Targeting Chinese Diners Abroad, Ctrip Partners With Opentable

In early January, Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agent, announced that their dining recommendation platform Gourmet List had formed a partnership with OpenTable, the world’s leading provider of online restaurant reservations. Ctrip is OpenTable’s first partner in the mainland Chinese market. The partnership will allow users of the Ctrip mobile app to book tens of thousands of restaurants across North America.

While this seems like incredible news for North American restaurants vying to attract more Chinese travelers, how much will this partnership actually affect the industry, and which restaurants will be impacted the most?

Dining is a Top Priority for Chinese Travelers

The good news is that Chinese traveler demographics and preferences are changing in a way that is favorable for Western restauranteurs. As of last year, research showed that the majority of Chinese outbound travelers, over 60 percent, are millennials and Gen Z. Compared to older generations, Chinese millennials are better educated, more affluent, and have better language skills. They tend to use online resources, like travel review sites, destination websites, and social media accounts, to plan trip itineraries. And most importantly, they have a growing desire for experiential travel, and are willing to pay more to stay at upscale hotels and dine at high-end restaurants.

In fact, according to a Hotels.com survey, cuisine is now the third most important option Chinese travelers consider after safety and presence of historical sites. It even came in ahead of shopping.

Opentable is a Big Step Up From Gourmet List

The Opentable partnership is not only about giving Chinese travelers the ability to reserve tables, it will also be a great way for them to research restaurants and be exposed to new dining options.

Although Ctrip is China’s largest online travel agency (OTA), it currently has very limited options when it comes to dining. Gourmet List is just that, a list of recommended restaurants curated by key opinion leaders in China’s F&B industry. It is hosted on its own Wechat Official Account, separate from Ctrip, which also shares articles and announcements about food-related events.

Photo: Gourmet List foreign city options

The account has very limited functions, simply showing a profile of the restaurant with links to the restaurant’s website and a phone number, but no way to book. Furthermore, it only lists a small number of restaurants in big, international cities. For example, there are 260 restaurants in New York City and 225 in Los Angeles. In contrast, Opentable has over 5,000 listings for Manhattan alone, and Opentable works with restaurants in both large and small cities all over the US.

Photo: Gourmet List high end restaurants in NYC

On a positive note, while their selection is not large, Gourmet List does focus on Michelin-rated and high-end restaurants, as well as local places popular among foodies, meaning that the partnership could bring benefits to fine-dining establishments, as that is the platform’s current audience.

How do Chinese travelers currently find restaurants?

The majority of Chinese travelers don’t associate Ctrip with restaurants. Chinese travel blogger Xiao Mo said when it comes to Chinese OTAs, most people will use the Qyer travel app which has rankings of local restaurants.

But she says even then, she and her boyfriend don’t like to rely on Chinese app recommendations. “If we have some friends who live there or have visited this destination we will ask them for suggestions. If not, then we might ask someone at the hotel or our Airbnb host. If we’re looking for a really trendy location we will go on Instagram. If we just want something convenient nearby we will use Google Maps.”

Others agreed. When asked, several Chinese millennials said they prefer to use Yelp when traveling in North America because they can find out which restaurants are most popular among locals. The fact that Yelp is already well-known among Chinese travelers doesn’t bode well for Opentable.

Back in August 2017, Yelp partnered with Alipay, allowing China’s over 500 million Alipay users to make payment through the service when they use Yelp for restaurant bookings. Currently the integration only works for Yelp restaurant partners that accept Alipay and the initial launch only covers restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. However, this is unlikely to hold them back for long, it appears that the two companies have big plans for their partnership including launching a Mandarin version of Yelp.

In contrast, Opentable is relatively unknown in China, with only one of the people surveyed having heard of the platform and none of them having used it.

Chinese Travelers Unlikely to Book Ahead

Xiao Mo said they rarely book ahead. “We don’t usually book a table in advance unless it’s a signature restaurant that is popular and hard to get into or that we feel like we must visit during our trip. Otherwise we don’t like the restriction of needing to be somewhere at a particular time.”

She pointed out that, “In general, unless it’s a special occasion, many Chinese people don’t have the habit of reserving a table at a restaurant. In order to encourage them to use a table booking service there might need to be some kind of incentive or benefit, for example a discount or freebie, or a special table.”

Yelp has the incentive of users being able to conveniently make payments with Alipay, but it is unclear whether or not the Ctrip and Opentable partnership will have a similar offer.

The Takeaway

  • Dining is becoming an increasingly important aspect for Chinese travelers
  • While the Opentable partnership will expose Chinese travelers to a vast number of new dining options, it is unlikely to make a huge impact unless Ctrip heavily promotes the partnership to its users
  • Chinese travelers will likely need incentives to encourage them to use Opentable
  • The partnership is likely to have the biggest impact on fine-dining, trendy, and must-try restaurants for which Chinese travelers are more likely to make a reservation

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