

Just to clue people in, can give us a little background on why it’s important to appeal to Chinese travelers. How big is their slice of the pie in terms of international travel and tourism?

A CNN article last month claims 83 million Chinese international travelers spending $102 billion in 2012 (http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/09/travel/chinese-tourism-impact), on top for individual spending. Their exact slice of the global pie is rather nebulous, but more important to consider is that those numbers are only going to grow, as predicted by most every forecaster.

That money is not only going to go to tour agencies and luxury shops abroad. All of our data points to the Chinese traveler becoming more individual in his or her travel preferences at a rate matching China’s growth as a travel-abroad market. So, even if you’re a motel midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, proactively preparing for Chinese guests is not wasted effort, if you’re really thinking long-term.

Anyone who has experienced Asian hospitality knows that it is superior to that of the Western world in many significant ways. What differences have you noticed and what accounts for them?

That’s a very generous opinion. If we’re using the term ‘hospitality’ in the most general sense, then yes, you’ll find yourself treated far more kindly as a foreigner in China than a Chinese person will in the West. If we’re talking about the hospitality industry, then I struggle to find a single category in which China is clearly superior.

If you’re doing the five-star circuit in China, you’ll find prices for personal services – such as at the spa – more reasonable, thanks to low labor costs. But the average three or four-star hotel in China resembles a motel in the West, one not particularly interested in keeping its doors open much longer. To be sure, vast marble foyers predominate, but the theme is form over substance. Once you’ve gone into your room in that average Chinese hotel, the feel is unhygienic, bathroom plumbing is a fright and complaints are addressed with much less than what would pass muster in a western hospitality organization with dedicated management.

There are many reasons why Chinese hospitality in the commercial sense is in fact inferior to hospitality in the West – newness of the industry in a recently socialist society, for starters. What’s important to note is that, in terms of service standards, China is definitely a pupil to the West. The form is filling in rapidly (gilded foyers and in-room sale-ables), but certainly not the function.

Am I right to suggest that this disparity all boils down to labor costs?

China’s famously low labor costs are actually a factor in China’s continued lag behind international-level competence. The many employee cogs who make a good hotel run smoothly are all aware of how replaceable they are. The attraction of marginally-skilled labor (“We’ll just train them up!”) overwhelms the good sense of hiring people with educations and good language skills for foreign customers then paying them for what they are worth.

The hospitality industry is known for working employees to the bone, but in the West there is generally a structure for accountability and promotion so that employees can see a path to becoming an essential part of the team; a structure almost absent here in China. As a result, revolving door staffing is the norm, and talented, dedicated professional Chinese staffers below the managerial level are rare.

If Eastern labor costs cannot be beaten, what other key marketing strengths does the West have from a Chinese perspective?

Quality always beats quantity. Thinking bluntly, Germany will always have a stronger economy – thanks to its educated workforce – than China will, with its hundreds of millions of factory fodder. China itself is first to acknowledge this, as it is doing everything in its power to transform itself from an export economy to a skilled-labor, consumer-led one.

So, just as Chinese tech companies do all in their power to model their techniques to match Western best practice, so do Chinese hospitality businesses seek to replicate the organizational excellence of Western hotel brand leaders. Western hoteliers cannot underestimate the advantage of systematized service, so that an experience with a brand is the same from Hawaii to Hohhot.

This helps explain the wild success of Starbucks, MacDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken here in China. There has yet to be a major Chinese food brand to replicate this feat, let alone a Chinese hospitality organization that has attained comparable levels of success. Any savvy Chinese domestic traveler knows that a stay at the Xi’an Hilton will surpass nearly everything available from a local Chinese competitor, and those with the travel budget behave accordingly.

Which of these Western strengths are top of mind for Chinese travelers?

Service standards, every time. Chinese travelers know a big brand Western guestroom will never have strange stains on the rug or bedding; that water pressure and temperature will not be issues; that there is a whole system for demonstrable actions behind brand promises absent from the boasts of Chinese hotels.

Certainly a Chinese traveler won’t be expecting such from the (for example) Sandusky Motor Court, and many of the new independent traveling class are coming back to China with horror stories about the service at their motel near Disneyland being as bad as anything they’ve experienced domestically. In broad terms, the Chinese still idealize the West in terms of brand excellence, product value and service standards.

How would you go about conveying and marketing these broad points of differentiation to Chinese travelers?

Superior service is something that must be experienced. The Chinese traveler is just as leery as her Western counterpart towards commercially centered messaging. But to be concrete – here’s a tip: list on the Chinese version of Trip Advisor, DaoDao (http://www.daodao.com). Make sure the pictures are clear and the descriptions accurate. Consumer rating can almost be considered a national pastime in China. If a Chinese traveler has a good experience with you, that’s the most likely (and easiest) place you’ll  be found and then commented on by objective third parties – the only kind of messaging the internet generation really trusts.

Thinking broadly, what trends are on the forefront or will be crucial in the near future in terms of appealing to Chinese travelers?

The good news is that the Chinese traveler is rapidly morphing into the global traveler, not some exotic creature who must have thousand-year-old eggs available with her breakfast porridge. A lame pun, I know, but it gets the point across.

The challenge lies in placating this new pedigree of global travelers who know and expect the superior level of service which is completely alien to the Chinese tour-group traveling predecessor of just a decade ago. That means a degree of Mandarin localization is inevitable for those who want to grab future Chinese traveler market share from competitors. Not thousand-year-old-eggs or silk slippers in the credenza, but rather localized information so that a Chinese traveler can enjoy your offerings as thoroughly and easily as someone who speaks English as a first language. It’s all about cultivating an authentic local experience for your guests; just you have to go a bit out of your way to ensure that Chinese travelers don’t feel intimidated or left out.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on July 1, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyWest Vs. East: Understanding the Chinese Travel Market