Guest Post: How to follow Thomas Cook by looking East for growth online

Guest Post: How to follow Thomas Cook by looking East for growth online

By Greig Holbrook, chief executive of Oban Digital

Thomas Cook recently announced a venture with conglomerate Fosun International to offer holidays to China’s growing middle class, keen to travel both inside China and abroad.

The companies have not yet stated the weighting between what part local travel agents and partners will play, against the use of digital channels, although it is speculated both will feature in its business model.

With this move Thomas Cook is joining a number of UK brands looking to the East for market expansion. A rising Chinese middle class (expected to number 800 million by 2030) has driven the launch.

With incomes in China growing higher and attitudes towards organised and independent travel changing, clear opportunities for growth exist within the market.

The number of outbound trips made by Chinese travellers rose to 80 million in 2012 and is expected to reach 100 million by 2020.

When it comes to offering hotels, holidays, flights and excursions online, China has the world’s largest online population at 564 million with 80% of those using the internet to research destinations and tour brands.

In terms of destinations, short-haul holidays to Korea, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia remain popular, though a significant number of long haul trips are made to Europe and the US with the most popular destinations being the US, Russia, France, Germany and Italy.

If you too are considering looking East to grow your business online, here are some key considerations which should be part of your thinking:

Travellers and holidaymakers

As with any market, it is vital to know your audience; with China this means understanding not only consumers’ attitudes to researching, booking and reviewing travel online, how they search and share information on social platforms; but also their sense of brand loyalty and opinion of foreign brands and products.

Unlike the UK, higher net worth Chinese people tend to be under 45 years old. This younger generation is better educated and more likely to be working in executive or professional roles.

Five years ago organised tour holidays far outstripped independent travel in popularity, primarily due to their convenience. With this new emergence of a middle class, trends are changing with more holiday makers looking to self-organise in order to get more immersive experiences of foreign cultures.

Qian Jiannong, the president of Fosun’s tourism and commercial group, said on announcing the new venture: “There is a lack of innovation and differentiation in the travel product offerings for Chinese tourists in China and abroad…”

Although the Chinese middle class see western brands as being more reliable and authentic, there’s still a preference for personal contact.

This means that when designing your site, you need to consider how to deliver this personal touch – through the use of features such as live chat or comment functions. Colour, language and text versus image layout will all have a role in ensuring your success.

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There are several practical, cultural and legal requirements to consider for any brand looking to operate in China. Having a physical office is essential because it’s stipulated by Chinese law, as is hosting the website there so that it’s visible to the main Chinese search engine, Baidu.

It is also mandatory to hold an Internet Publishers License and to ensure a .com or .cn domain name is used. The correct language to adopt for mainland China is simplified Chinese, but in Hong Kong traditional Chinese is preferred.

Ensuring that adequate budget is allocated for paid search on Baidu and other engines is important for online visibility. Paid activity not only indicates that a western business is willing to invest in China, but can also earns brands seals of trust which prove a website is legitimate, such as the ‘Baidu V badge’.

This in turn awards ads an improved position in Chinese SERPS, and better ad formats. Without it, ads may only be displayed on the right-side column which means they inevitably receive less clicks.

Consider partnering

As shown by Thomas Cook’s venture with Fosun, even established brands can gain from recognised in-market partners with local understanding, cultural knowledge, connections and a physical presence.

Key dates

Similar to the key holiday and seasonal celebration dates in the UK, travel in China sees a significant increase on particular dates. The average Chinese traveller will search online 24-48 days before their planned travels, resulting in 9.4 billion Baidu searches for travel related terms every month.

In September 1999, the Chinese government issued a policy to encourage domestic tourism creating Gold Tourism Weeks, a semi-annual seven day national holiday. Here are the three dates that will influence your campaign design and media planning:

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) Dates vary annually

The dates for Chinese New Year varies considerably year to year due to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, however this is normally a Golden Week celebration lasting a full seven days.

The travel rush lasts 40 days beginning 15 days before New Year as people take the opportunity to travel for pleasure and families reunite to celebrate together. 3.6bn passenger trips were made during Spring Festival 2015.

International Labour Day (May Day), 1st -3rd May

Formerly a golden week, this holiday was changed by the government to a three day holiday in 2008, although many travellers still managed to take a 5-10 day holiday in 2015.

Online is playing a big role in the booking process with travel agency Toncheng reporting that 80% of its bookings were made through its mobile app this year. For outbound travel, sightseeing and food continue to be top of Chinese traveller’s travel priorities.

National Day (1st -7th October)

The China National Day golden week starting on Oct 1, saw around 480 million person-trips in 2014 with an increase of 13% YoY and total revenue of approximately RMB270 billion ($43.96 billion) with an increase of 20% YoY according to China Tourism Academy research.

During the lead up to the holiday Chinese travellers have already searched for hotel and air-tickets online. Outbound tourism is another highlight of the golden week bookings.

Whether or not Thomas Cook develops an online site to support its expansion into mainland China, the opportunities there continue to grow for travel brands ready to look East.

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