Having grown exponentially over the past decade to become one of the largest—and now the biggest spending—tourist demographics in the world, Chinese outbound travelers are a crucial market for hoteliers, luxury brands, retailers, and tour operators worldwide. With their numbers expected to double to 200 million by 2020, tripling in that time to nearly 6 million in the United States and 4 million to France, Chinese tourists will remain a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
However, for players in the luxury or hospitality industries, the explosive growth in outbound travel has also made the Chinese tourist more difficult to court. Much of this is due to the current state of the mainland China media, which is arguably more decentralized, expensive, and complicated than ever before. Numerous media outlets—both print and online—abound, from traditional lifestyle magazines and travel guides to niche digital publications and popular Sina Weibo and WeChat accounts. New Chinese-language upstarts have also begun popping up around the globe, targeting the valuable Chinese traveler in local markets from Las Vegas to Paris and Milan.
At the same time, the ballooning cost of mass advertising makes it neither feasible nor effective for the vast majority of brands, pushing many to ask: what options do we really have to gain exposure in an increasingly difficult, frustrating, and saturated market?
First and perhaps foremost, brands need to understand the Chinese media landscape itself and accordingly adjust their long-term strategy. (Because it will be a long-term process.) Despite a thriving online and social media environment, China’s media market ultimately remains highly censored and controlled by the government, and working with the media in China remains drastically different than in other countries. Meanwhile, ad costs continue to skyrocket as more companies—both domestic and foreign—clamor to reach and influence consumers. Now more than ever, leveraging media to win more Chinese consumers requires an effective balancing act for brands, straddling pay-to-play media, PR efforts, and strong omni-channel strategy.
The starting point for any media strategy in China should stem from one simple question: “Who am I trying to reach?” Is your product/brand/hotel/restaurant mass-market, hoping to attract busloads of tour group members? Or are you ultra-luxury, targeting niche independent travelers? If it’s the former, mainland-based to-the-trade media is a tried and tested way to raise awareness within the China travel industry and get retail outlets, attractions, or hospitality locations included in China travel trade itineraries. For the latter, in addition to the major lifestyle publications, a fast-rising number of niche publications in China now target a smaller, highly targeted consumer base passionate about specific experiential travel possibilities such as yachting, horse racing, art, or wine. However, other companies can mix and match, as travel trade media and niche luxury media lie on a wide spectrum, spanning more mass-market consumer outlets that encompass online publications, lifestyle media, in-flight magazines, and more.
Despite the growing maturity and sophistication of the travel media landscape in China, it does remain very much a unique market unlike any other, and for unprepared brands it can be a minefield. But the good news is that this risk can be mitigated with good preparation and a more realistic view of the market. Successful brands view China’s particular media environment as an opportunity to evaluate travel media from a portfolio perspective, rather than putting all of their eggs in one basket. (Whether that means travel trade, print ads in lifestyle magazines, or digital and social media.) Costs remain high, so careful budgeting is a must, as is a strategy for creative direct partnerships to bypass costly media buys and generate maximum impact. At the end of the day, there remains no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling travel media in China, so it is important—if not critical—to experiment, testing different platforms until they find the right mix that will really click with outbound travelers.
For a more detailed primer on the Chinese travel media landscape and best practices for successfully outpacing the competition and attracting outbound Chinese travelers, click here to register for China Luxury Advisors and Jing Daily’s “Chinese Travel Media: Navigating The Landscape” webinar on April 23, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. EDT.
Avery Booker is a partner at China Luxury Advisors.