Traveling to Bangkok with Chinese influencers

Nowadays, all global hotel companies and tourism destinations seem to be talking about China — specifically, how to capture a share of this very lucrative, fairly new and rapidly growing market. A lot has been written about the Chinese travel and tourism market; there seems to be a new article every day, and most of them are either repeating themselves or confusing the reader.

I’d like to share one of my own experiences traveling with affluent Chinese tourists. As it sometimes Chinese tourists are made to seem very different from any other tourists, I went to Bangkok with a small group of Chinese celebrities, including a fashion designer, a model/actor, a magazine publisher and the China director for a global lifestyle marketing company — all born Chinese, living in Beijing and influencers in their respective industries, with followers on Sina Weibo exceeding 150,000 each (one of them with a following of 1.5 million).

My first observation was that lots of products and services were immediately compared to what’s available in China. All of them are extremely proud of their Chinese heritage and of what China has achieved over the past few years. However, there is also a growing concern about some of the negative side effects. Due to the rapid increase in wealth of a small percentage of people (but fairly large number of people), greed and unethical business practices have been increasing. One example is the food scandals that seem to only get worse — probably one of the biggest concerns and topics of discussion, and a big motivator for Chinese people to travel abroad.

We stayed at the Kempinski Siam Bangkok, probably one of the best hotels in Bangkok, and probably the best for affluent Chinese tourists. Not cheap compared to other luxury hotels in Bangkok due to large supply in the city, but the breakfast is amazing, offering the freshest ingredients and food that satisfies the Chinese palate. The garden makes people feel as if they are at a resort and not in the heart of bustling Bangkok. Finally, the hotel is connected to prime shopping center Siam Paragon. It is almost an unfair competitive advantage.

However, the general manager of the Dusit Thani, a good friend, invited me to bring my Chinese friends for lunch to his property. The traditional charm of the grande dame of Bangkok, paired with exquisite Thai food, takes people back to a more historic Siam — a different but also very relevant experience.

Due to the fact that two of the fellow travelers from China were gay, the second revelation was a trip to a gay go-go bar. Interestingly enough, I learned that over 50% of the club patrons were from China. This is an interesting opportunity that lots of people have not looked at — affluent gay Chinese travelers with lots of disposable income and an appreciation for the finer things in life — and the willingness to pay for it.

Finally, every great and not-so-great experience was immediately posted on Weibo. They would retweet their respective messages, and their staff and celebrity friends would retweet these messages and comment right away. You can imagine the viral spread, and most of these international hotels, restaurants and other destinations would never know, as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China and, even though accessible, rarely used nowadays.

In the end, especially with affluent Chinese tourists — particularly if they are aware of their influence — they don’t want to be “treated as Chinese” but respected as paying customers. Quality, service and creativity are important.

One mistake that many international hotel companies make is to generalize Chinese tourists. It is critical to segment Chinese tourists. And we are talking multi-dimensional segmentation, which most marketers are not prepared for, especially in a Chinese cultural perspective. There is a difference when it comes to income, age, location (first-tier to fourth-tier cities), first-time travelers to more experienced travelers, occasion and then, of course, interests.

But companies that can master the skill of marketing to Chinese consumers, understand how to navigate the Chinese Internet and social media landscape and create relevant products and services will be able to penetrate a lucrative market. All this takes time, commitment and resources.

My final tip to understand Chinese travelers: spend time in China, engage with Chinese people and — if you can — travel with them. Good luck!