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George Cao: How to Prepare for Chinese Tourism Recovery

The long-awaited recovery of the Chinese outbound tourism market has already begun. Dragon Trail's CEO and co-founder George Cao shares his recommendations and insights for travel brands to get their marketing right during this important period.

With China relaxing international travel restrictions on 8 January 2023, the long-awaited recovery of the Chinese outbound tourism market has already begun. Dragon Trail’s CEO and co-founder George Cao shares his recommendations and insights for travel brands to get their marketing right during this important recovery period.

What should travel brands expect from the Chinese outbound market in 2023?

Recovery of outbound travel from China in 2023 is a given. Since the announcement of changes in border control and quarantine-upon-arrival policies, we’ve seen plenty of indications of demand for outbound travel – from media coverage of long queues at passport processing facilities in major cities, to reported increasing of search and booking volumes at OTA websites and apps.

Major OTAs and travel agents have kicked off marketing activities for overseas travel after three years of hiatus.  And some destinations have already launched effective PR campaigns to attract early movers in overseas travel.

There are still some hurdles that exist, such as low availability of flights and relatively high cost of air travel, ongoing restrictive policies in organizing group travel, and time required for the industry to build up service capacity. That will likely push the start of meaningful recovery – in terms of volume – to the second half of the year.

Additionally, international politics and inbound tourism policies at certain destinations (e.g., overtourism concerns) will affect the market share of outbound travel from China in the months and even years to come.

What are your top 3 recommendations for marketing to Chinese outbound travelers in 2023?

As this is the year of recovery, I would recommend the following as top priorities:

1. Audit and research.

In the past decade, the idea of the “New Chinese Tourist” has popped up in international tourism marketing circles. 2023 might be the year that travel brands should take a serious look at how consumer behavior has changed and how their target market segment has shifted. Some level of consumer research should be conducted before new strategies and marketing plans are developed.

Based on consumer research, brands should conduct audits of their marketing infrastructure in China to make sure they have what is needed to effectively reach and engage their target audience. These audits ideally should include web and mobile presence, social media assets, capabilities & KOL resources, travel trade database & sales enablement tools. In addition to self-evaluations, the audits should cover competitor activities in order not to miss important new trends.

2. Product development.

After a few years of living under COVID and strict pandemic control measures, consumer preferences for many aspects of leisure travel have changed. A thorough review of products available in the market, in collaboration with OTA and travel agent partners, will be critical to ensure the right mix of products are available for consumers to book after they are inspired by upcoming marketing campaigns.

3. Campaigns and PR.

After you have refreshed your understanding of the target consumers, and have helped travel agent partners place the right products into the distribution channels, it is time to run some campaigns and put your destination and brand into the consideration set of consumers you want to attract. Campaign mechanisms, for the most part, are the same as before the pandemic.

The importance of PR, at least in the short term, is elevated in overall marketing programs, in light of the current situation in international politics and its impact on consumer choices for overseas travel destinations. Dragon Trail’s consumer sentiment surveys have clearly shown the correlation between country friendliness and destination preference.  An emphasis on people to people connection can be a PR angle when everything else fails.

Which social media platforms are the most important for Chinese tourism marketing now?

From my point of view, WeChat remains the most important social media platform in travel marketing in China.  With audience engagement with WeChat Channels approaching that of WeChat Moments, the WeChat ecosystem is still the (only) one that covers all touch points along the consumer journey for travel.

Besides WeChat, Red [Xiaohongshu], Douyin, Weibo and OTA platforms Ctrip, Mafengwo and Qyer should be considered for consumer outreach at various stages of the consumer journey.

Are there any platforms or kinds of social media marketing that have become much more popular in the last three years?

Short videos and live streaming have gained significantly at the cost of other forms of content.  As a result, Douyin and WeChat Channels have become more popular over the last three years.

Red [Xiaohongshu], as a preferred platform for lifestyle KOLs to share content, has also gained more popularity over the last few years.

Lastly, AR/VR/MR and their applications in travel marketing have started to gain some momentum and should be kept on the watch list by international travel brands.

What about Chinese travel agents – what will they be looking for in terms of B2B outreach in 2023?

Travel agents have not sold international travel for three years. And most of them have lost key talents and product knowledge of destinations they will start to sell again. They will need support in building up their service capacities again, and specifically in training (face-to-face & online), FAM trip opportunities, and sales enablement support (updated image and video library, sample itineraries, access to destination experts, etc.).

As they ramp up their business again, they will also start to look for support in marketing, such as market development fund, and opportunities to get involved as call to action partners in destination marketing campaigns.

What are your plans for international travel in 2023?

Besides attending industry events (Phocuswright, IPW and ITB Asia are currently on the list), a family reunion in the US and a vacation to Greece (on the family bucket list for a long time) are being considered.

Dragon Trail offers extensive B2C and B2B marketing services, including social media, event management, KOL partnerships, media buy, FAM trips, video marketing, and research. Click here to learn more about what we do, and get in touch for bespoke recovery solutions.

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