More Chinese are traveling, and the more affluent travelers are taking it a step further by booking trips on mobile more frequently. This class of Chinese traveler is not only changing how destinations welcome tourists, but also how domestic travel apps cater to the most profitable demographic.
Affluent Chinese travelers prefer travel apps to traditional agencies because the platforms allow them to navigate their options easily with itineraries, prices and customized services at their fingertips. In fact, more than half of those travelers booked trips online in 2017, according to a September report from China-based research agency Yaok Institute.
High-end travel app booking experienced a boom in early 2012 amid the government's anti-corruption campaign, many businesses seized the potential of another luxury market that focused more on experiences than material goods. But the competition in this space has been fierce, as online itineraries can be easily copied by competitors. Many have sought to diversify their offerings with technology (e.g., WeChat mini-program, VR) innovation and customizable trips. Here are five online travel agency apps that affluent Chinese travelers love:
Launched in 2014, SparkleTour is the high-end arm of one of China’s three major tour corporations, CYTS. What makes the platform unique is the customized trip-planning function. Every client from the loyalty program, SparkleTour Club, is paired with a consultant who conducts in-depth interviews with them and learns about their travel history, personal preference, and style. Sixty percent of the consultants have studied abroad and worked in the travel industry for an average of 10 years. Some of their popular curated trips include tracking wild elephants on safari in South Africa, chasing the northern lights in Iceland, or diving into an ice cave in the Antarctic for a sauna session.
The professional consultants have their fingers on clients’ travel pulse. Noting the recent shift in client demographics from the older 35- to 50-year-old crowd to a younger mix of post-’80s and ’90s travelers as well as their enthusiasm for outdoor adventures, SparkleTour formed a strategic partnership with National Geographic this year, establishing a team of experts for road trips, golf, adventure photography and more.
Established in 2012, Zanadu is an online agency with extensive media reach. In 2017, it received an undisclosed investment from Prometheus Capital and a 12 million investment (RMB 82 million) led by Tencent. Zandadu is one of the first online platforms to realize the power of media--its reach extends beyond traditional print to social media, vlogs, and even VR. It launched a strategy in 2016 to acquire new users through an immersive digital experience in the world's top hotels, destinations, and activities. In 2017, with a team of 800, the platform garnered 1 million customers, about half of whom are defined as core members that are regular users of the site. Company founder and CEO Wu Zan said in an interview with China Daily that he expected Zanadu's membership figures to increase 20-fold within five years.
Similar to SparkleTour, HHtravel is the high-end platform of China’s top OTA, Ctrip. Originally founded in 2011 by three travel agencies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, the platform grew quickly in scale online after being acquired by Ctrip the same year. Its 80-day world trip priced at 194,900 (RMB 1.18 million) is particularly popular. The year the company launched, HHtravel offered 15 reservations on the round-the-world excursion and sold out in 9 minutes. In recent years, it has also seen rapid growth in demand for its 20-day South Pole tour that caters to the rising taste for adventure among wealthy travelers. With one-on-one customer service available on WeChat, 90 percent of HHtravel clients are online. Sixty percent of their clients return for a second trip. According to company COO Guo Ming, the platform targets to have 10,000 annual customers in 2018.
Founded in January 2012, the 8 Continents Travel is headquartered in Shanghai, with branches in Beijing and Chengdu. The company has been listed atop Hurun Best Outbound Luxury Travel Agencies more than once. More than 40 percent of the clients on the platform are families with young children who place a higher premium on comfort when they travel. Thanks to 8 Continents’ close ties with eight high-end hotels chains, such as Amanyangyun, Constance Hotels & Resorts, and Shangri-la Hotels & Resorts, clients can enjoy VIP service during their stay. Clients can also access 8 Continents Travel via WeChat mini-program, a one-stop shop launched in 2017 to review trip tips, consult with professional trip planners and share with friends.
Beshan, too, caught the wave of Chinese outbound travel enthusiasm and launched its service in early 2011. Compared to others on this list, Beshan started with a small boutique style, and quickly attracted loyal clients—mostly in their early 30s–by word of mouth. Beshan is the Chinese arm of WildChina, whose founder Mei Zhang understands her clients’ needs as she used to be one of them. Zhang is native Chinese, holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and worked for McKinsey & Company until she found her true passion in sustainable travel. Some of the most in-demand trips on Beshan have been in South Africa and Bhutan. A recently-popular route is a long hike to Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro accompanied by private chefs.