China tourism marketing – What works in Chinese social media, PR and trade marketing right now.
Episode 82 of Tourism Upgrade is LIVE from our Tourism Upgrade LIVE Sydney event held at The Dolphin Hotel in Surry Hills and we talk China tourism marketing. We had around 80 people attend this live event from hotels, airlines, tourism businesses and media. I host a panel with two fantastic guests: Saxon Booth from Dragon Trail Interactive and Kate Marsden from BridgeClimb Sydney. Ignore the background crowd noise and tune into the fantastic insights delivered by my guests. We didn’t record question time as the audio was too soft but if you have any questions please add them in the comments below. Enjoy this fantastic LIVE episode on China tourism marketing.
China Tourism Marketing
HollyG: Today, the topic is China tourism marketing, and so we are lucky to have with us two guests, to my left we have Saxon Booth, and Saxon has been working and living in China for five years and currently lives in Shanghai and he works with a digital marketing agency, that I’ve had a little bit to do with over the last few years and interviewed several times on my podcast called Dragon Trail Interactive. And they have worked with some of the biggest tourism brands including Los Angeles Tourism, Destination Canada, Scoot Airlines, Hard Rock Cafe, and there is quite a long list of who they’ve worked with. They target the affluent Chinese consumers through digital marketing campaigns.
We also have Kate Marsden who works for BridgeClimb Sydney. Kate is the Marketing Development Manager, and she’s worked extensively with the China market over that time, seen it grow by 67% in the last twelve months alone, and it is now the third top inbound market for BridgeClimb. So, we’ve discussed a few things over coffee a few times and I’m really thrilled that you could make it today and we can pick your brain and you could join the panel.
Photos from the Tourism Upgrade LIVE Sydney event, 25 May 2017
I guess we all know that over one million visitors from China came to Australia in 2016, and the majority of these travels are for holiday. We know that Sydney is the top destination of choice, and that China actually has the largest total spend and visitor nights. And we know that the China market use a lot of online sources, above average compared to other markets.
My first question is, how do we know if our tourism business or if our tourism destination is suited to the Chinese traveller?
Saxon Booth: Well, there’s some funny facts that you can kind of dig out when you look at the Chinese outbound market. So, one in three visitors to the North and the South Pole are Chinese consumers for example. So, that’s something that maybe not a lot of people would expect, and I don’t think those destinations were expecting that, they weren’t profiling the Chinese consumer for that to happen. I don’t think there is one Chinese consumer, maybe there never was and there certainly isn’t anymore. We can see that in objective kind of data about the way the changing evolution of the destinations that they are going to, the growth in long haul, the reduction in short haul, these kinds of things.
I don’t think there is one Chinese consumer, maybe there never was and there certainly isn’t anymore. – Saxon Booth, Dragon Trail Interactive, May 2017
You can see it in a lot of the subjective survey data about what they’re looking for when they’re going overseas. The cliche is shopping tours and things like that, it’s not really like that anymore. These things are still important, I think group is still important, so those kinds of cliches I guess that people have about the Chinese market, they still hold true in some way. But, it’s a move to an experiential kind of form of tourism.
I think that bodies like Tourism Australia have already acknowledged that and are moving in that space. So, I think if you are ready it is because, if you have a destination or a product that’s already ready for a long-haul visitor from another country, I think you are already part of the way there with Chinese, because they are wanting different experiences and are not wanting one kind of thing.
I think then of course there are things you can do on top of that to be China ready. There are people that can train you, there are digital marketing tools and PR tools you can use in the market to sort of raise awareness. But, I think fundamentally there’s no one kind of Chinese consumer anymore, so everyone’s potentially ready.
HollyG: Yeah, and I think that’s a really good point to make and that sort of preconceived idea of what we have or had of China sort of needs to go out the window.
So, my question to Kate is how and why did BridgeClimb decide to go after this market that’s now the third biggest inbound market for BridgeClimb?
Kate Marsden: We started targeting China about five years ago. So, compared to a lot of other attractions and hotel players and tourism upgrades in the market, that’s pretty recent. Basically, post GFC our two key markets, US and UK was flat. So, the business really needed to diversify, we have been around now, we started in 1998, so the local market also, I wouldn’t say saturated, but a lot of Sydney locals had already climbed. So, it was really time to start looking to a new market.
What Saxon was saying before about the group market, that was always there, so China wasn’t really suited for BridgeClimb when it was so over saturated by the group market, because we are a higher priced product and we go for about two or three hours. So, on a really condensed itinerary that these groups coming out from China are doing, we just weren’t suited. But, as the independent traveller started to grow, the business felt, well this is really a good opportunity to start to look at this market.
So, I guess some macro-factors certainly were a key thing, and then basically we just started with looking at the China plan. So, it was a three/four month exercise. We were talking to a lot of the inbound tour operators, and basically creating a China plan, which culminated in launching a special climb that ran the same time every day, with a Mandarin speaking climb leader and then off the back of that all of the market assets and so forth that needed to underpin that new product for the market.
HollyG: Very interesting. We talk about the five stages of travel or the customer journey. So, dreaming, planning, booking experience and sharing or similar, there’s a few different versions. I will direct this next question to you Saxon. How are we inspiring this market, or how are consumers hearing about our destinations or our businesses in the first place?
Saxon Booth: I think they’re first hearing about it through word of mouth. So, for small and medium businesses that are already seeing a bit of foot traffic, they need to be doing more to create a good customer experience for Chinese consumers. Which is something that BridgeClimb is doing. They can open up even a personal social media account and get every customer that comes to BridgeClimb to scan and start pushing some information about them so that they have something to shout out to online and can tell their mother, their father, their networks about you. So, you get that word of mouth started there.
I think, on the bigger scale for bigger brands that can afford and have the will to do big own kind of channels. In China, you have got WeChat obviously, so new data is out recently, nine hundred million monthly active users, 50% of them spend more than an hour on it every day. It’s an incredible platform, but with that opportunity for a lot of eyes on your content, it means a lot of other people are competing for it as well. So, I think being a bit annoying, getting back to basics, content is key. So, trying to do something localised and interesting for the Chinese consumer, because there’s not one kind of Chinese consumer anymore. So, not just giving them a typical top ten, top five, not trying to make them like you. I think you have to tell interesting stories to keep them engaged over time, and be a bit patient about how that converts.
Then, of course there’s all these different kinds of things you can do to aggregate and kind of get more exposure. KOL’s, maybe advertising formats, you can look at other emerging video and live streaming platforms. It’s hard to give a specific answer in the time that we have, there’s a lot you can do and I think we can talk more in the question and answers about some of the specific things. I guess I will leave it at that for the moment.
HollyG: And what’s BridgeClimb doing from a social media and digital perspective, assuming that this was a key part of this strategy?
Kate Marsden: Yeah, so a key part of the strategy at the beginning was obviously setting up all of our key assets. So, not only collateral and copy, but also the digital assets of the .cn website. So, making sure it was housed on their side of the firewall where we can reach out and then right through to the distribution through the trade, which I think we will talk about later, but it’s such an important part of the mix.
That probably took two years, it took a long time to establish those channels and get them kicking along and coming and us knowing what kind of content on social that our audience responded to. So, then two, two and a half years into our China plan and our moving into this market, we decided to embark on a really big research project with a Shanghai based marketing research company. Where we got them to basically map that customer journey for us.
So, we said, “Tell us all of the channels that a typical Chinese independent traveller is going on, from the inspiration phase through to planning, through to even whilst they are on holiday to post holiday review, map those channels out for us and on top of that, and then overlay on top of that all of the BridgeClimb content and most importantly where there was no BridgeClimb content?” So, that told us where the gaps were, and what we needed to do to start to plug those gaps. And a lot of it’s come back to social.
Saxon Booth: I might add one thing there. I think everyone talks about WeChat, we’re kind of pushing a lot more this year that WeChat is really a service platform, so yes you know there are a hundred million people on it and they are looking at branded content. But it’s a service platform, it’s a chat platform, you can run payments through it, you can run bookings through it, you can have a CRM system built into the back end to kind of marry up your fans with your actual paying customers or other kinds of classes of fans if you like.
It does so many things, so actually it’s not just something that you get on an inspiration phase, you’ve got a planning phase, you’ve got menus and reply systems that can help people evaluate the product. You can run the bookings of the purchase phase, you can tag your fans and work with partners to try and send them content and destinations targeted at a particular group. So, it has this cool range of functions that I think is not fully utilised at least in the tourism sector yet.
The fast moving consumer goods and things like that, they are doing a lot on WeChat, but tourism’s a bit behind maybe. So, don’t just think of it as an inspiration tool, it’s definitely a service platform for your customers as well.
HollyG: And can you mention about the payments in Melbourne?
Saxon Booth: Yeah, so I’ve seen one WeChat payment facility in Australia so far, which was SkyBus the bus service from Tullamarine to the city in Melbourne which was really cool, but I haven’t seen it in Sydney just yet. And there are companies helping people set that up, so it’s available. I’m not sure how difficult it is to set up, I don’t have experience on the ground with it. But, if you offer that facility, you’ve got a talking point, that customers are going to go back and talk about that, at the point of sale, you have got the opportunity to get them in as a fan in your account. So, it has different kinds of benefits other than just being more convenient for the consumer.
HollyG: Do you have other forms of payment set up than we have talked about?
Kate Marsden: Yeah, so we don’t yet have WeChat Wallet, but it’s coming and to that point we actually, as a brand you maybe may know you can either set yourself up on WeChat as an official account or a subscription account. The official account gives you all of that functionality that Saxon was just talking about, two and a half years into to our China plan putting all of this content in our subscription of WeChat account, we just realised that for the long-term that was the wrong account for us. So, we cancelled that one and literally started from scratch with a new WeChat account that enables us to have this functionality.
So, taking a long-term view, sometimes you need to take a hit in order to realise that it’s such a growing channel and we need to move with how things are going. But we do have AliPay, and AliPay very quickly overtook UnionPay within six weeks of us launching AliPay. AliPay is so much more than a payment gateway, I look at it as a content publisher, a way that I can drive tactical promotions. They have got a Sydney office here who are so easy to work with and really want to work with the tourism industry. So, I really encourage you if you want to run tactical promotions contact them or I will happily put you into contact. And they have got a Sydney guide within the AliPay app, so when a Chinese traveller lands in Sydney, they bring up this Sydney guide and there is all this content there. So, and then you can run tactical promotions within that. So, it’s such a powerful tool and it’s been a really important tool for us probably in the last six months.
HollyG: Wow, that’s great results. Okay, I’m going to move off social now just to keep moving. I want to ask the question about where does PR fit into what you’ve done with BridgeClimb and I guess some of the experiences you’ve had from a PR perspective?
Kate Marsden: Yes, so we’ve really, really used PR as such an important tool for us. So, at the very beginning we did a load of PR stunts, and I shouldn’t call them a stunt, PR events on the bridge. So, that involves such things as having a 15 metre Chinese Dragon climb up the eastern arch of the bridge for Chinese New Year. We’ve had a Mahjong championship game at the very top of the bridge. We’ve had Chinese Valentine’s day up there, yoga. And we invite the local Chinese media who are so, so accommodating and they’re so easy to work with and also the stringers from say CCTV, Shinwha, People’s Daily, and that has been such a great way that we’ve been able to get our brand out there. The other thing that we’ve started to do with PR is actually create really curative PR events. So, we’ve worked with other attractions in Sydney, and one example was we got a bunch of Chinese travellers and gave them the ultimate introduction to Sydney. So, they had a climb of the bridge, they went up to Bondi to go surfing, the day ended with them at The Strand Arcade getting a Akrooba hat fitting, and we followed them around the whole day, a reality TV star filming them. And with our agency in China we chopped all that content up and they pitched and placed specific content to keep publications throughout China. And that was a really important tool for us. So, we got runs in Women’s Health in China, Condé Nast, and so mixing up between having these one-off events and these kind of campaigns that take a long time to develop but get you long film content in markets, have been a really successful part of our marketing plan.
HollyG: And where do you see the PR hits in terms of that customer journey? I guess, is it more in the research phase?
Kate Marsden: Yes, inspiration, dreaming, topical fun, chat stuff. It’s the way that we get them into the funnel and then hopefully get them onto our channels where we can push them down further.
HollyG: Did you want to talk too this?
Saxon Booth: A little bit. Obviously, we are a digital agency, so we don’t do traditional PR. But I think one of the things Kate said was interesting in that definitely traditional media is really important for exposure and inspiration. But also focusing on events I think that’s an important thing in PR. It’s become more important, I think PR has changed a lot. The way we would see PR from our perspective, is we kind of do some kind of digital PR, so obviously we are setting up people on branded own channels.
But then if they’ve got budgets to do some different kinds of advertising online the typical [inaudible 00:18:40] and banners and things like that, that’s their own. But we can hook them up with quite a lot of media entrepreneurs that are opening up media platforms on WeChat, so there’s a whole kind of class of media entrepreneurs in China that are kind of dropping out from journalism and things like that, seeing a niche and opening up a WeChat platform. They are running some really cool content, getting a following, monetising and then they’re becoming like an online magazine. And there are ones that just kind of come up out of nowhere that suddenly are more popular than any destination accountant would ever dream of.
Running really interesting content around the world, local kind of interesting experiences, they are not pushing to groups, they are pushing to independent travellers. So, you can work with them on a content partner basis, or you can have advertising on their platform.
So, that’s something that we kind of do in the PR space. Otherwise we just work with partners and when we are working from a plan, one with traditional PR.
HollyG: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting trend and we talked about this at the Melbourne event two nights ago, about a shift away from the huge big publications into the small niche self-publishing sort of stuff that seems to be happening in China, but also we are seeing that all over the world.
Now, is there any point doing any of this marketing activity if we don’t have distribution pathways? I guess the question is, how are people booking or how are you working with trade and how does trade fit into this whole picture?
Kate Marsden: The easy answer is, no it would be pointless without distribution through trade. We do a lot of b to c marketing, but there’s still overwhelmingly booking through the trade. We would get probably 20% at the most booking direct on our .cn website, even though we’ve got Chinese payment forms and a .cn house website. So, the trade partnerships are so important, certainly for the independent travellers more and more the OTA’s are the key ones, and there’s so much focus in China of the top five OTA’s you know, the likes of Ctrip, BiChange, WhoKnew, we’ve focused on those, but we’ve found we’ve got most cut through through the medium to smaller OTA’s who are willing to work with you from a marketing point of view as well as a sales tactical point of view. And I really encourage you to look at if you are sitting in the middle, because from a marketing perspective you would probably be doing a lot more with them. Good luck with getting a tactical promotion through Ctrip, but it takes many meetings and hours and so forth.
Saxon Booth: I would say the same, there’s a lot of stats coming out about independent travellers, and I think it’s absolutely true there’s a trend towards FIT in China, but I think a lot of that FIT is technically maybe in-between it’s a semi-independent traveller and it’s getting inspired, doing their own planning, doing their own research. But then parts of the trip they’re still going to go to a travel agent, whether it’s to book the flight on Ctrip or whether it’s to go to a travel agent to book an attraction, these kinds of things.
So, you need to be looking at empowering the trade to not only become aware, create awareness in the trade, but empower them to sell. Give them really good information and training, whether it’s online or it’s in person, to kind of make sure that when they are inspiring these people to come in that they can close the deal effectively. I think that’s really important.
Working with Chinese KOLs (Key Opinion Leader)
HollyG: There’s one other aspect that I wanted to talk about which is the rise and rise of the KOL. Have either of you had experience working with KOL’s and maybe if you want to start to just give an overview of what a KOL is so that everyone in the room knows?
Kate Marsden: Yeah, love, tourism and all the acronyms. Key opinion leader. So, it can be a range of things, so anything from a tier one to be a top celebrity down to tier two, tier three, like what Saxon was talking about. Even some of these ex-journalists for example have set up an aggregated site on WeChat and they’ve got one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand followers. They’re a worthwhile KOL too.
We’ve worked as well, we get KOL’s kind of the T1’s through TA and DSW, but what we did was in a kind of off the back of that customer journey research piece that I talked about earlier, was a huge gap that we identified was user generated content, that was just lacking for BridgeClimb. And many of you know, you can’t take a camera up onto the bridge, so that automatic sharing for our product there’s a gap there. So, we saw KOL’s as a really good opportunity for us to start to fill that gap.
Knowing that we can’t just fly a KOL over to Sydney from China and get them to do a bridge climb and put them on a plane, and get them to go back, it’s just completely unrealistic. So, we partnered with a bunch of other attractions including Sydney Opera House, some hotels and destinations in New South Wales and launched our own KOL programme, so we’ve hosted 24 KOL’s over three trips. Were we basically co-invested working with a PR agency in Beijing and the content output from that has been really really good.
It’s been a great partnership across other attractions and tourism operators who are going after independent travellers too and who basically can’t do it alone and we all can meet.
HollyG: Yeah, because it’s known to be quite an expensive exercise.
Saxon Booth: Yeah, KOL’s are professionalised in China in a way that they are not in other markets, so they expect to be paid. So, they had to pool resources probably to be able to get some to come out. So, there’s even schools that we are seeing to train KOL, there are agencies and market places for KOL’s. So, I think there’s a lot of risk sometimes in working with them, you don’t know whether the stats and the data really adds up. I think the shift is away from the big kind of celebrity mega KOL’s that have a lot of followers they’re too expensive and they’re not targeted. So, there’s a lot of people we would consider KOL’s and maybe a professional travel photographer that’s got 400,000 followers on Weibo, that’s small for a KOL.
But, he or she is going to take amazing pictures of your destination, you get great physical visual assets out of it. Plus, they’re going to be pushing it back to their following that’s all interested in travel photography. So, hitting these kinds of niches is really important. Using those self media on WeChat we were talking about as well is really important too. I think KOL’s it’s an interesting space, and I think the trend in western markets is similar to that people are looking to these niches now, because that’s a targeted group of people that are following that person that maybe are a bit warmer, they want to lead, they want it to convert. So, there’s a lot of options in China Weibo and WeChat to work with the KOL’s. But again it is the challenge of hitting that right target.
HollyG: Yeah, we are seeing them now called micro influencers, whether they have got a smaller amount of numbers or whether they are just working in a particular niche. And it’s interesting from what we’ve all talked about that it’s quite global, that trend.
Now, my final question for the moment, I guess if a business or destination hasn’t strategically started with China at this point, are they too late?
Saxon Booth: Absolutely not, I mean I have to say that, but it’s true. I think that maybe short haul destinations if you’re a tourism operator in Thailand or Korea you might have a little bit of a problem. We are seeing just recently this week, 7.5% reduction in Thailand in the first three months of the year, but they are getting I think 12 million Chinese tourists a year. So, maybe it’s not a huge impact, but it’s maybe a bit of a trend.
We can see in the outgoing trends that long haul destinations are growing. Different kinds of niches are popping up, double digit growth in Morocco, they just libralized their visa last year. Different geopolitical things that are driving changes as well. Australia by 1.2 million I think last year, I don’t think that’s anywhere near where we can get. We’re a long haul destination, but we’re not that far away. It’s not a difficult flight. We have a great brand here and with that kind of switch away from short haul, I think mid 2016 was the first year that more Chinese tourists started going to places outside of greater China, so not just Hong Kong but Kowloon and Taiwan. So, that trend is just happening structurally and I think it’s a great opportunity for Australia to grow, to grow the business here. I think the other thing is the traveller profile is changing so potentially higher value tourists are coming in the next couple of years, even though the numbers might maybe not have the double digit growth. So, I think, yes it’s a good time for Australia with China.
HollyG: I think there’s some stat out there that only 4% of the China population have a passport at this point in time.
Saxon Booth: Yes, 5%.
HollyG: So, that surely must present an opportunity.
Kate Marsden: Yeah, I agree. And something else is all of the air routes that are opening up in the tier two cities, looking back at our PR at Outreach a huge focus of us now is going out and trying to get exposure through the tier two cities and their key publications. Because if they’ve got a direct flight into Sydney then that’s a new market for us that wasn’t there before. So, they often say you should chop up China into multi regions, and we do that based a lot of the time on the air access into Sydney and focusing on those mini markets that have the most potential for us.
HollyG: I really appreciate you coming, and I hope you’ve found it really valuable. Enjoy!
Tweet me with any comments or feedback @hollygalbraith or email is good too holly (at) hollyg.com.au
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Other China Tourism Marketing episodes you may enjoy
Listen to Episode 75 here – Tips for your 2017 China marketing plan
Listen to episode 55 here – China Ready for Travel & Tourism – a case study
Listen to episode 50 here – Tourism marketing China 2016
Listen to episode 23 here – Insights into Chinese outbound tourism