An insider’s look at Chinese outbound tourism

The growth of China’s outbound tourism is staggering. Recently, I talked with Ernie Diaz, director of online strategy at Web Presence in China, a company that markets non-Chinese brands to the Chinese marketplace. Ernie lives in Beijing and says we first need to do let go of any preconceptions we might have about Chinese consumers. For a country this big, a one-size-fits-all model just won’t work. China has a burgeoning middle class that’s ready and willing to consume goods at Western proportions and with Western variability.

Travel begins by logging on

Even with whatever online information censorship protocols have been administered by the Chinese government, the web has nonetheless opened China’s citizens’ eyes to new possibilities. Remarkable gains in outbound travel are happening in countries like South Korea, Japan and Thailand. Chinese tourists increasingly want what other globetrotters seek: a local, authentic experience.

Modern vacationers from China are now researching, discovering and planning their own escapades independent of those established through Western partnerships with the Chinese Travel Service, the government’s tourism and travel authority. A recent study by Travelzoo found 41% of Chinese tourists first consider solo leisure travel.

Social media and consumer-driven websites have a greater inherent value to users in China for two main reasons. First, due to the censorship issue, there’s an inclination to take messages from official sources (government and brands) with a grain of salt. Second, even though the merits of e-commerce are well understood, speedy broadband infrastructure has yet to be systematically installed throughout China, meaning websites with colorful high-res photography and flash take too long to load. Hence, low-tech channels such as text-based social media rule the day.

How to capitalize

China has millions of wealthy citizens and millions more soon to reach middle-class status. How do we get them to visit our hotels? There is always the de facto approach of establishing ties with the CTS middlemen and engineering a Mandarin-based website and top-down marketing campaign for use within Mainland China. But Ernie suggested something a bit more grassroots.

Rather than try to appeal to consumers through conventional means, why not focus your energies on social media activity and building a presence on popular travel blog sites? The consumer drives the conversation, and if you want to build awareness and develop a customer following in this market, you have to get on social media.

That strategy involves hiring someone fluent in Mandarin to act as your Chinese liaison on Chinese social networks. This can be a person recruited in your region to operate onsite under the direct tutelage of your social media manager and PR team. Or, you can outsource the posting of materials and question responses to an individual or company within China, leaving you with the task of feeding them answers, pictures, videos and any other information that might help Chinese travelers plan their upcoming trips.

What the gurus have been preaching as effective, organic social media programs for hotels everywhere else in the world also apply to China. Also, best not to assume there’s any inherent social networking differences apart from the language barrier and the new social networks you’ll have to become familiar with, such as Sina Weibo, Tencent QQ, Renren and Youku. Because of this ground-up, word-of-mouth approach, if you can learn to market to travelers in China, then you’ll be a veteran at handling travelers from anywhere else.