Sam Turner, director wholesale sales and sourcing at Hotelbeds Group, says the answer to attracting more Chinese tourists is technology, not language or culture
Did you know that next week the whole of China will be celebrating a week long national holiday? The festive period is often called the ‘Golden Week’ and for those in the tourism industry it lives up to its name: the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) expects overseas trips to hit 7 million during these seven days.
You might understandably have not heard of this holiday. Unlike the Chinese New Year period, which next year falls in February, this holiday is less well known because it was only introduced in the year 2000.
But if you work in tourism you are missing out as this year the holiday represents a bonanza by falling close to the Mid-Autumn Festival that took place last Saturday, Sunday and Monday. A great many Chinese workers have taken advantage of the opportunity to book only six days off work, but have two whole weeks of holiday.
Aside from this national holiday driven opportunity – which conveniently for the European tourism industry falls right in the shoulder season – Chinese people are now the world’s number one traveller. They are also travelling much more internationally, and not just within Asia. For example, bookings made via our Hotelbeds Group bedbank platform for this holiday period show that now four out of ten of the top international destinations are non-Asian, up from only two last year.
So why aren´t European tourism businesses attracting more of the 7 million Chinese international travellers who will hit the road this weekend? The language barrier and cultural differences would seem an obvious part of the answer. But what about technology? The truth is we are not embracing the technology needs of Chinese travelers.
In a great many ways China is much more digitally advanced than Europe or America. For example mobile Apps are commonly used to unlock doors in hotels and offices; across many Chinese cities you can even use an App to locate a bicycle, unlock it and ride off; and QR codes are used for everything.
This gives Chinese travelers higher expectations, leading to immediate disappointment and frustration. Imagine how lost you´d be if all of your Apps on your phone stopped working when you´re on holiday or a business trip, in an unfamiliar place, where no one speaks your language? That´s how the average Chinese traveler feels on touchdown at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle. For many their mobile phones don’t even allow internet roaming in a large amount of European destinations.
Consider something else very obvious but hugely important: payments. They are used to paying for virtually for almost everything using their mobile phone; from a taxi ride to a restaurant bill, it’s all about WeChat and AliPay. For the young, credit and debit cards are hardly used. And for those Chinese travelers that still use credit cards, few of them have Visa or Mastercard. Instead mostly they have Union Pay, which many European retailers still don´t accept.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that they use different technology platforms. Google, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even WhatsApp are all blocked in China; instead they use three main social media channels: Baidu (a search engine), WeChat (WhatsApp on steroids) and Weibo (similar to Twitter).
This means marketing to this audience is much harder, as the usual staple of relying on Google for search-engine optimization and buying AdWords doesn´t work: remember, they can´t access Google. Another complication is that they expect customer services via social media, not least via WeChat which is considerably more advanced and customer service friendly than WhatsApp. But starting a WeChat account requires a Chinese registered company, something not everyone has.
For us at Hotelbeds Group we´ve been deeply involved in the Chinese market for many years and already it is our fourth biggest source market globally. We´ve achieved this by embracing these technology changes and working with our hotel supplier partners globally to help them adjust their offering accordingly. For example Chinese travellers require certain types of information about a hotel room – for example the room size or whether or not it has a kettle – that most hoteliers don’t display; Chinese travellers also book much more last minute than hoteliers are familiar with.
As Chinese travellers increasingly travel less in groups and slowly become fully independent travellers (FIT), just as the Japanese did from the 1990s onwards, technology becomes more important still. At a moment when Chinese travellers are still having their first tentative experiences – ones that they are likely to repeat with the same destinations and brands if they prove enjoyable – it will be technology that either makes or breaks businesses in capturing this important segment.