The growth of China’s economy is equal parts fascinating and staggering. Living in North America where capitalism, consumerism and urbanization have long been ingrained into our societal framework, it’s almost unfathomable to comprehend the inner logistics required to apply these systems to a country of 1.4 billion at the breakneck speed that China is currently achieving. All we can bank on with certainty is that with increasing gross domestic product comes more monetarily empowered citizens and, subsequently, more globetrotting travelers.
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 what we first need to do is let go of any preconceptions we might have about Chinese consumers. For a country this big, a one-size-fits-all model is bunk and negligent, he told me. China has a burgeoning middle class that’s ready and willing to consume goods at Western proportions and with Western variability.
Travel starts on the Internet
To capitalize on the growing middle class, hoteliers need to look to the Web. 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 that 41% of Chinese tourists would consider solo leisure travel versus only 11% for group tours. This is largely accomplished by harnessing the power of word-of-mouth recommendations through social media as well as stylish travel blog websites and online review sites (TripAdvisor is popular there, too).
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 with a grain of salt. This starts with government communications but extends to any brand employing marketing tactics that might be considered deceptive.
Second, even though the merits of e-commerce are well understood, speedy broadband infrastructure has yet to be systematically installed throughout China, meaning that websites with colorful high-resolution photography and flash take too long to load. Hence, low-tech channels such as text-based social media rule the day.
China has millions of wealthy citizens and millions more soon to reach middle-class status, with many of them craving more global travel. But how do we tell them about our brands? How do we get them to visit our hotels?
There is always the de facto approach of establishing ties with the CTS middle men 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 Internet has been transformative in the way we do business, and China is no different in this regard. 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 their 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.
Even if you are more inclined toward outsourcing, this will be a wholly multimedia-driven endeavor. Don’t expect to cultivate an email list for your newsletter; keep it within the domain of social media. Tell natural stories that are authentic to your hotel, city or area and slowly but surely the fans will come knocking.
What the collective of 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.
Affluent Chinese travelers are out there, and they number in the millions. But they’ll only show interest in you if you show a genuine interest in them first. In other words, it takes courage at the top to get the ball rolling. And if I’ve learned anything during my 30-plus year tenure in the hospitality business, it’s that fortune favors the bold.
(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky on Hotel News Now on May 23, 2013)