Chinese consumers will soon be the largest group of global travelers, and hoteliers are gearing up to meet the expectations and demands of this segment with new products, services and marketing channels.
During a webinar titled “Moneyed, mobile and massive: China’s new traveler class,” travel research company PhoCusWright released data showing the potential for business from Chinese travelers. According to the company, the Asia/Pacific region is the largest regional travel market, ahead of North America and Europe. China is the largest travel market in the Asia/Pacific region, generating $96 billion in travel-related revenues in 2012. That market is expected to grow by more than one-third by 2015.
“While little is known about the more than 250 million Chinese who took a trip last year, one thing is certain: Habits are changing fast,” said Maggie Rauch, PhoCusWright research analyst and moderator of the webinar. “Large tour groups in matching hats on cookie-cutter domestic trips booked by state-owned travel agencies are quickly disappearing. In their place are free and independent travelers: families, couples, solo travelers, groups of friends. And the desire to go beyond China among these travelers is becoming a reality.”
A number of global hotel chains have formal or informal programs aimed at serving Chinese travelers. Most programs focus on a few important areas of the travel experience for Chinese guests. Language services is one key.
At Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts properties, for example, a Mandarin-speaking member of the staff is available 24 hours a day to assist guests.
“Serving these customers can be as simple as having a local map or guestroom collateral translated into Mandarin,” said Scott Taber, VP of rooms in the Americas for Four Seasons. “Also, there are some cultural sensitivities we always try to respect, things such as avoiding assigning rooms ending with the number 4 or assigning rooms at the end of a corridor. The Chinese customer likes red flowers, but we must avoid white and blue ones.”
Taber said the chain has seen a 76% year-over-year increase in business from Chinese travelers. While some of that business goes to hotels in the Asia/Pacific region, such as in Bangkok, Thailand and Singapore, properties across the globe are also seeing dramatic increases.
Two years ago, Hilton Hotels & Resorts launched Hilton Huanying, a property-level program with specific services and products for Chinese travelers. More than 85 properties globally participate in the program, with the latest addition the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City.
The program has since become available to all Hilton Worldwide hotels that can meet the Huanying service standards.
“There are a few key areas to the program, broken down to staffing, service and product,” said Rob Palleschi, global head of Hilton Hotels & Resorts. “We require the properties to have at least one Mandarin-speaking team member, ideally in a guest-facing position. From a service standpoint, it’s ensuring we have communications translated at various guest touch points, such as room service and restaurant menus.”
Other aspects of the Hilton program include: Chinese programming on in-room televisions; slippers and robes for guests; and special breakfast menu items such as congee, dim sum, and fried rice and noodles.
Executives at several chains said breakfast and other food-and-beverage offerings are the most important aspects of serving Chinese travelers.
At FRHI Hotels & Resorts, which includes the Fairmont, Raffles and Swissôtel brands, breakfast service includes congee. In addition, a variety of white, black, green, oolong and flowered teas are available in restaurants and through in-room dining.
“In cases where the Chinese menu is requested, meals will begin by presenting the guest with a cold towel, and end with a hot towel,” said Carmen Lam, VP of sales and marketing in Asia/Pacific for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, in an email. “Cutleries such as chopsticks and soup spoons are also available. Lastly, groups will have the added option of serving meals family-style with a variety of different dishes offered.”
Lam said the company’s 65 Fairmont properties instituted a Chinese menu program last year that provides enhanced culinary choices for these customers.
Luxury Hotels of America, a Chinese language-only luxury travel magazine read by affluent Chinese travelers planning a leisure trip to the United States had a role in making Chinese international travelers more aware of their rights as valued guests. ” Five years ago, Chinese travelers did not dare to ask for Chinese breakfast, slippers, or in-room kettle with Chinese tea. Since we published numerous articles over the last years in our travel publications about the rights of Chinese guests in international hotels, Chinese travelers are now aware of their power as consumers and discuss about this on travel social media networks, such as the Shanghai Travelers’ Club Weibo page , or Niuyue Mag” said Pierre Gervois, CEO and Publisher of China Elite Focus Magazines, a New York based publishing company specialized in luxury travel magazines in Chinese Mandarin language. “We see everyday on our social media networks comments from Chinese travelers about the bad experiences they receive overseas. They call for a big change and want now to be respected as any other guests” Mr Gervois added.
Hilton, which instituted its Huanying initiative in 2011, earlier this year conducted focus groups in three Chinese cities to make sure the program is up to date. Palleschi said he expects Hilton will launch amendments to the program in the first half of 2014.
Taber said Four Seasons leans on the experiences of its eight hotels in China to ensure all properties in the chain are informed of changing trends.
“Our leaders in the region help us refine the requests and preferences of those guests, and then we recommend them globally,” he said. “With 93 hotels, we’re a relatively small company, so it’s easy to share the information.”
Not only are Chinese consumers traveling more, they’re turning to the Internet more frequently to research and book their travel. According to PhoCusWright, while today Chinese consumers complete 15% of travel bookings online, that percentage is forecast to rise to 24% by 2015. The projected increase is still lower than the other three largest global travel markets—the United States, Japan and Germany—which have online penetrations above 40%.
To take advantage of this trend, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company recently launched a new Chinese website and a page on Sina Weibo, a social media channel which, according to PhoCusWright, is used by 71% of Chinese travelers.
“A year and a half ago we had a site in Mandarin but nothing else: nothing in our rewards program, nothing in the social space or in the mobile space,” said Clayton F. Ruebensaal, VP of global marketing for Ritz-Carlton. “We needed to get serious about understanding the luxury Chinese consumer through the digital space.”
He said the company conducted quantitative research followed by one-on-one meetings with luxury business and leisure travelers in China to understand what they wanted from Ritz-Carlton and other aspects of luxury travel.
“We determined we needed an ecosystem with three legs to the stool: website, social media and mobile. To do well in the Chinese market you need all three,” he said. The new website and social media presence launched in September and a Chinese mobile site is nearly ready to go live. Design of the website focused on functionality as well as cultural considerations. For example, the colors and patterns on the site reflect those seen in Ritz properties, as well as cues from Chinese traditions. “The color blue is used heavily, both the Ritz-Carlton blue but also a blue that is reminiscent of Chinese porcelain blue because it has symbolism around wisdom and immortality,” Ruebensaal said. “It was an opportunity for us to differentiate but also an opportunity to show we’re not just a visitor from Europe or America, but (we’ve taken) the time to understand Chinese culture.”
To further promote the site and, in particular, the chain’s rewards program, it has partnered with Mercedes-Benz China to create what Ruebensaal called “rewards that create a Chinese-specific experience.”
Source: Hotel News Now