(Un)Packaging Britain for Chinese travellers

October 21, 2011

The Chinese are coming, but not as fast as some would like. How can we make them feel at home?

It is enough to get Great Britain’s travel and luxury retail industry salivating. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Europe is expected to grow from 3 million in 2010 to 4.5 million by 2015 and around 8.6 million by 2020.

A report commissioned by Hilton Hotels & Resorts – “How the rise of Chinese tourism will change the face of the European travel industry” – is just out from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and looks into the impact of these high-spending visitors.

In it, we learn that only 127,000 Chinese visited the UK last year. Italy, France and Germany attract between 500,000 and 700,000 each per year. Britain wants a larger slice of the pie – what’s it doing wrong?

Firstly, as the report notes, the UK is not part of the Schengen Treaty area, so Chinese visitors have to apply for a visa to enter the UK along with a separate, now much simplified one that gives free entry to all the other treaty area countries. Most Chinese tourists come on package tours looking to visit several European countries in one trip.

Also, the UK has not embraced payments from China Union Pay. Only a few stores have implemented the system; since Harrods introduced the Chinese bank-card terminals in February this year, sales to Chinese consumers have risen significantly.

According to the report, the Chinese spend an average total spend of £202 per night, and can spend more than £600 in one shopping trip, which is on average more than Russian, Arab or Japanese travellers. British luxury fashion house Burberry has reported that 30 percent of the sales in its UK stores were to Chinese customers and a recent report from London Luxury stated that Chinese shoppers spent £200 million in the Bond Street area alone in 2010, an increase of 155 percent on 2009.

Sandie Dawe, chief executive of VisitBritain said in a press statement, “If we could increase the appeal of Britain – in line with where our European competitors are right now – this would help generate nearly £1 billion from Chinese visitors every year.”

Given the visa hurdle is unlikely to change anytime soon, what else can be done by the UK to attract more Chinese visitors?

“Be vigorous about customer service; it plays a big part in the Chinese visitor experience,” says the report, adding the translating websites and signage into Chinese and employing fluent Mandarin speakers would of course also be a boon.

Hotels are on the front line in providing a warm welcome. Ahead of the curve, Hilton Hotels introduced Hilton Huanying earlier this year (Huanying means welcome in Chinese). Participating hotels provide Chinese speaking staff, traditional Chinese breakfast items and, in-room, slippers, a welcome letter in Chinese, Chinese television programming and Chinese tea.

Andrew Flack, Hilton’s VP, global brand marketing, told me that in general, Chinese travellers are similar to those of other countries, in that they like a bit of familiar and a bit of the exotic. But there are some key differences. “Chinese travellers are used to a service environment which is high touch – which they’d receive in international hotels in Asia. They’re used to people anticipating their needs.”

He adds that food is extremely important. “When we were crafting our Chinese breakfast options, we built the recipes in China with Chinese chefs so it was authentic Chinese food [unlike the Chinese food often served in the West].”

The SOAS report underlines a move towards individual travel by the Chinese, noting that a growing number of first-time Chinese tourists are choosing to travel independently, rather than with traditional tour groups, with second- and third-time travellers who feel comfortable travelling alone or in small groups of family or friends, further fuelling this trend.

This will please those who wince at the idea of ever more tour coaches winding their way through heritage towns, golf courses and Scottish whisky distilleries.

Business travel is fast changing too. Gone are the days of the business delegation, thinks Flack; many more Chinese executives are visiting individually, independently.

“There’s a confidence about them; they feel their time has come and they have money to invest around the world and aren’t scared of investing it where it makes sense.”

The British services industry has a wonderful opportunity to give the Chinese visitor what they want.

(Caption on blog landing page: A mainland Chinese tourist takes pictures during a cruise on the River Thames, central London, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Paul Hackett PH/RD)

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