The mainland Chinese outbound travel phenomenon is unlike anything the travel and tourism world has ever seen. The trickle that began a decade ago, when the major cities started easing travel restrictions, has grown so rapidly it is barely comprehensible. Ten years on, Chinese travellers account for double the tourism receipts of the next biggest global spender — the US — according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
All this, when only 5% of all Chinese citizens have passports. This is also changing fast, and an estimated 10 million new travel documents are being issued every year. A fifth of the globe’s tourism-related payments are now generated by one nation with the total of US $261 billion; UK travellers, by comparison, spent US $64 billion last year. By 2021, Chinese tourists will splash out US $429 billion when outside of their own country, according to a report by CLSA.
Key destinations were Hong Kong and Macau, but Thailand, the US, Japan and Australia are not far behind. It’s not only Chinese travellers — it’s those from the emerging markets in Asia — Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines. Mastercard claims that 50 million new outbound travellers will be added to the tourism pool by 2021, as quoted in a recent Bloomberg story.
The prevailing belief that Chinese only travel in large tour groups is also changing: the reality is quite different. A smartphone-addicted generation is entirely empowered to book their trips direct — flights, hotels, trains, car rental and travel experiences.
Europe is fast emerging as the next major destination for Chinese travellers who already travel to Asia several times a year for leisure — the UK is a prime target in this mix
How to reach and influence their travel choices is the big question: and the answer may be simpler than you may expect. Firstly, it is not driven by price — but by experiences. The process starts before they leave home — with relationships first and foremost.
Perhaps it sounds traditional and old-fashioned, but in China, you need to have relationships — brilliant ones — with influencers or KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). The digital revolution has spawned a new type of media that lives fast and is growing in influence by the day. These are the new darlings and superstars of the media industry, and it is critical for hotels and resorts to know who to access, about what, how and why. That’s if they’ll give you the time of day.
This is where relationships come in. You have to understand them and live in their world. If not, even if you can access this audience, they’ll send you a colossal quotation to consider before they lift a finger. Feeling insulted, many hotels immediately back off. But if you have a good understanding, KOLs can be the most effective marketing tool for hotels and resorts to access the biggest, most powerful independent consumer market on the planet.
Next comes the experience. As our China Director, Vanessa Zhu always says, “don’t just give them shopping and eating — give them excitement.” Chinese KOL trips are full-on. And don’t expect them to come alone. It is normal for them to bring an assistant and a videographer. And no, these are not the bikini-clad IG mavens after free rooms, which dominate the social feeds in Europe and Australia. These are independently wealthy people — building their influence and being serious about what they do. To carry two or three outfits a day is not unusual as they forward-plan their trips to ensure they get as much original content as they can to delight their millions of followers and influence their purchasing decisions.
When it comes to budget planning, would it not be worth considering a market that hoteliers ignore at their peril? A few well-placed KOLs, fully hosted, will ensure traction and sales in a vital business market. We hosted a Chinese KOL the other day at Phuket’s only member of Leading Hotels of the World, The Nai Harn. Within 48 hours he had posted on 11 separate platforms to reach over 30 million travel enthused followers.
To engage them, you need to go so much deeper than a translated website. There needs to more relevant platforms in play. WeChat, for example. Weibo, too. Then, on-arrival QR codes, native Chinese language speakers and exciting plans for travellers to enjoy. The KOLs need to showcase this. So their programmes need to reflect the guest experiences and with an itinerary that they can book. While the hotel is important, it must also embrace the destination. There’s lots to consider — but this is a market that has incredible potential. And managed right it can deliver high-quality, high-spending guests who book independently and who are a pleasure to host.