How to use social media to tap into the burgeoning market of Chinese travelers
Daniel Edward Craig
Illustration credit: Anthony Freda
As the American and European economies continue to struggle, Western hotels and travel companies have been turning to emerging countries for expansion and growth. And nowhere are there greater opportunities than in China, the biggest growth market in global tourism,according to the BBC.
A recent HVS report cites numbers from the National Bureau of Statistics of China indicating that between 2000 and 2010 Chinese outbound travel increased at an annual rate of 18.5%, from 10.5 million to 57.4 million. Meanwhile, China is expected to replace France as the largest tourism attraction in the world by 2015, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
For advice on how to tap into this burgeoning market, I consulted Jens Thraenhart, co-founder of Dragon Trail, a Beijing-based technology and digital marketing company that specializes in the Chinese travel market. Here’s a condensed version of our Q+A session.
Tell us how you ended up working in China.
I was involved in online marketing and website development on a consulting and internship basis for companies like Fairmont Hotels, Marriott International, and InterContinental while completing my MBA at Cornell University back in 1998. In 2005, I joined the Canadian Tourism Commission as head of Marketing Strategies, and it was there that my interest in China was piqued.
The CTC offices in Asia include Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, and I was engaged in developing e-marketing strategies for these source markets, and as such visited China in 2007. I was amazed by the growth and the potential, but at that time did not realize the power that the Internet would have in terms of communication. I only knew that the Internet is vastly different in China and highly complex. There I witnessed Internet censorship first hand (at that time it was cool to see, now it is just an annoyance … and good for business).
Tell us about your company, Dragon Trail.
I co-founded Dragon Trail at the beginning of 2009 with George Cao, who also got his MBA from the Hotel School at Cornell University. While George has a vast background in travel technology both in the US and in China, my background is focused around strategic marketing and e-commerce.
At that time, just two years ago, people had started to actively look at the Chinese outbound tourism market, due to drastic changes in visa regulations, increased wealth in China, and a great appetite for travel to explore the world.When we [first] talked to tourist boards and hotel companies about the power of social media marketing in China, we received many blank stares.
We have since established ourselves as the leading travel technology and digital marketing company in China, focusing exclusively on China, travel, and digital. We help travel and tourism organizations connect to Chinese consumers by leveraging the Chinese online and social media landscape to develop and seed relevant content, executing results-driven digital marketing campaigns and enabling innovative technology solutions.
What is the state of internet usage in China related to travel?
China has the most Internet users in the world. With over 460 million Internet users, over 300 million mobile Internet users, and 92% social media engagement, the Internet has become the most influential medium in China, outpacing all other countries, according to the Digital Influence Index 2010 … E-commerce, while still small, is growing rapidly for travel purchases.
The social media infrastructure in China is very developed, and all the same services, from micro-blogging to video sharing, are all available and active – and most importantly, more relevant to the Chinese market than their western counterparts.
Popular sites such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter are blocked in China. The Chinese Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo, is projected to overtake Twitter in terms of numbers in less than a year, and it was only launched in 2008. Facebook has started to model applications after RenRen, one of the major social networks in China and once dubbed as the Chinese Facebook clone. Chinese domestic social media channels dominate and will do so for the foreseeable future.
What advice would you give to travel-related companies that want to expand into China and use social media as a marketing channel?
The first advice I would give is to set your expectations right. I have done e-commerce and online marketing in Europe and North America, and the rules of engagement, the metrics, and the channels are vastly different. Second, develop a strategy (in partnership with a trusted partner in China that knows the landscape, has the relationships and the experience in travel as well as in social media in China and globally). Make sure that the strategy is a layered plan, and not an ad-hoc campaign (like spending some money on Baidu and advertising).
Develop a website that is relevant, and not just a translation of the English site. Website hosting in China is critical in order to ensure organic local search engine optimization and optimal accessibility. Constant optimization of the social media landscape is critical in order to ensure content seeding, consumer engagement, and brand reputation. A solid technology partner is vital, especially when running campaigns, to ensure data quality and to protect the database from hackers.
In short: Do it right, invest appropriate resources, and be patient, or don’t do it all.
Are traveler reviews as influential to Chinese travelers as to Western travelers?
Yes, and probably even more so. Over 60% of Chinese Internet users make purchase decisions based on online reviews, compared to just over 20% in the US. The Chinese hotel review space is fairly new compared to the west but has been growing extremely fast.
Are the hotel and tourism industries in China engaging in online reputation management practices?
Yes. Obviously in a market where social media has such a high engagement rate, monitoring a brand’s reputation and performance on these channels is critical.
When it comes to hotels, there are various sites that offer reviews to Chinese consumers. TripAdvisor runs a Chinese version of its site called Daodao.com, and it is probably the leader. Hotel OTAs such as Ctrip to eLong have also integrated social media and review functionality. So from that standpoint, it is pretty easy to manage a hotel’s reputation, and sophisticated technology and software is probably pre-mature. Of the leading hotel reputation management companies, nobody is active in China, and the only one (to my knowledge) that has integrated Chinese hotel reviews from Ctrip into its dashboard is Brand Karma by Circos.
When it comes to tourism, there is really no system on the market that helps tourism organizations manage their reputation online. It is also a much harder task, given the wide nature of tourism related topics that could be monitored. There are various iWOM (Internet Word of Mouth) monitoring companies, and the leading one is Shanghai-based CIC. But none of these is focusing on tourism.
The Canadian Tourism Commission has launched the first two phases of an awareness campaign since receiving Approved Destination Status. The first phase was called “Hello Canada”, and focused on an application where Chinese people could complete one of three virtual trips for a chance to be entered to win a real life trip to Canada. Over 3.5 million people visited the sites, and almost 300,000 customer data (including email, mobile phone, and Chinese residence) were captured. The second phase, which is running in June and July, is called “Explore Canada”, and brings out Canadian experiences in a multi-media campaign. [Both phases use Dragon Trail technology.]
Other destinations that have leveraged social media in China include Australia and New Zealand. We have noticed that many times organizations just spend advertising funds on social media sites instead of leveraging social media channels to reduce advertising spend in order to achieve a viral spread. In the case of our award-winning Banff Lake Louise Tourism campaign, we developed their Chinese website and then launched the site with a social media campaign without any advertising spend, seeing almost 200,000 visitors and almost 80,000 registrations.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
With Chinese consumers shifting from large tour groups to individual travel experiences, new challenges and opportunities arise. We have done a lot of research in this area, and have some exciting solutions coming out later this year to take advantage of the new opportunities. Stay tuned.
Top 6 tips to market to affluent Chinese consumers, Dragon Trail slide presentation
Tapping into the Chinese travel market, BBC video
China now world’s third-biggest tourism draw, by Tan Zongyang and Shi Yingying, ChinaDaily.com
China’s online distribution lags other markets, by Jason Q. Freed, HotelNewsNow.com
The 21st Century Game-Changer Up Close: China Outbound Tourism, by Daniel J. Voellm, HVS Global Hospitality Services, Hong Kong
The Grand Tour: Europe on fifteen hundred yuan a day, by Evan Osnos, The New Yorker
The invisible hands behind web postings, by Duan Yan, ChinaDaily.com