Erica Giopp (center) leads bespoke tours for high-end Chinese clients in Italy. Photo by Guido Caltabiano
One of most coveted segments in the Chinese outbound tourism market is also one of the hardest to get right when it comes to marketing and service: luxury travelers. We interviewed three tourism professionals with extensive experience in the Chinese luxury sector to understand how to stand out – and avoid making major blunders – with affluent Chinese travelers.
Our expert panel:
– Ivy Aiwei Jenkins is Director at HEDERA, a full-service agency specializing in the Asia market, dedicated to luxury hotels, retail and lifestyle. Educated in Switzerland, Ivy also has previous experience working in the high-end hospitality industry in Beijing, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and London.
– As part of his 20+ years in Chinese outbound tourism, Dragon Trail’s Roy Graff was the co-founder of UK luxury training and consulting partnership China Edge, working with luxury hotels and retailers in London, and has led high-end Chinese delegations around the world.
– Erica Giopp works as a freelance luxury travel expert, collaborating with bespoke travel companies like Italy BAO (By Appointment Only) as a Luxury Travel Concierge.
1. Make communication your specialty
“There is always an essential element of human touch between yourself and your guests for high-end hospitality, and that is valued even more by the Chinese when they travel abroad,” says Ivy Aiwei Jenkins. “Chinese-friendly amenities show your sincerity, bilingual marketing materials and welcome kits help you to share your information, but your Chinese guest relation adds the most value. European and American guests can grab anyone to share their experiences, either positive or negative, to allow you the opportunity to take actions accordingly. Chinese is a different story, whether there is a language barrier or not. To avoid direct confrontation, not lose face, not look bad, it is hard for them to share, especially something negative. Therefore, having the Chinese guest relation empowers you, as this person or department will enhance communication and in turn, smooth their total guest experience and encourage repeat business and/or referrals.”
If you’re providing a Chinese guide to Chinese high net worth (HNW) clients, make sure that guide also has a high education level, understands the market segment, and speaks either very good Mandarin, or the same dialect as the clients, advises Roy Graff.
Bespoke luxury tour guide Erica Giopp is Italian, and speaks Mandarin as a second language. She uses her multi-lingual abilities and cultural knowledge to bridge the gap between her clients and their travel environment. “My suggestion is to always do your best to create connections between travelers and locals; when getting into a coffee bar, we order coffee and as soon the barman makes his little joke (Roman barmen always joke), translate it to the clients, let them answer and get involved in the conversation. Helping customers to interpret and understand what is going on around is the highest service you can provide. A client from the US has sometimes an easy access to the understanding of local habits; it takes a bit more effort for a Chinese one because of different behaviors and cultural backgrounds.”
2. Understand your customer
There’s a lot of diversity even within the luxury market. “The best practice is to pay attention to their background, their previous travel experience, their education. Chinese are not different from other nationalities in that you need to take the time to understand them and give them personal service. Where do they come from in China? How do they make their money? Take time to learn their personal background. Some may appreciate a friendly approach; others may look down on servers. Take personalization one step further for luxury travelers, including understanding their drink and food preferences,” advises Graff.
Giopp offers concrete examples based on her own experience: “Travel rhythm habits are different for those clients coming from big cities in mainland China, from Taiwan and Hong Kong, those coming from Singapore, and those living and working abroad. People from Guangzhou are generally more used to ‘take it slowly’ than Beijingers. But every person is different of course, and that’s why we do bespoke tours.”
“Baby, baby, baby!” is Jenkins’ advice for the most important client to understand. “If kids can sometimes influence a family on their hotel choice in the west, then kids are a million percent the decision maker in China, especially the HNWIs. Try to find out as much as possible about the purposes of their stay, details, kids’ preferences, whether it’s a boy or girl, what age they are, and play up your amenities for children.” Ivy does note, however, that it can be harder to find out background information about affluent Chinese travelers, perhaps especially those traveling with family, because of the high value they place on privacy.
3. Realize that their ‘luxury’ standards may be higher
“The mistake is to think that in China they’re not used to luxury already. In Old World destinations, the service and hardware tend to be less luxurious than what they already have in China,” says Graff. “We make the mistake of thinking: We know what luxury is, and because they’re from China they’re not used to it.”
Actually, issues with hotel room size is one of the most common complaints from HNW Chinese tourists in Italy, says Giopp. “Hotels in city centers have rooms that are often smaller than the worldwide average, especially those located in historical buildings. When we are able to make the customer aware of it before booking the accommodation, then it is not an issue. However, it turns into a problem when it’s a completely unexpected factor at the check-in moment. The historical value, the service, the beauty of the furniture, and the astonishing surroundings sometimes are enough to compensate for the size of a room, but the client has to be aware of it before his arrival.”
4. For food, balance comfort and adventure
Food is an important part of the Chinese tourism experience abroad, and Chinese travelers can be quite adventurous diners, but some considerations and modifications will still need to be made. “Providing an entree, first and second courses, plus dessert, could sometimes be very unsuccessful,” says Giopp. “Chinese travelers generally want to taste more but eat less. They normally enjoy fish, meat and vegetable dishes more than enormous amounts of pasta. They are always curious and open to tasting raw food such as carpaccio, tartare or octopus salad, but serving those as main dishes is risky. Offering different dishes to taste and share together would be more appreciated.”
But allowing for the food to be eaten in a shared style, like it is in China, may not be enough if the tourists are traveling far outside their comfort zone. “If they’re going through something very unfamiliar, they need Chinese food to balance it out. Even when they’re used to luxury, ultimately it will be home comforts they miss,” advises Graff. When taking high-end delegations to both Zambia and India, he found that the travelers tended to be unimpressed with luxury-style Western food. He started to bring various Chinese sauces and pickles that the guests could add to their food, managed to find a Chinese restaurant in a small Indian city, and in one Zambian hotel, even went into the kitchen and got the chef to make them a big bowl of zhou, a simple but comforting rice congee.
5. Be Chinese-friendly, but don’t go overboard
We’ve all heard tips on making your hotel or travel business “Chinese friendly”, and for the most part, this is good advice. But with sophisticated luxury travelers, Graff warns, you’ll need to strike a delicate balance. “They won’t want to feel that you’re serving mass market Chinese, but rather luxury clients from other markets, too. They don’t want to feel grouped together. You don’t necessarily have to have everything available in Chinese, all the Chinese amenities. In the UK, offer authentic English afternoon high tea,” he says, explaining that this quintessential experience will be more in demand than Chinese-style green tea.
But Jenkins argues that HNWIs might enjoy even such basic amenities as instant noodles – although it won’t look good to provide them in a hotel room. Instead, she suggests offering a Chinese tea set, a large bottle of still water, and an electric kettle. She also recommends providing a humidifier in hotel rooms, especially for women, who see this as beneficial for their skin. Fresh, exotic fruits are another suggestion, but “please, no big pineapple as nobody would be bothered. More like cherries, strawberries or lychees, should they become in-season,” she specifies.
6. Don’t force them to shop
Shopping is a very delicate area. On one hand, shopping is still an important part of an international trip for Chinese tourists, but on the other, they are extremely wary of the forced shopping associated with low-end group tours. “To give shopping advice or try to drive them into any shops” could give Chinese visitors the idea that you are receiving a commission, says Giopp, which will reflect very badly on you. “In terms of luxury goods, Chinese clients are particularly aware of what they want and what it costs. They make accurate research on brands and products before they leave for a trip, and when they reach the destination they normally already know where to find what they want. We should fulfill clients’ desires, give suggestions if required, and mention niche valuable products as general cultural information and not as a shopping imposition,” she elaborates.
Roy echoes her sentiments that luxury clients will want “shopping without pressure” and be especially interested in things that are made locally. He recommends putting aside time in the itinerary for shopping should the client desire it, and to give an explanation of local shopping culture – for example, letting them know if bargaining is expected. Likewise, inform your Chinese guests about tipping expectations in restaurants.
7. Avoid cold service
“‘They are cold, they don’t talk, they don’t like to chat, they never give tips, they are hard to read, they come to Europe once and they don’t come back, so I can’t be bothered to go the extra mile either’. This is more or less the standard honest feedback on Asian guests, including the Chinese,” Jenkins states bluntly. “Because of cultural differences and/or language barriers, and fear to do anything wrong, a lot of European hotels’ staff members choose not to interact [with Chinese guests], and therefore, a vicious cycle is formed.” This impression of cold service does not sit well with the Chinese guests, who will feel singled out as a minority, and are sure to tell their friends.
Even if there is a language barrier, Jenkins has good advice for offering a warm welcome that transcends this: “Politeness, smiles, welcome, hospitality, sincerity, care – all of these can be translated through body language and eye contact, and you just simply need to collectively do so.”
Enjoying a relaxed aperitivo is one of the small surprises Erica Giopp arranges for her clients, who typically ask for a packed schedule. Photo by Guido Caltabiano (@guidocal)
8. Give them small surprises
How do you go the extra mile that will generate positive word of mouth with your HNW Chinese clients – arguably your best marketing strategy? The trick lies in small surprises.
“Try to fit in all kinds of upgrades, small gifts or surprises to give them a feeling of exclusivity. The key is to work with them in such a way that they will tell their friends about you,” says Graff. Jenkins’ advice for working with the children of luxury guests is similar. She advises offering small gifts, “especially something that is collectable and/or a series of characters to collect. This helps you on their repeat business and the storytelling to other, similar families.”
For Giopp, the small surprises come in the form of relaxing and memorable “experiences”, one of the biggest buzzwords in travel right now. “Chinese travelers do not dislike relaxing, but they really want to be sure to have the whole schedule packed; they are concerned about time wasting,” she explains of her often money-rich, time-poor clients. “We organize the tour they want, just making sure to save a few moments to take a nap, enjoy an aperitivo, or look at the sunset, not as key points of the program, but as an unexpectedly delightful part of the trip.”