19 NOV. 2012

How to Reach Chinese Tourists Through Digital

Digital is most effective when it is used not merely for communication but when it helps brands directly confront key market challenges and improve the customer journey in a meaningful way. Few markets lend themselves better to this high-value added use of digital than the Chinese hospitality and travel markets.
In China, travel and the internet have grown hand in hand and are deeply associated. Chinese travelers rely on digital platforms to plan and experience their trips on an extent that is hard to overstate. Posts about travel on famous forums such as, Tianya, Liba and social platforms such as Douban or Sina Weibo number in the millions. Online travel booking sites such as Ctrip or Qunar are growing at nearly 20% per year and are hot investment targets for major players such as Baidu (who recently poured over $300 million into Qunar). Photo sharing through social media sites is such a key part of the travelling experience that social media giant RenRen recently launched a Pinterest-like social platform specifically targeting at travelers.
In such a context, digital platforms hold evident potential for all brands looking to attract Chinese travelers. In our view, there are 4 key ways brands can use digital in this market.

Participate in the conversation
As stated above, there are vibrant conversations about travelling happening on the Chinese web. These conversations create a real culture around travelling with its own concepts, opinion leaders and even its own vocabulary. Brands must find their place into this culture and participate in conversations on social media (including niche platforms such as Douban), providing engaging content and working to nurture consumers early on.
Build a greater presence during the planning process: most Chinese travelers are relatively inexperienced. They are thus careful trip planners who go through an extensive period of information gathering and compiling prior to their trip (a process that takes place mostly online). This period offers opportunities for brands to be useful, offer support and provide relevant information through digital platforms, thus building esteem and differentiation even before the trip.

Create a better on-site experience
For brands in the hospitality business, digital platforms (mobile in particular) are very powerful tools to provide the necessary on-site assistance and information to allow for smoother, more original on-site experiences. This is especially relevant when trying to integrate the very particular needs of Chinese tourists venturing abroad. Moreover, by integrating digital in their on-site strategies, brands can leverage the desire of Chinese customers to share their experience through social media. For instance, a hotel can dramatically increase its exposure simply by providing customers with a Weibo hash-tag to use when posting during their trip or allowing for check-in via location based services such as Jie Pang.

Build loyalty
As in many other product and service categories, low loyalty is a major obstacle brands need to overcome in the tourism industry. Most Chinese travelers have a very functional view of hotels and airlines and show a high propensity to switch from one brand to another depending on price alone. Through digital loyalty programs, brands can extend the link with their customers after the trip, reward them and drive brand interaction and positive word of mouth online.

So how are brands from the travel and hospitality industries currently fairing in the digital scene?
In the hotel industry, most the brands reviewed have a web presence that appears too scattered and un-original to have a true impact. As often, the issue of localization arises with certain brands even featuring links to Facebook and Youtube pages on their Chinese websites. On social media, we can find many pages for individual hotels but this proliferation of scattered accounts too often contrasts with the absence of a central, active brand account. Mobile also appeared under-utilized which represents huge wasted opportunity giving the central place of the mobile web in Chinese digital habits and these brands’ need to address customers on the go.
In the high end of the market especially, digital efforts do not match the considerable work done on the ground to woo Chinese travelers through personalized service. None of the top Parisian palace has a presence on Chinese social media sites or communicates on Chinese web platforms which is very surprising given that China has over 1 million luxury travelers, 88% of whom use the web and 22% social media for trip planning.

However some brands manage to stand out, such as Holiday In, who is one of the only brands reviewed to have a real company-wide social media strategy with localized content and a clear editorial line. Club Med has also taken the right approach with a quality web presence and an approach to Weibo as a customer service channel (visitors can send their requests, questions or complaints through dedicated hash-tags). Airlines also have solid global web presences with Air France for example promoting content about its destinations through its “Make a dream” hash-tags. Other examples of best practices include Starwood’s loyalty-building campaign on Jie Pang (a geo-location service similar to Foursquare) which represents an excellent example of how brands in this industry can use digital for real service innovation.

The tourism industry in China is one where there is a clear gap between customer behavior and brand strategies. It is up to brands now to bridge this gap through multi touch-point digital strategies that build value at each stage of the customer journey and are rooted into the specificities of local customer behavior.

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