While legions of Chinese group travelers remain a regular sight from Seoul and Tokyo to New York and Paris, in recent years Free Independent Travelers (“FITs”) have emerged as a powerful and influential demographic, powering spending and footfall in cities and attractions off the beaten path. Incentivized by a weaker euro, easier and longer American visas, and cheaper flights throughout East and Southeast Asia, Chinese FITs now have the world at their fingertips like never before.
Along with the growth of this segment has come a flood of online travel agencies (OTAs) looking to cater to a digitally savvy, largely youthful group. In recent years, major players like Ctrip have launched high-end offshoots like HHTravel to cater to a demographic hungry for luxurious experiences instead of crowded bus tours, while independent sites such as Zanadu have made a name by mixing upmarket flash sales and Fodor’s-esque content with curated experiential travel options (which don’t come cheap).
All of this growth has some in China concerned that the “do it yourself” (DIY) online travel market—although young—is already suffering from over-saturation. One new kid on the block, the startup Directions Travel, told Tech in Asia this week that it feels the DIY travel market in China suffers from a lack of quality, with most OTAs offering the same basic options. Quantity, on the other hand, certainly isn’t a problem, with the market packed with the likes of Lvmama, Tuniu, Qunar, Woqu, Aoliday, ByeCity, and many more.
Directions Travel takes a page from crowdsourcing to offer travel experiences that matter to its audience, while also building relationships with key travel influencers. The site proactively reaches out to these influencers to introduce destinations and accommodations, and sources trip itinerary ideas from users who’ve actually experienced them. In addition to courting travel bloggers and influencers, the site is building its own ecosystem of popular users, giving visitors the ability to browse their backgrounds and see (and copy) their previous itineraries.
Although there’s no guarantee of success for small startups like Directions (particularly as Ctrip and others continue to invest heavily in the DIY segment) a reliance on “magnet” travelers, or influential independent globetrotters whose itineraries are copied by their online audience, is very much on-trend. In addition to building the relationship with important OTAs that offer tailored luxury experiences, high-end destinations, brands, and hotels should consider reaching out to the growing number of Chinese travel influencers, who document their adventures on WeChat, Weibo, Instagram, and specialized forums like Qyer.
By leveraging these influencers’ DIY devotee audiences and getting your company added to their itineraries—an effective, but not always easy or cheap, tactic—it’s possible to build awareness and buzz among a growing FIT audience that could become a core consumer base in the years ahead.
Avery Booker is a partner at China Luxury Advisors.