Travel company Thomas Cook hopes to leverage Manchester United’s huge Chinese fan base to drive demand for its United Kingdom tourism products. By extending its decade-long partnership with Manchester United to its recently founded Chinese venture, Thomas Cook China, the ambition is to strengthen its position within the burgeoning Chinese sports tourism market.
Manchester United tops the list of international sports teams with the largest following, enjoying some 100 million Chinese people who consider themselves fans of the club. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, also regards himself as a lifelong Manchester United fan, helping further solidify the club’s high standing in Chinese people’s minds.
While Xi Jinping missed out on the chance to visit his favorite club during his highly publicized state visit to the United Kingdom back in 2015—he was instead treated a visit to Manchester City, Manchester United’s fierce rival—Thomas Cook hopes to make it easier than ever for Chinese fans to experience their favorite soccer club.
Thomas Cook China will be the exclusive distributor of the so-called “Match Break” package in China, which includes hotel accommodation, tickets to a Manchester United game of choice, as well as a visit to the Manchester United Museum & Tour Center. While certainly promising to bring more Chinese tourists to the city of Manchester and the UK as a whole, Thomas Cook also extends its Manchester United packages to soccer stadiums beyond the home turf of Old Trafford, allowing Chinese tourists to book packages for away games both in other UK cities as well as across Europe for European league games.
Thomas Cook Group is one of the world’s leading travel corporations, and recently expanded into the Chinese outbound tourism market by partnering with Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group to form Thomas Cook China. Through its Chinese entity, Thomas Cook offers a range of travel products to Chinese tourists, including domestic travel, international travel, package tours, as well as various products that cater to a corporate clientele. It also offers a range of products within the sports segment, including packages for a range of soccer games across Europe featuring other teams.
Thomas Cook isn’t the first company to realize the potential of sports tourism in China. Ctrip, China’s leading online travel marketplace, reported 400 percent growth for sports tourism products in the first half of 2016, and numerous Chinese tour operators are investing in growing the number of sports tourism products they offer to Chinese customers. While many of the Chinese players have done their best to establish exclusive partnerships with various European soccer clubs and international sporting events, none of them compete with Manchester United’s brand recognition among China’s sports enthusiasts. Even though tickets can be relatively easily booked directly with a sports club of choice, packaged tours promise travelers peace of mind, with accommodation and customized itineraries guaranteeing that tourists won’t face the risk of missing their games.
With Chinese tour operators eager to cash in on the growing popularity of international sporting events, sports clubs and sporting event organizers may be presented with a new potential revenue stream in China: granting exclusivity to one of its many tour operators. In addition to a possible exclusivity fee, it also gives the tour operators an incentive to promote these sports products on their respective platforms. In the end, club loyalty is certainly more important than brand loyalty toward one of China’s tour operators for prospective Chinese sports tourists.
With 100 million Manchester United fans in China, Thomas Cook may just have found a way to gain a competitive advantage in a market dominated by large domestic players. For most fans, settling for Manchester City—like Xi Jinping did—is certainly a tough sell.