Comment: understanding cultural differences

Rob Jones, director of See Britain, offers his advice on engaging Chinese tourists as inbound figures continue to rise.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of visits to the UK from China rose 64% to 142,074, and their total expenditure 73% to £239.4million. The demands of these visitors are growing, but they are also shifting from an ‘observer’ to ‘participant’ role.

Chinese tourists are now less inclined to go on large coach tours around the UK, just taking photos of the sights. They want to take part in experiences. Chinese Travel agents are now looking for companies that can offer bespoke experiences, such as bakery classes, how to make afternoon tea, or tours of famous sports stadia.

These types of experiences are already very popular with Chinese visitors, and this will only grow in the coming years. The clientele looking for these experiences tend to be from first tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Whereas the ‘mass market’, coach-full market tend to be first-time travelers from second and third tier cities, or along the Eastern Seaboard, from Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian provinces.

Another niche to consider is that of Chinese couples who are in the throes of planning their weddings. Engaged couples will holiday with other couples and will all go on a ‘pre-honeymoon’ together. This is so they can take photographs of themselves to show at their weddings and to make friends and connect over their shared experiences.

Marketing to customers on the other side of the world presents its challenges, but there are ways to get help in overcoming these. I have signed up with various organisations such as VisitBritain and their GREAT China Welcome campaign, Exporting is Great, Tourism Southeast, the Tourism Society, and TravelGBI. These organisations offer major help when it comes to reaching customers.

The key to being able to cater to the interests of Chinese travellers is to understand the cultural differences. This is where my experience living in China and interest in their culture and language has really benefitted me.

Our friends at Beiwei 55° offer fantastic guided tours of British cities by UK locals in Mandarin. This is a prime example of how a company has made themselves ‘China Ready’, or better still, a company designed exclusively to cater to the Chinese outbound travel market. All their staff have lived in China for an extended period at some point in their lives, and can all speak Mandarin to near-fluency. Their website is in Mandarin, and they have a strong Chinese social media presence.

My advice to operators hoping to gain customers from China is to follow their example and make your company China Ready. I received help from Prospect Chinese Services, who specialise in helping companies get ready to work with Chinese consumers. They provide Mandarin translation services and tuition, business etiquette training, and help with targeted market research.

A key means of reaching Chinese customers is social media. We think the amount of time we spend looking at our smartphones in the UK is excessive. In China they don’t go on their phones, they live on them.

The global average for amount of time spent on a mobile device per day is 5.5 hours – in China this is 6.5. WeChat (Chinese Facebook/WhatsApp) has 818 million active monthly users, and Weibo (Chinese Twitter) has 518 million registered accounts. This gives some sense of just how significant getting involved in Chinese Social Media can be. Again, VisitBritain and the GREAT China Welcome offer advice on how to use these platforms to your advantage.

Another way you can gain customers from China would be to focus on a niche. A “niche” in China could still easily be 80 million people. Therefore, you can sell your product in a particular way to suit the interests of that niche, for example, photographers could target the pre-honeymooners, and football stadia could target Chinese sports fans.

It is worth mentioned that more than 50% of China-to-UK travelers come to visit friends or relatives, so reaching the Chinese in the UK is as, if not more, important as marketing directly to China.

The UK is viewed as a cultural and romantic destination in China. This, combined with the weakened pound should mean an exciting 2018 for the UK’s inbound tourism market.