Adapting to the Changing China Market
Overview & Insights from IPW Anaheim 2019
Lin Wang, CTP; NTA China Market Services Director
Chinese travel to the U.S. has dropped for the first time in 15 years according to National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO)’s recently released 2018 inbound statistics, nearly 6% drop. More worrisome, 2019 may be worse considering the trade war between the U.S. and China doesn’t seem to end any time soon. The U.S. imposed further tariffs on China plus banned Chinese largest wireless telecom manufacturer Huawei. On the other side, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) recently broadcast a statement of Chinese government’s attitude on the trade war: if the U.S. wants to negotiate, the door is open; if the U.S. wants a trade war, China will fight until the end. The statement had a lot of public support from Chinese citizens. Then there was the warning from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT) against travel to the U.S. on June 4th, when IPW 2019 was happening in Anaheim, California.
China market is changing. How do we, as tour operators, DMOs and suppliers, adapt to these changes? These were the questions we asked many of the IPW Anaheim attendees. IPW received record-breaking Chinese buyers. There were more than 200 Chinese tour operators attended. We have the opportunity to talk to many of these tour operators and some of the U.S. exhibitors during the show about the current challenges as well as how to counter the unfavorable factors.
Is it time to retract from China market?
“No” is the universal answer from all the people we asked. Several reasons.
First of all, China market still has a lot of potential. The number of visitors to the U.S. may be dropping, but the overall China outbound travel globally is still booming. According to MCT’s recent report, 149.72 million Chinese travelers visited overseas destinations in 2018, a 14.7% increase compared to 2017. China continues to be the world’s largest outbound source market and still drives the travel market growth. Plus, only 10% of the Chinese citizens own passports. China market still has a lot of potential.
Besides the market potential, many also believe the travel industry’s inherent resilience against an unfavorable environment. Most of the IPW attendees have worked in the industry for years and have seen destinations visiting numbers going up and down. Change is constant, and a true travel professional should be ready for the changes and seeks the best approaches and solutions to adapt to the changes. And when the time is right, the visitors will come again. Especially for the China market, we have seen several previous cases when South Korea, Japan and Taiwan got travel bans from the Chinese government. Yes, these destinations’ inbound travel got hit really hard during the bans, but they recovered quickly after the bans were over. We believe the same will happen to the U.S. At the end of the day, fortunately, Chinese travelers still consider the U.S. the top favorite long-haul destination despite of the trade war and the Huawei incident, according Ctrip’s Chinese New Year travel report.
The travel industry is such a resilient industry and Chinese travelers will not disappear. We need to look at the long term and make sure more will come to visit the U.S. after everything settles down.
What are the challenges the industry is facing?
We talked a lot at IPW with Chinese buyers about the trade war and China’s warning against travel to the U.S. The buyers told us that their business are impacted especially in some political sensitive market segments and cities. For example, MICE travel planners are having second thoughts choosing the U.S., because big companies and corporations don’t want to proceed against Chinese central government’s will. Beijing for instance, where many state owned companies will more likely consider Europe or other destinations for bleisure travel.
Chinese buyer attendees also complained about the high visa refusal rate and the long visa appointment schedule waiting time. With all the other countries including European destinations making visa policies easier for Chinese travelers, the U.S. is not creating a welcoming attitude. This is probably the most important practical factor that prevents Chinese travelers from visiting the U.S. One tour operator told us that she was planning a students summer trip to the U.S., but found that the U.S. Shanghai Consulate’s earliest visa interview appointment schedule is September, by then the summer is already over. She had no choice but to cancel the group. The high visa refusal rate and the long appointment wait also present other problems for the tour operators, such as pre-bookings and cancellations especially for hotels and transportation.
But there are more. The currency exchange rate fluctuation poses risks for tour operators who pay US dollars to suppliers and receive Chinese yuan in cross border transactions. Plus, as strong as the US dollar is now, the Chiense government may act aggressively to manipulate the exchange rate and depreciate Chnese Yuan in order to counterweight to the tariffs imposed by the U.S. Although the exchange rate didn’t used to be a big factor in Chinese travelers’ decision making, it could be a perfect excuse now with all the other negative impacts from the trade war and the warning.
Eventually Chinese outbound travel relies on the middle class’s disposable income. Chinese economy growth has slowed down in the past few years, and the trade war will certainly add more unpredictability. The slow economy means less disposable incomes, which will likely lead Chinese travelers to choose closer and less expensive destinations, rather not long-haul and expensive destinations like the U.S.
How to adapt to the changes and challenges?
The majority of the Chinese buyers at IPW that we talked to operate small and tailor-made groups. This makes perfect sense when the market is slow. From past experience, the mid- to high-luxury segments are more recession-proof compared to the more price sensitive segments. We can sum up what Chinese tour operators told us: “there are now a lot of reasons that Chinese consumers are not willing to travel to the U.S., the trade war, the Huawei incident, or the warning, but there are also a lot of reasons to visit the U.S. It’s a big country and there are so many places and business opportunities to be discovered.” We believe the China inbound to the U.S. is still a profitable business for tour operators if they can develop more customized and more in-depth tour products to attract the Chinese consumers. A good tour operator can find opportunities in difficult times. The business is not as easy as before for sure. Tour operators need to do more research, to carefully find the right market segments, and to develop and provide better products and services, which eventually will lead to a more healthy and sustainable industry.
We need to work together on some of the practical challenges. Visa for example:tour operators need to be prepared for the difficulties in visa applications. Several Chinese buyers at IPW said that they are improving their trip operations and visa service process, including earlier planning and attending visa officers’ seminars. They also want to find partner suppliers who can offer good products and services including better terms of cancellation in case there shall be visa issues. On the U.S. side, the industry needs to continue to lobby to the congress so that the state department will improve the visa policies. The joint force of DMOs, suppliers and associations will make a difference.
Another way to counter the visa and the trade war challenges is to create loyal and repeating traveler clients base. Some Chinese tour operators focus on working with their loyal customers who trust their brands and services. These customers are not influenced much by the negative factors, instead, they pay more attention to the quality of the products and services.
For U.S. destinations and suppliers, it’s another story. While we encourage them to look at the long term in terms of continuing the investment in China market, we suggest that it’s always a good idea to choose the right marketing and sales methods in today’s circumstance. Generally speaking, to make your sales and marketing more effective and efficient, you need to understand your advantages and find your niche market, use the best fit technique and venue to get to know the market and target it. For example, Beijing, as the capital of China, is a politically sensitive city, and may need more effort for MICE sales and marketing. But many Chinese lower-tier cities may not be as politically sensitive as Beijing. Matt Grayson, the president of Dragon Trail Interactive’s U.S. office, shared his view: “One thing that Chinese tourism experts agree on is the potential of lower-tier cities – the target age groups of social media platform Weibo and established travel agency Caissa are different, but we can see the power of lower-tier cities on both.”
U.S. DMOs and suppliers also need to understand more about how Chinese social media and business culture work. Surprisingly, a lot of exhibitors at IPW are very interested in China market, but they still don’t know how WeChat works, what Chinese payments are, and the best ways to work with Chinese tour operators. China market is different, and your sales and marketing effectiveness depends on how well you understand and adapt to the market. There’s no better time than now to be China-ready so that when the number of Chinese visitors creeping up again, a predication which nearly all the IPW attendees agreed on, you are ready for the influx of Chinese tourists. NTA’s China Preferred Partner program helps North American destinations and suppliers to be better prepared for the China market. It features website listing, tools and resources to tap into or expand China market, access and best practices to work with Chinese travel trade, and marketing companies like the Momentum Group and Dragon Trail Interactive to help Chinese digital marketing.
Together, we go further!
It’s a reality that we are facing quite difficult challenges, some of which are out of our control. This is when we need to work together and continue to promote the U.S. to the largest market in the world – China. The Chinese travelers’ confidence and willingness to travel to the U.S. partially rely on the travel trade’s confidence and effort itself. The more confident we are, the more effort we give, the more Chinese travelers will realize what the U.S. has to offer and neglect the negative influences. We work in this industry and should believe in the power of travel.