Matthew Keegan
Nov 18, 2019

Best strategies for marketing to China’s digital-savvy travellers

As China’s outbound tourism continues to rise, travel marketers across Asia tell us how they are keeping pace and devising new strategies to attract China's digital-savvy and outwardly mobile younger generations.

Jackson Wang helps young Chinese travellers discover Hong Kong in a campaign pre-dating the current city-wide unrest.
Jackson Wang helps young Chinese travellers discover Hong Kong in a campaign pre-dating the current city-wide unrest.

Loved in some parts, loathed in others, Chinese tourists have transformed the APAC travel industry and look set to continue that path. China has been the world’s largest outbound tourism market in terms of number of trips since 2016, and in terms of value since 2012. The numbers speak for themselves.

According to China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), 180 million outbound trips from mainland China are forecast to be made this year, with that figure predicted to reach more than 400 million by 2030, with 150 million heading for Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan, and the remainder going farther afield. China also remains the world’s largest spender, US$277 billion in 2018, accounting for one fifth of international tourism spending.

To keep pace, marketing to and in China has developed significantly in recent years with digital marketing becoming increasingly important as a means to target the rise in FIT travel (Free Independent Travellers.)

"When Chinese outbound tourists first started to travel abroad to countries like Singapore and Thailand, they were likely to travel in tour groups, but now more than half of Chinese visitors travel independently," says Sienna Parulis-Cook, communications manager for Dragon Trail Interactive, a Chinese digital marketing company focused on Chinese outbound travel. "As the Chinese market has become more experienced, making information and marketing materials available online is very important to reach Chinese travellers who are planning and booking their own trips."

Indeed, digital-savvy Chinese millennials are the key driver of outbound tourism, and the post-90s generation is expected to be the major impetus in the next decade.

"Travel marketers in APAC need to find new angles to attract affluent young Chinese travellers," says Anita Chan, CEO of Compass Edge. "Young Chinese travellers are searching for purpose and enrichment in their travel. They want local experiences and deep dive into different cultures. They want to show they are talented and this is why marathons, adventure travel and art and museums are becoming a key focus in their choices."

Singapore Tourism Board has been actively marketing to China’s post-90s generation who they say "prefer free and independent travel, do not want to rely on guidebooks, and enjoy discovering things for themselves while in-destination."

Expect the unexpected

This year, they launched the “Encounter the Unexpected” campaign to invite post-90s Chinese tourists to Singapore to embark on an unexpected journey. The campaign engages these visitors through interactive video content and influencer partnerships. "The concept of “Encounter the Unexpected” marries the attitudes and travel habits of the post-90s in China with what Singapore has to offer as a destination," says Juliana Kua, regional director, Greater China, Singapore Tourism Board. "In this era of digitisation and hyper-personalisation, we are always on the lookout for ways to connect with our target audience."

Singapore Tourism Board conference in 2018 on attracting Chinese outbound tourism

STB has activated this campaign on key channels that the post 90s use – from WeChat and Weibo, to Douyin. They have also collaborated with Papitube, a short video platform, to leverage the strong popularity of interactive videos. In addition, they partnered with Chinese comedian Papi Jiang and her four KOLs to create an A/B interactive mini-variety show to launch the “Encounter the Unexpected” campaign. "Such an interactive approach invites audiences to move from being just a viewer to being a participant; to take control and become more engaged with the content," says Kua.

But while millennials and the post-90s generation from China are a key focus for travel marketers in the region, other age groups are not to be overlooked.

"The Chinese outbound tourism market is already very segmented, and is likely to become more segmented still as it grows," says Parulis-Cook. "Destinations will not be able to find a one-size-fits-all marketing approach, and will need to consider whom they are targeting and how to do that. Different age groups will be interested in different kinds of travel experiences, and be using different online/offline sources of information, and this should be reflected in marketing."

In the past year, Parulis-Cook says that much attention has been paid to short video in China, which is increasingly a must-have for tourism marketing organisations. Not just B2C content for social media channels or websites, video content is even being requested by Chinese travel agents now so that they can share it with their clients to help sell a destination or product. As an extension of video marketing, there’s also the strong impact of TV and film on Chinese travellers’ destination choice to consider, and destinations are increasingly partnering with TV shows to do travel marketing – for example, Sina Travel’s “Feel the World” TV show.

Word of mouth marketing and user-generated content is also important. Marketers are looking at more and new ways of leveraging travellers’ social networks to spread their message and receive helpful information/feedback, with things like interactive competitions and hashtags. For example, All Nippon Airways has made major gains on WeChat this past year, and one of their strategies has been running giveaways of very small items like bags or fans, where users need to leave comments on the post to enter.

There is a mixture of ways to attract and engage the local market, and some of these are now becoming “the norm” in the eyes of the Chinese traveller.

Ease of transactions for Chinese travellers

"Being able to book in Chinese on a WeChat mini program and pay using WeChat is something which is quickly becoming a necessity for brands," says Digitas China's executive creative director Nic Brennan. "Some of the most successful campaigns we have seen use mini programs as the content platform to launch seasonal content and special deals which can be booked seamlessly via WeChat pay. For example, Tourism New Zealand uses a mini program platform to deliver their “Good Morning World” theme using a daily piece of video content as part of a year-long diary.”

For Fliggy, Alibaba's online travel agency platform, the growing force of China's outbound tourism market are the post-90s generation and millennials. "More than half of Fliggy’s users were born after 1990s. Also, the number of our millennial users is growing at a three-digit rate," says Sovanna Fung, communications manager, Alibaba Group. Fung says young Chinese travellers are no longer content with “having been there.” They are eager to experience overseas destinations in unique ways “just like a local.” 

Given the mobile-savvy nature of their predominantly young consumers, livestreaming has become a mainstream way for merchants on Fliggy to engage current and potential customers.

During Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival which just took place this month, several thousand livestreaming sessions were concurrently held on Fliggy and Taobao, featuring travel experts or merchants who shared their travel recommendations and tips with consumers. “Livestreaming sessions like these not only provide travellers with inspirations for their next vacation, but also serve as an effective channel for merchants to build closer ties with consumers and accumulate followers,” says Fung.

Having already worked with tourism boards in markets such as Singapore, Serbia and Finland, Fliggy seeks to enable travel industry merchants to build direct relationships with Chinese consumers and digitally transform and upgrade their operations to better serve the market.

"As smart technology is reshaping retail, the travel industry is also on the cusp of a digital transformation," says Fung. "We believe digitisation will be the new growth driver for travel industry players in China, and merchants should aim for a shift of focus from accumulating traffic with piecemeal technology adoption, to accumulating followers with a holistic digital strategy."

How pre-protest Hong Kong doubled-down on digital

It's hard to imagine destination marketers in Hong Kong operating in a 'business as usual' mode when it comes to attracting mainland tourists these days given the city-wide unrest. But HKTB was among the most methodical in embracing new digital strategies for its visitors.  This has included being the first National Tourism Organisation member in Asia to team up with Google to provide visitors with comprehensive travel information to plan their trip to Hong Kong and help them on every step of their stay in the city.

"It is not just what we offer visitors that has changed dramatically in recent years, but also the way in which we offer it," says Lucinda Wong, senior manager, communications at Hong Kong Tourism. "Today’s travellers are fully tuned into social media and are online throughout their visits, so the HKTB has created a comprehensive digital platform covering the entire consumer journey, from choosing and planning their holiday to every moment of their stay."

New technologies employed include using artificial intelligence to provide instant advice through social media and messaging apps for visitors, placing QR codes at attractions, and developing interactive maps to help tourists discover the city's hidden delights like a local and adding visitor-generated stories, including some 1.75 million pictures and videos to its social media base of more than 10 million followers. 

Meanwhile, leveraging China’s online celebrities and social media influencers across social media platforms like Zhihu, RED (Xiaohongshu), TikTok (Douyin), Weibo, and others proved key to engaging growing groups of younger travellers.  In February 2018, long before the current unrest, the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) appointed Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong-born local and an up-and-coming artist, as the Hong Kong tourism envoy in the mainland. 

Leveraging Jackson’s popularity and strong advocacy among his 19 million followers, HKTB launched an integrated digital campaign in May 2018. The campaign, starring Jackson, featured four experience videos, audio greetings, and innovative AR games to provide technologically savvy young consumers with an immersive encounter with Hong Kong’s entertainment, arts, sports and dining experiences.

With assets widely promoted via high-coverage digital and social media platforms, the campaign (see main photo above) resulted in 74 million video views and 27 million social engagement hits, with over 260,000 packages sold and three industry awards received. In addition, young mainlanders were encouraged to follow Jackson’s page to discover numerous hidden gems and experience the city in a more fun and refreshing way. 

But while Hong Kong's tourism marketers may have excelled at how to create a more tempting destination for Chinese youth in the past, it's obvious they will now have to adapt new skills and strategies to sustain the city's tourism industry in the near future. Young Chinese travellers continue to have many choices and options these days with countless destinations eager to host them.

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