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Secrets to appealing to Chinese travelers

China is booming, and as you would expect, there’s a proliferating bourgeoisie that demands great traveling experiences. With a population of more than 1.4 billion, this nouveau middle class is a demographic that should interest any keen hotelier. And yet, as a nation, China is still shrouded in mystery.

But China does not have to be an enigma, and neither do its travelers. Here to help bust some myths is Joseph Cooke, the North American director for Web Presence In China, a company that specializes in helping Western organizations get their names out on the Chinese internet.

Joseph Cooke
Joseph Cooke

Larry Mogelonsky: What makes Chinese travelers unique?

Joseph Cooke: Nothing, but our insistence on perceiving them as aliens from another world is a unique situation the wise can exploit to the detriment of their competition. With the age of the massive Chinese tour group coming to a rapid close and self-planned traveling on the uptick, the differences between the Chinese and Western tourist are rapidly diminishing.

This means that the wise will follow the Golden Rule: don’t pander to the Chinese tourist, but give them an authentic, friendly experience. There aren’t many Westerners who would take the trouble to go to China only to be led to westernized locales where only forks are available to eat with, the teahouse is playing Celine Dion music and the minority dance troupe is doing the Harlem Shake. The Chinese, too, want as authentically Western an experience as possible if they’ve come all the way out for it, with, of course, a modicum of Mandarin communication available to enjoy this experience to the fullest. Chinese food options should be available with Western ones, too, but in this the Chinese tourist is just like his Western counterparts in China, who after two days of the local cuisine are desperately seeking the nearest McDonald’s for some comfort food.

LM: What are some simple changes hotels can make to better appeal to Chinese travelers?

JC: Have at least one fluent Mandarin speaker with competent customer service skills at hotels with over 100 rooms. Have Mandarin on the menus, and rather than bilingual everything for signage, a Mandarin pamphlet that takes care of as many concerns as possible: power conversion, check in/out rules, concierge service, etc. 

LM: What are the most important channels or social media networks in China to reach consumers?

JC: Travel is the key inspirational activity in China. Therefore, there is a huge and diverse layer of the Chinese Internet featuring all aspects of it. That’s why the forward-thinking Western hospitality organization will de-emphasize official travel news portals, which only fellow industry workers pay attention to. Weibo as well, the Chinese version of Facebook/Twitter, is no channel to emphasize promotional efforts on, as standing out with messaging among the hundreds of accounts the average Weibo follower has is a hopeless task. 

Instead, consider sites such as mafengwo.cn. This site’s runaway attraction is picture-focused travel blogs from people who have been there and who interact through the comments section, not by asking for emails and phone numbers. Such sites are a locus of consumer advocacy that can be leveraged by organizations willing to invest in honest communication rather than ads and more traditional branding efforts. A resort in British Columbia, for example, that posted regularly with varied themed photo sets of the surrounding nature, the food on offer at the lodge, people enjoying the activities and running descriptions through Google translate (including follow-up comment Q&A) would get far more traction from the effort than a far more expensive campaign of ad banners on more well-known social media sites like Weibo.

LM: How do you see Chinese travelers influencing the marketplace in a decade’s time?

JC: The Chinese government’s stated goal is to bring 600 million Mainland Chinese to middle-class status by 2020. Without going into the many shortcomings of the Chinese government, we can say that failing to deliver on economic growth is not one of them. So, if this goal is only partially realized, we can expect a Unites States’ worth of Chinese with the means to travel internationally as well as a burning desire to do so.

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