Insights for marketing to Chinese travelers

Evan Saunders
Evan Saunders

I am interested in how the growth of Chinese outbound travel will affect tourism and hospitality organizations across the globe. With more than a billion people and a rapidly widening middle class, this is a market that all hoteliers should look to for sales. And yet a combination of verbal, cultural and governmental barriers has intimidated many of us from launching full-fledged awareness campaigns in this market.

I had the chance recently to interview Evan Saunders, CEO of Attract China, regarding the expectations of Chinese outbound travelers and what hotels can do to better accommodate members of this group. And to clue you in on the gravitas of this situation, it’s estimated that by 2018 China will be the number one nation in terms of visitors to the United States and in the top three for most other Western European countries. The main obstacle preventing this from occurring right now has to do with visa issuing.

As of now, the top destinations for Chinese travelers tend to be the foremost tourist cities. They want to experience the best the West has to offer. In the United States, this includes New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco while in Europeit’s primarily London, Paris and Rome. However, as more direct flights open up and Chinese visitors become acclimatized to international travel, new locations are quickly gaining ground — Boston and Orlando (theme parks being the essential factor here) in the United States and Barcelona, Madrid, Florence, Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam in Europe.

A cardinal expectation amongst most Mandarin speakers is that foreigners won’t comprehend their language. Consequently, they come prepared. They know the specifics of their daily itineraries well before they set foot in another country, and they have nearly memorized how to get to and from the airport.

In line with this, a hotelier shouldn’t expect last-minute bookings from this group, as they typically complete their reservations at a minimum of one month ahead of time. Free and independent travelers will most likely find your hotel through online resources (and they’ll reserve online, too) whereas groups will book through a travel agent.

As Saunders points out, this behavior can also be leveraged as a value-add. Properties that have properly translated pamphlets and websites or staff members who can converse in Mandarin will make very powerful impressions with these guests. Like many other aspects of our business, it’s all about exceeding expectations.

In fact, any semblance of home will be greatly appreciated. For instance, Chinese travelers aren’t expecting a full buffet catered specifically to their indigenous cuisine, but offering select Chinese breakfast items like noodles, dumplings (bao or jiaozi), tofu, rice porridge (congee) or pancakes (bing) will go a long way towards making such guests feel at ease. And once again, the issue of free Wi-Fi rears its bothersome head; given that Mandarin speakers won’t be able to vocalize their inquiries, they’ll need the internet to find answers in their native tongue. 

Other in-room “gestures of good faith” include slippers and tea kettles as well as toothbrushes and toothpaste (just imagine how hard it would be to locate these two essential items in a city where you don’t know the local language). Welcome letters in Mandarin — or any translated materials, for that matter — also go a long way as well as dedicated smoking rooms or proper signage to indicate where guests can smoke.

In terms of actual marketing best practices, my conversation with Saunders shifted to the nature of internet usage in China and how its citizens source the web to determine their travel destination. Successful advertising and awareness efforts seem to be shifting away from conventional channels toward those that are peer-reviewed. Think blogs, dedicated travel websites and social networks (which are different from those utilized elsewhere in the world).

Our chat concluded with a discussion of, an online travel entity owned by TripAdvisor. Saunders warned that the website isn’t getting the traffic needed for critical mass because it didn’t offer expert reviews nor did it allow for users to post to their own personal blogs or syndicate to external addresses. As an alternative, Saunders advocates the newly launched, which specializes in expert reviews for popular destinations like New York City with a rapidly expanding repertoire of appraisals.

Either way, what’s vital to know here is that if you want to crack the Chinese outbound travel cipher, you must investigate these third-party review sites alongside other informal channels.