Tuesday, 2 December 2014

US woos Chinese tourists with social media, fried dough fritters and a quiz

The US travel industry is rolling out the red carpet to attract a most sought-after commodity – the Chinese tourist.
Some 114m Chinese are expected to travel abroad this year, according to the China National Tourism Administration, making it by far the world’s largest source of outbound tourists and one that is expected to continue growing as the country’s middle class expands.
Many of these travellers are drawn to the United States, which is good news for US hotels, retailers and tour operators, as Chinese tourists offer a fantastic bang for their bucks, spending $7,200 per visit compared to $4,500 by the average foreign tourist, according to the US Travel Association.
Still, the US captured just 1.8m – or less than two per cent – of total Chinese foreign travellers. Eyeing China as a relatively untapped source market, the US tourism industry is striving to find creative ways to reach Chinese consumers and tour operators while offering cultural amenities and intangibles to make visitors feel welcome upon arrival in the US.
Firms such as Marriott and Hilton, the hotel chains, are investing heavily to promote their brands with consumers in China via trade shows and booking agencies such as Ctrip, and have revamped their websites and call centres to make booking and payment easier for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.
“In every meeting, we think China,” said Apoorva Gandhi, VP of Multicultural Affairs at Marriott International. “We see a huge opportunity to market to and delight those business and leisure guests.”
Brand USA, a public-private partnership, has been active in promoting the US as a global tourism destination. Its focus as of late has been facilitating destination marketing efforts and trade shows for US firms looking to court potential Chinese visitors.
Even state governments are getting in on the act. Last year, California – the preferred Chinese destination in the US – hired the famous actress and model Gao Yuanyuan (seen in an advert for California, left) to help promote the state as a friendly getaway for Chinese tourists.
Gao helped promote the Visit California site on Sina weibo, a Chinese social media network, which included a quiz that promises winners a “VIP Grand Prize” trip to California.
Overall, Chinese travel to the US has exploded in recent years, with arrivals doubling three times in the past decade. China is now the US’s fifth largest source of long-haul tourist arrivals and projects to be the largest by the end of the decade, a transition that should be hastened by an agreement reached between the two countries last month to expand the validity of tourist visas from one year to 10 years.
But getting Chinese visitors to the US is just one side of the equation. Ensuring they feel welcome and enjoy themselves is another challenge.
Seemingly intangible services that help to bridge the cultural barrier, such as offering better language services and traditional Chinese foods and drinks, are now seen as crucial to making Chinese visitors feel at home and keen to return.
Elliott Ferguson, head of Destination DC – which promotes tourism in the nation’s capital, says he’s focusing on hiring more tour guides fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese and has Chinese nationals on staff to help build relationships with Chinese tour operators and better welcome host visitors.
Hilton Hotels offers a service at 27 of its US hotels that specifically caters to Chinese travellers. Known as Hilton Huanying – a Chinese word for “welcome” – these properties provide amenities such as Chinese teas and slippers, Chinese television programming and traditional Chinese breakfasts featuring fried dough fritters, dim sum, congee and fried noodles.
The approach has yielded positive results.
“According to Hilton guest satisfaction surveys, Chinese travellers who stay at our Hilton Huanying properties respond with higher scores in terms of overall experience, overall service, property loyalty and overall accommodations,” said Jon Scofield, a senior director at Hilton Worldwide.
In addition to the welcoming gestures, offering new and unique upmarket experiences that venture beyond simple sightseeing is also seen as crucial to keeping the tap of Chinese visitors flowing. Activities such as medical tourism, university tours, high-end shopping, golf and wine-tasting are likely continue to growing in popularity among Chinese tourists as visitation increases.

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