Prof. Xiang (Robert) Li
Research coordinated by Prof. Xiang (Robert) Li, Ph.D. School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management
University of South Carolina Columbia, South Carolina
Tel (803) 777-2764 email@example.com
Note: This article is a short version of the research report, specially edited for this blog. Please contact directly the author should you need the full version.
Although the development of Chinese outbound tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, China has quickly become a major tourist-generating market drawing worldwide awareness (Pan, Li, Zhang, & Smith, 2007; Ryan & Gu, 2008). As a major player in the international tourism market, the United States is among the last Western countries obtaining Approved Destination Status (ADS) and joining in the competition for Chinese outbound tourists. In December 2007, the American and Chinese governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that granted the United States the benefits of the ADS (e.g., allowing Chinese travel agents to sell U.S. travel products to group leisure travelers and permitting American destinations to promote themselves in China) (Burnett, Cook, & Li, 2008; Sheatsley, Li, & Harrill, 2009). Six months after the signing of the MOU, the first organized leisure travel groups from China arrived in the United States, immediately sparking great industry and media attention. Much of this attention seemed to come from a lack of understanding of but increasing interest in Chinese outbound travelers and the Chinese market. As their counterparts in many other Western countries, American tourism and hospitality practitioners frequently ask: What kind of services should we deliver to Chinese tourists? This paper attempts to provide some preliminary insight into this question. Understanding customers’ expectations and preferences, and the benefits they seek is critical to marketers. Some have considered it “the starting point for all marketing efforts” (Kaczynski, 2008, p. 254). In the consumer behavior literature, the disconfirmation paradigm holds that customer satisfaction is a function of performance-specific expectation and expectancy disconfirmation (Oliver, 1980). Service marketing researchers also believe that customers’ perception of service quality involves a comparison of service performance against their expectations (Shoemaker et al., 2007). Further, the classic service quality model (Parasuraman et al., 1985) proposes five gaps critical to customers’ perceived service quality, of which Gap 1 (difference between consumer expectations for service/quality and management perceptions of consumer expectations) and Gap 5 (difference between consumer expectations about service/quality and perceptions of actual service/quality) both relate to consumer expectations. Thus, it seems that understanding Chinese tourists’ expectations is crucial for delivering quality services to this market. The purpose of this paper, then, is to qualitatively examine Chinese tourists’ service expectations when traveling overseas.
Finally, across different countries and cultures, peoples’ behavioral characteristics, values, and expectations can differ substantially. The work of Turner and colleagues (2001) suggested that cultural differences would influence the importance customers assigned to different aspects of services, and then their pre-travel expectations, which would in turn significantly affect their post-trip satisfaction level. For most Western marketers who have limited experiences with Chinese customers, it is important to acknowledge that conventional marketing wisdom, mainly acquired from research and experiences with Western consumers, may not apply to Chinese tourists. This study will focus on Chinese outbound travelers’ expectations on non-Asian travel products, where cultural differences are likely to play a role. Ultimately, the authors expect that findings from the present study may help lay some groundwork for new tourism marketing conceptualizations and a more universal research paradigm (Li & Petrick, 2008).
2. Literature review
Service Expectation: The Conceptual Background
Customer expectations are “pretrial beliefs about a product …that serve as standards or reference points against which product performance is judged” (Zeithaml, Berry, & Parasuraman, 1993, p. 1). Most research on service expectations has entailed examination of either service quality or satisfaction. This comes as no surprise considering the central role expectation plays in conceptualizing satisfaction and service quality (Moutinho, 1987; Oliver, 1980; Parasuraman, Berry, & Zeithaml, 1991; Pizam, Neumann, & Reichel, 1978; Turner, Reisinger, & McQuilken, 2001; Zeithaml et al., 1993).
Customer expectations have been studied in cross-cultural contexts. For instance, in their study on hotel service quality and customer satisfaction in China, Y. Wang and Pearson (2002) assessed service expectation by evaluating the importance of various service items. More recently, Kanousi’s (2005) study showed that culture may impact service recovery expectations, and specifically individualism, masculinity, and long-term orientation (i.e., three of the five Hofstede cultural dimensions) were related to service recovery expectations. Similarly, Kueh and Voon (2007) examined how culture influences the service expectations of Generation Y consumers, and their findings showed that uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation positively affected service quality expectations, but power distance affected service quality expectations in a negative way.
Taking a qualitative approach, Lidén and Edvardsson (2003) examined customer expectations on service guarantees in public transport. In seven focus group sessions, participants were told how to develop a chart of their expectations on service guarantees. Lidén and Edvardsson (2003) also explored in detail customers’ needs and thoughts as sources of expectation. Their findings emphasized the importance of fairness as part of the guideline of service guarantee design. Next, the authors will turn to a review of Chinese outbound tourism. 2.3. The Development of Chinese Outbound Tourism
The Chinese government, through the establishment of the Approved Destination Status (ADS) system, started allowing the Chinese public to travel overseas for leisure purposes in early 1990s. Nevertheless, some may argue the starting point of Chinese outbound tourism could be tracked back to 1983, when Mainland Chinese citizens were allowed to visit Hong Kong and Macao under special arrangements (Qu & Lam, 1997; Zhang & Heung, 2001). In 1997, through the enactment of the “Provisional Regulation on Self-supported Outbound Travel,” the Chinese government officially revised its tourism policy so that people could travel abroad at their own expense (Arlt, 2006; Guo, Kim, & Timothy, 2007). To date, there were a total of 139 countries and territories with ADS, and 104 of these agreements were already implemented (Qian, 2010). In 2009, Mainland Chinese citizens made approximately 47.66 million trips outside Mainland China (Qian, 2010).
The rapid growth of Chinese outbound tourism has been frequently associated with such descriptors as “stunning” or “astonishing” (Guo et al., 2007; Y. Wang & Sheldon, 1995). Thanks to the country’s fast economic development, rising individual wealth, and the relaxation of much travel restrictions imposed by authorities, the Chinese outbound tourism market grew at an average rate of 21 percent per year from 1997 to 2007 (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 1998; 2004; 2008). Indeed, the unleashed demand for travel abroad is so large that the growth rate of China’s outbound travel surpassed that of the country’s national economy, inbound and domestic tourism, and primarily all other Asian and developed countries (Guo et al., 2007). Also, Chinese outbound tourism has been developing steadily; in 2003, when SARS was sweeping the globe, the total number of Chinese outbound visitors still increased by 21.8% (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2004). In the year of 2009, despite the global economic slowdown, China outbound tourism maintains a 4-percent growth rate (Qian, 2010).
From destinations’ point of view, China has become an important source market. In Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines, the Greater China Region (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan) has emerged as their leading source market (Japanese Tourism Marketing Co., 2009; Philippine Department of Tourism, 2009; Singapore Department of Statistics, 2009). In other countries, such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, China is among their fastest-growing source markets and has quickly become one of their top Asian markets (Canadian Tourism Commission, 2008; Office for National Statistics, 2008; Sheatsley et al., 2009).
A recent study estimated that the current Chinese outbound travel market comprises approximately 22 million people who have traveled or plan to travel to destinations outside Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao. Among them, 11.5 million have traveled or plan to travel to destinations outside Asia (Li, Harrill, Uysal, Burnett, & Zhan, 2010). Although the current size of Chinese outbound travel is already quite impressive, from a percentage-of-total population standpoint, Chinese outbound tourism development remains in an early stage but with huge growth potential (Lim & Y. Wang, 2008). Further, despite the current global economic slowdown, China’s economy is by and large in good shape. Chinese outbound travel is hence expected to continue growing steadily (although at a lower rate) and “contribute to the stability of the world’s tourism economy” (Dai, 2008). This will probably make China an even more important target market for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) worldwide.
Studies Related to Chinese Outbound Tourists‟ Expectations
Corresponding to the growth of Chinese outbound tourism, more studies on Chinese tourists’ travel behavior have recently been published. Of particular relevance to the present study is a line of research on key factors affecting Chinese tourists’ travel experiences and service evaluation, which indirectly tackled the issue of service expectations. For instance, Yu and Weiler (2001) analyzed the behavior of Mainland Chinese pleasure travelers to Australia and found that Chinese pleasure travelers preferred package travel because of convenience and reasonable prices. Their findings suggested that the major benefits sought by Chinese visitors in a pleasure trip include scenic beauty, safety, famous attractions, different cultures, and services in hotels and restaurants among others. Yu and Weiler (2001) also reported that Chinese tourists’ satisfaction level varied among gender, educational backgrounds, and their travel party. In a comprehensive review on the development and implications of Mainland Chinese outbound tourism, Guo and colleagues (2007) indicated that Mainland Chinese tourists generally prefer package tours involving multiple destination countries, which seems to deliver better value for money than single-destination package. The authors expressed concern over the lack of well-trained professional tour guides escorting Chinese tourists, which could substantially affect their outbound travel experiences. As for shopping, the authors suggested that Chinese tourists prefer purchasing electronics and famous brand-name items for their extended network of friends, family, even acquaintances. Finally, based on findings from a survey on Chinese outbound tourists’ consumption behaviors (Project Team, 2003), the authors reported that most Chinese tourists were highly satisfied with destination accommodation, locals’ attitudes toward Chinese visitors, and their overall travel experiences abroad. However, they were least impressed by the food served in their destinations.
According to Y. Wang, Vela, and Tyler (2008), the service expectations of Chinese travelers differed based on their travel purposes. The result from a survey using an adapted SERVQUAL questionnaire showed that Chinese tourists expected reliable and enthusiastic services and adequate facilities, similar to what typical hotels in China would offer. Y. Wang et al. (2008) also argued that Chinese tourists’ expectations of service at restaurants were greatly influenced by their past experience in domestic restaurants. Based on a survey of Mainland Chinese tourists to Canada conducted by the CTC, Huang (2008) summarized 55 expectations into 12 factors. His study proposed that there exist three expectation patterns among Mainland Chinese tourists to Canada, related to entertainment, variety seeking, and health/low price.
Some researchers have explored the cultural and socio-economic reasons behind Chinese tourists’ behavior and preferences (Mok & DeFranco, 1999; Yau, 1988). For instance, Mok and DeFranco (1999) proposed a conceptual model of Chinese cultural values and suggested to understand Chinese tourists’ behavior from several key Confucianism values such as respect for authority, interdependence, face, group orientation, harmony, and external attribution. They also noted that the country’s recent socio-economic and political reforms have had profound impacts on Chinese people’s value system and consumption patterns.
In sum, the foregoing review suggests that due to culture and socioeconomic differences, Chinese travelers may have particular travel expectations, preferences, and requirements that are not yet well understood by Western marketers. To the authors’ best knowledge, few studies have systematically investigated the travel expectations of Mainland Chinese outbound tourists. Hence, the present study attempts to shed some light on this.
This study is the second phase of a carefully designed project on Chinese
outbound travel market from a United States perspective. The multi-phase project employed a variety of quantitative and qualitative techniques, and each phase was designed with the aim of “building on, adding to, and refining insights from preceding phases” (Parasuraman et al., 1991, p. 39). As indicated, the current study focused on Chinese outbound tourists’ expectations of long-haul (i.e., outside Asia) travel products. Due to the exploratory nature of the study, the authors took a qualitative approach and conducted multiple focus groups (FG), which is quite common in customer expectation studies (Lidén & Edvardsson, 2003; Parasuraman et al., 1991; K.-C. Wang, Hsieh, & Huan, 2000). Group dynamics is the most distinctive methodological feature of FG, which encourages members to build off each other’s thoughts and ideas (Catterall & Maclaran, 2006). Moreover, FGs may help examine how people regard an experience and why they feel that way (Bernard, 2000), which fits the purpose of this study.
Following Li et al. (2010), the FG sessions were held in 11 cities in China by a professional marketing research company. In addition to the country’s three gateway cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou), the research team selected eight secondary cities (Chongqing, Xi’an, Shenyang, Tianjin, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Shenzhen) to keep a geographical balance, and also for market targeting and strategic planning purposes. Although there is no universal rule for the number of FGs required for a project, it is believed that 11 sessions are adequate for this study (Calder, 1977).
Before the FGs were launched, a moderator’s guide was developed, containing a series of questions about participants’ previous trips outside Asia, such as their most memorable experiences when traveling outside Asia, decision-making procedures, and what they hope service providers understand about Chinese tourists. After multiple rounds of discussion with project sponsors and the research vendor, the research team decided to examine service expectations by asking about participants’ criteria when selecting accommodations, food, transportation, tour guides and itineraries, and entertainment and activities for their outside-of-Asia trips (e.g., When traveling outside of Asia, what criteria do you use to select your accommodations?). This is partly because the notion of “service expectation” might be too abstract for participants to talk about, and Chinese respondents are generally not so forthcoming in their views (Roy, Walters, & Luk, 2001). Further, asking about criteria instead of expectations might avoid the potential different interpretations of service expectations as “will,” “ideal,” or “should” standards in participants’ mind, as previously indicated. A pilot test showed that the term “criteria” (Biaozhun) was easily understood and well-responded to by participants. Each FG session was videotaped, transcribed in Chinese, and later professionally translated into English. Two of the authors, both proficient in Chinese and English, also proofread the translated transcripts.
Participants generally related to their past outbound travel experiences when answering this question. Some of their comments were essentially critiques and complaints about their previous travel experience, which reflected their expectations indirectly. Many FG participants commented on inadequate facilities and equipment. A very common complaint concerned lack of hot drinking water and Chinese tea. For example, a respondent from Nanjing said, “They do not provide hot water for drinking. Chinese like drinking hot tea.” Because Chinese hotels traditionally provide a large set of “standard amenities” (e.g., toothpaste and toothbrushes, combs, shampoo and lotion, slippers, shoe mitts, even disposable razors and shaving cream), Chinese tourists (particularly those first-time outbound travelers) generally expect foreign hotels to do the same thing. This expectation, if unfulfilled, could create a bit frustration as some Chinese tourists do not pack such items when traveling, and they might not be able to communicate with the hotel requesting these items due to language barrier. For instance, one respondent in Hangzhou said, “They do not offer one-use toiletries such as slippers and toothpaste. If you do not bring your toothbrush, you will not be able to brush your teeth.” “Stuff [toiletries] for taking showers is a basic requirement,” a respondent in Shenyang commented.
Similar to previous studies (Wong and Kwong, 2004; Wong and Lau, 2001), cleanliness/hygiene and safety/security were two important selection criteria. Also, participants like to choose hotels in good locations, such as “close to tourist spots”, “urban surroundings,” although some respondents preferred quiet places. Eight of the 11 FGs like to stay in conveniently located hotels. Further, respondents seriously cared about service quality. For instance, a respondent in Shanghai indicated, “Some hotels close on weekends or close early, which is not „humanistic‟ to tourists.” Another respondent in Beijing said, “The service must be good. For example, when you inquire about something, they should reply…They should clean the guest room more often.”
Finally, the price level and quality grade requirements were the other two problems that many of the respondents brought up. According to Yao (2006), due to the impact of Confucianism in China, Chinese tourists consider frugality a social virtue. Most Chinese tourists are price/value-conscious. Some respondents indicated that 50 to100 U.S. Dollars (USD) a night was acceptable, and said they like to stay at three-star or better hotels. Participants also mentioned that the hotel grading system in foreign countries differed from that in China. A Nanjing participant stated that, “We stayed in a four-star hotel in XXX, but in my mind, its facilities were merely better than a two-star hotel in China.” For some participants, “good value” is a critical requirement. Table 1 reports some of the most common expectations of hotels. The frequencies listed (in terms of the number of individuals and FG sessions that mentioned each issue), although not for statistical purpose, could reflect the relative importance and level of consensus in respondents’ minds.
3.2 Food and Restaurants
Seven FGs expressed willingness to try local or new cuisines, but participants also admitted that they could not do that for too long and too often. Some indicated that the food “must be acceptable to Chinese,” which seems rather ambiguous. Meanwhile, eight FGs believed “Chinese food should be provided” throughout the trip. A respondent in Nanjing even said, “Chinese food should be available every day. For example, if lunch is Western style, dinner should be Chinese. This way, if we don‟t get enough to eat at lunch, we can eat at dinner.” Many participants complained about Western food as being too sweet, unhealthy (few vegetables and fruits, high calories), with too many uncooked or cold dishes (including ice water), and too much fried food. Examples include:
“The food is too sweet with high calorie counts. I once had a chocolate bar, but I ate part of it and threw the rest away because it was so sweet that I could not finish it” (Beijing).
“I don‟t like sweet food, and I think their food is coarse.” (Shanghai)
“I am not accustomed to the food — too much meat and most dishes are raw.”
(Shenzhen) “Too much oily food; more vegetable should be provided.” (Nanjing) One-third of the FGs suggested more food options be offered. The price issue was brought up again. Shenyang and Wuhan participants expected the food to be reasonably priced and with authentic local flavor. Their budget for food was approximately 10 to 30 USD per day.
3.3 Tour Guides/Itineraries
According to Wong and Kwong (2004), “time” was one of the most important criteria when Hong Kong residents choose package tours. Many participants in the present study preferred less-hectic schedules. This also supports the study by Zhu (2005), which found that relaxation was one of the primary motivations of Chinese outbound tourists. Most of the FG comments mirrored the following: “The schedule was so tight that I could not experience the local life.” In addition, participants thought the schedules were not always properly arranged. A respondent in Chongqing said, “I prefer longer stays at fewer locations.” Another respondent in Nanjing said, “The problem is that they spent too little time at attractions, but a lot of time at shopping venues.” Many respondents preferred less (forced) shopping.
Focus group participants also suggested they would like to travel with people sharing similar backgrounds and interests. For example, a respondent in Xi’an suggested that “I think there is a need to further segment the market. Those interested in sightseeing may go to places with beautiful scenery, while art fans may go to places like Spain and enjoy a long stay there. Those who are into shopping may travel together as a group.” The Beijing FG even suggested that tourists be grouped based on their age and/or personalities. Finally, the price issue came up the third time. Respondents in Shanghai and Beijing expected discounts.
One of the reasons people participate in group tours when traveling abroad is they would experience fewer cultural and language barriers. Not surprisingly, many FG respondents had high expectations of their tour guides’ cultural knowledge and language ability. Here are some examples:
“[We] look for Chinese-speaking tour guides; if the locals want to be a tour guide for Chinese tourists, they must learn Chinese.” (Xi’an)
“Being bilingual is very important; Chinese-speaking is a must.” (Hangzhou) “Understand local customs and history.” (Guangzhou) “I hope he/she could be familiar with the city.” (Beijing) Furthermore, the respondents emphasized the importance of professionalism.
Some examples include: “I expect the guide to be more passionate. I followed a tourist group to the
XXX. The guide only gave a brief introduction on the motor coach…He seemed to have finished his job after the brief introduction. And then he sat back with a bad attitude, and charged us by hours.” (Shenzhen)
“I expect the guide to be humorous and smile all the time.”(Shenzhen) “They should not cheat the tourists out of money.” (Hangzhou) Finally, four FGs suggested that the tour guides should have tourists’ interests
at heart. For example, “Go to fun places instead of places where tour guides can make profit.” (Nanjing); “Take tourists to somewhere meaningful, not just for the tips.” (Tianjin).
Most respondents showed interest in local culture and customs such as participating in local events, festivals, and shows. A respondent in Beijing commented, “[I would like to experience] local surroundings. For example, younger tourists who visit England can go to a concert to experience the atmosphere; older tourists may want go to an opera.” Participants in Beijing and Shenzhen said that they prefer to see things not available in China. For instance, some were curious about red-light districts, sex museums, and other adult-entertainment venues, simply because those are prohibited in China. Although half of the FGs would like to experience some local nightlife, respondents in Guangzhou and Nanjing thought that evening should be reserved for resting because daytime activities are exhausting.
As for activities, some FG participants reported interests in shopping. For example, a respondent in Xi’an expected tour operators to have a better understanding of “…Chinese shopping habits: What kind of things should they buy when traveling abroad? What gifts would they buy for seniors and what would they buy for children? So that they could provide suitable products to satisfy Chinese needs for shopping.” Another respondent in Shenzhen preferred to visit “shopping areas with local flavor instead of regular shops. No matter if purchases are made, the experience will be better.” A respondent in Tianjin commented, “The only thing which attracts me is shopping; there are international brands at very good prices.” All participants indicated that they did not want “forced” shopping. In addition, their activities of interest include extreme sports, horse-riding, fruit-picking, gambling, shows, and parties.
In general, participants were impressed by the transportation system in Western countries (particularly Europe). A respondent in Xi’an stated that, “The transportation in foreign countries is very convenient, which impressed me the most. You can buy a one-day pass. With that pass, you may take ship, train, subway or bus within that day.” When taking a motor coach, respondents expected the bus to be safe, clean, spacious, fast, and not too cold (i.e., air-conditioning temperature was not set too low). A respondent in Shenyang thought there were not enough transportation options and the cost was too high. Several participants mentioned car rental, but were not sure about the policy and feasibility (e.g., there was some concern over driving in a foreign country using a license issued in China and confusion about the need for an “international driving license”; plus, under the current ADS scheme with most Western countries, Chinese leisure travelers have to travel in groups, which means a “self-drive tour” is still not an option for Chinese tourists in those countries). A respondent in Wuhan preferred to take taxis, while another respondent in Hangzhou complained that it was hard to take a taxi and the price was too expensive.
3.6 What service providers should know about Chinese tourists
Close to the end of each FG session, the moderator(s) asked the participants what service providers should understand about Chinese tourists. Most respondents suggested that Western service providers know more about the Chinese lifestyle and particularly the country’s food culture. This is presumably because they were not quite impressed by the accommodations and food (most of the comments focused on these two areas). For example, a respondent in Tianjin went back to the hot-water issue and commented, “Make sure hot drinking water is available. Some hotels offer coffee machines where we can boil water; but others do not. Not having hot drinking water will make us uncomfortable, especially when we are not used to the local food or climate.”
Chinese tourists’ consumption habits and their travel motivations are two other things Western marketers must understand. For instance, a respondent in Nanjing said, “Chinese always haggle, which does not seem to be common in Western countries.” A respondent in Shanghai thought that “They lack a real understanding of the younger generation of Chinese tourists…For example, they think Chinese are either poor or poorly mannered.” Finally, some participants also mentioned that they expect more respect from their Western hosts and service providers, and there should be no racial discrimination against Chinese.
In this article, the authors examined the travel expectations of long-haul Chinese outbound tourists with emphasis on the following five areas: accommodations, food and restaurants, tour guides and itineraries, entertainment and activities, and transportation. Findings from 11 FGs showed that food and accommodations are two major concerns of Chinese tourists when traveling abroad. Moreover, researchers learned that Chinese outbound travelers highly value cleanliness and safety. Participants of this study were very sensitive to the “price-value relationship” (i.e., the price they pay vs. the value they receive). Quite often they relied on tour guides when traveling abroad, and they expect tour guides to be bilingual, friendly, professional, and knowledgeable about local culture and history. According to these FGs, Chinese tourists want to experience foreign environments but prefer a balance between activities and rest. They are wary of being taken advantage of and desire genuine respect and hospitality from staff.
Theoretically, findings of this study not only support previous research on performance-specific expectation and expectancy disconfirmation, but also contribute to current conceptualization of customer expectations in different cultural contexts. Prior expectations models (Oliver, 1980; Robledo, 2001; Zeithaml et al., 1993) were generally structured in Western societies. Although those models have identified various sources of expectations (e.g., word-of-mouth, customers’ past experience), comparatively less attention has been devoted to the role of culture in building expectations. Findings of this study imply that culture is a critical factor in shaping tourists’ travel expectations. When people consume services and goods in a foreign environment, their behavior is even more obviously affected by their own culture and value system. Cultural norms and values may influence two of the three components of Oliver’s (1980) expectation model—context and the individual customer’s characteristics. Further, nearly all components of Zeithami et al.’s (1993) and
Robledo’s (2001) models of customer’s expectations are subject to cultural influences. Indeed, this study shows that beyond specific expectations of individual service components, Chinese tourists expect Western service providers to first have a better understanding of Chinese culture, lifestyle, and diets. This research offered evidence for expanding theoretical approaches to tourist satisfaction and expectations of service quality to include culturally embedded norms and values. For example, Confucian values related to workplace dedication may result in Chinese visitors’ relatively high expectations for service performance as related to food and beverages and accommodations. Notably, this seems to contradict some researchers’ suggestion that Chinese consumers, because of their belief in Karma and harmony, tend to “have low expectations toward the purchased products” and avoid showing their dissatisfaction (Reisinger, 2009, p. 340). Chinese preferences for convenience in hotel location and transportation access may be related to cultural preferences for utility and function, particularly when faced with new environments and situations common among first-time travelers. Moreover, history and tradition are important to Chinese travelers, making context and interpretation important to tour itinerary selection and scheduling. Further, most Chinese tourists still highly appreciate traditional collectivism values such as family duty and caring for the children. Thus, when they travel overseas, purchasing gifts for seniors, children, and friends is almost an obligation.
Certainly, the major contribution of this study is its practical findings. As indicated, complaints related to food and drinking water, as well as the discrepancy between Chinese tourists’ expectations and actual hotel facilities/services were voiced in primarily every FG session. Thus, it seems understanding and implementing specific dietary and accommodation preferences of this emerging market should be considered crucial as competition among destinations for the Chinese tourist increases. Western travel and hospitality practitioners need to adjust their services and amenities to satisfy and attract this market. There are several subtle changes that may have a substantial impact. For instance, Chinese tourists greatly appreciate employees who express a high level of professionalism, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude. Hotels that want to attract Chinese tourists need to train employees to provide this style of service. In addition, having readily available bilingual staff and employees who are sensitive to East/West cultural differences will greatly enhance these travelers’ experience. Further, Western hotels interested in hosting Chinese tourists should be prepared to provide toiletries as well as a method of making hot water for tea in the guest room.
Perhaps the most challenging amenity that Chinese tourists crave is food that suits the Chinese palate and diet. This study found that Chinese tourists want to taste local cuisine but also want to find familiar foods. A Chinese diet includes a wide variety of vegetables, little or no milk, and more salty rather than sweet foods. Western restaurants offering local dishes that fit this description may have a better chance of winning Chinese tourists.
Finally, for multinational corporations, a new challenge in today’s environment would be how to facilitate the internal knowledge transfer among different properties. For instance, an international hotel chain may own a property in Shanghai which has years of experiences serving domestic Chinese tourists, and a hotel in New York which just recently started hosting Chinese outbound tourists. Presumably, the chain would enjoy substantial competitive advantage if it can ensure such cultural understanding be shared effectively between the two properties.
4.1 Limitations and Future Research
The FG approach used in this study could be vulnerable to criticism. Although marketing researchers have repeatedly defended the scientific value of FG and FG results (Calder, 1977; Catterall & Maclaran, 2006; Cowley, 2000), problems associated with group interviews, such as “group-thinking” should be acknowledged as they could affect and skew the research results (Catterall & Maclaran, 2006). Further, although it has been suggested that sample generazability is a non-issue for FGs taking an exploratory approach (Calder, 1977), the authors noted that participants of this study were relatively young—lack of familiarity with FGs and marketing research in general might have contributed to the low participation rate of seniors. Thus, ideas generated from this study were somewhat dominated by those of the younger generation of Chinese tourists. Further, it has been noted that Chinese participants tend to use non-verbal communication in interviews and surveys (Roy et al., 2001). Obviously, information delivered that way could not be effectively reported in the current paper. Finally, all FG sessions were conducted in Chinese, so cultural connotations lost in translation were almost unavoidable. Overall, the qualitative nature of this study makes the results “more in the form of preliminary conclusions than empirically verified inferences” (Parasuraman et al., 1991, p. 39). Fortunately, some of these problems will be addressed in the final phase of the project, a large-scale quantitative survey based on one-on-one interviews.
This study focuses primarily on “what” Chinese tourists’ expectations are. Admittedly, the “why” and “how” questions remain unanswered. That is, the study did not provide a theoretical explanation on how Chinese tourists’ expectations are formed. Although providing such an explanation is beyond the scope of this study, the authors believe more research is necessary to explore the underlying cultural reasons and socioeconomic factors affecting Chinese tourists’ preferences.
This research contributes to the small number of culturally specific studies on service expectation, including Turner (2001), Y. Wang and Peterson (2002), Kanousi (2005), and Kueh and Voon (2007). Given the continued growth of international tourism and global integration, this topic area should provide fertile ground for tourism researchers interested in intercultural and intracultural studies as applied to satisfaction and service quality. For instance, the present study focuses on Mainland Chinese outbound tourists’ expectations. A natural next step of the present study is to systematically compare the service expectations of Chinese outbound tourists and those of their Western counterparts and identify the underlying cultural reasons accounting for such differences. One related factor that may affect such comparison is Chinese outbound tourists currently represent the elite group of the Chinese society. Although their salary level may be lower than average Western tourists, their social class and domestic travel experiences may lead to unusually high service
expectations. To make the comparison meaningful, researchers might need to decide if Chinese outbound tourists should be compared to “average” Western tourists, or elite/luxury tourists only. Moreover, readers may have noted some studies on travel behavior of outbound tourists from the Greater China Region (e.g., Hong Kong and Taiwan). Thus, an interesting research topic would be to explore whether there exist systematic differences between consumers from those developed areas and their Mainland counterparts in terms of the five aspects examined in this paper. More broadly, it would be interesting to compare the expectations of Chinese outbound travel tourists with those of tourists from other Asian markets sharing similar cultural background.
Future research may help refine and define domains of Chinese tourist expectations that may account for a significant amount of variation in satisfaction and service quality evaluations. As such, this qualitative study may form the basis for subsequent quantitative research. Future research may also investigate what hotels and restaurants might receive in return for accommodating visitors with such high service quality expectations. For example, Chinese travelers’ brand loyalty may be an interesting extension of the research presented here. It should also be of interest to researchers how managers can resolve dissatisfaction with or even disputes over service quality related to Chinese outbound tourists.
As one of the reviewers of this paper points out, when studying Chinese outbound tourists’ behavior, it is important to keep China’s current tourism policy and development condition in mind. For example, current ADS agreements generally mandate Chinese travelers to visit foreign destinations in the package tour mode (with the exception of a small number of destinations where “Individual Visit Scheme” (IVS) are allowed). The choices of destinations, itineraries, accommodations, and so on are hence by and large dictated by product availability, which is ultimately determined by Chinese and destination governments’ policy and tour operators’ business interest. This seems to imply that at current stage, Western service providers need to understand the Chinese travel market in both B2C (Business-to-Culture) and B2B (Business-to-Business) contexts. In the next phase of this project, the research team planned to interview multiple Chinese outbound tour operators and government officials to provide new insights to the focal question.
Chinese outbound tourists’ travel behavior is subject to unique external factors such as ADS arrangements and internal factors such as their relative inexperience with overseas travel but high social status. Findings from this study suggest that while as a phenomenon Chinese outbound tourism is still in its infancy, Chinese outbound tourists are quickly growing into a larger and more sophisticated group of consumers. When traveling overseas, they expect quality services, respect, and better cultural understanding of their wants and needs. Satisfying and meeting these expectations will require a combination of insight into culturally specific behaviors and understanding of broader cultural beliefs. Thus, successful Western marketers should be well-prepared to accommodate the basic needs of the Chinese tourists visiting a destination for the first time, as well as adding social and psychological familiarity and comfort to products and services offered. A better understanding of culturally embedded norms and values as applied to satisfaction and service quality should result in a rewarding experience for visitors and effective branding and marketing for destinations and businesses.