The fast pace of change in social media tools and the travel market in China are combining to inspire a search for the best way to reach China’s increasingly affluent, increasingly independent travelers. The future of social media’s role in China’s travel market was a hot topic at the recent China Travel Distribution Summit at the OCT Interlaken Resort in Shenzhen. Online travel agencies like Ctrip and Elong, as well as hotels, airlines, and travel meta search sites—all kinds of companies effected by online travel research and booking—are looking for the best ways to use social media to connect with travelers.
While 2008 and 2009 were slow growth years for travel in China, the trend here continues toward a preference for researching and booking travel online—and it looks like that will continue for the near future. PhocusWright’s recent report, “Emerging Online Travel Marketplace in China,” estimated 19 percent growth for online travel in 2009. The same report estimates that, at $6.9 billion, online travel represents 11 percent of the travel market in China—and that proportion is expected to nearly double by 2011.
“The shift to online has accelerated,” says Cyril Ranque, vice president of the partner services group for Expedia Asia-Pacific. “Hotels have found online to be more dynamic to promote their products. If anything the crisis has accelerated the move to online.”
While online travel research and booking are growing, many players in the online travel market hope to see them pick up the pace, and are looking at social media as one way to capture the attention of Chinese travelers.
“Currently less than 10 percent of our users book online,” says Ivan Zhang, CEO of travel meta search site Kuxun. “But in the future, I think that can be as much as 50 or 60 percent.”
At China Travel Daily’s recent China Travel Distribution Summit in Shenzhen, examples were lacking of social media campaigns that delivered clear ROI in travel search. While some players have been cautious with campaigns, others who have used social media haven’t found good ways to measure its effectiveness. But consumers in China will soon demand more, says Elliott Ng, founder of Uptake Networks, a Palo Alto-based company whose Uptake.com combines travel search and social media. Ng recently visited China, stopping in three cities including Shenzhen, where he attended China Travel Daily’s summit. Ng was surprised at the pace of change in the travel market here, and says he could see it leading to new tools for travelers that leverage search and social media.
“The Chinese travel market is growing so fast that consumers are going to start demanding the same things that travelers have elsewhere in the world. That means that people can start taking some of these social media models that work elsewhere, and copying them or being inspired by them.”
In his presentation at the China Travel Distribution Summit, Ng shared what he sees as the top trends affecting social media, search and travel in the United States. Among the half dozen trends he named, Ng included: “Social media creates new ways for travel professionals and enthusiasts to affect travel decisions.”
A big part of using social media to affect travel decisions is identifying the right personalities—those with influence and reach—to communicate the message, says Jens Thraenhart, executive parter of Dragon Trail, a Beijing-based company provides marketing intelligence to international travel providers targeting the Chinese market.
“In social media, it’s a small group of highly committed users that influence the rest,” says Fritz Demopolous, CEO of Qunar.com, China’s top travel search Web site. “When you try to stoke the social media flame, you use all sorts of tactics.”
Thraenhart points to campaigns that used social media and Chinese sports personalities to promote travel to overseas destinations. The Canadian Tourism Commission invited figure skating world champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo to Canada last winter, and used a social media campaign to share their experience with the masses. And in the Swiss tourism board’s effort to position itself as the prime destination for mountain climbers, it invited blogger, climber and businessman Wangshi to Switzerland. He in turn promoted Switzerland to the 23 million who read his blog.
Just who are the most useful influencers in social media, and how much reach they have, remains unknown, Demopolous says. At Qunar, the travel search tools are supported by user-generated content in the form of blogs, forums and reviews.
“Unlike Wikipedia where five percent account for eighty percent of content, for us fifteen percent contribute eighty percent,” Demopolous says. “Maybe in two years it will go down to five or up to thirty.”
As Qunar watches how user influence gets distributed, it is watching China’s increasingly diversified segments of leisure travelers.
“One of the biggest ways to cut it up is frequent independent travelers vs. group tours,” says Demopolous. “The frequent independent travelers are broken into leisure and business, heavy users vs. light. Then we look at geographic groups, and domestic vs. foreign. Then we try to identify growth trends in those categories.”
Summed up like that, it all sounds neat and simple, but there are still more questions than answers, according to Demopolous: “Social media is requiring us to include all sorts of new features. I think when we look back 10 years from now we are all going to laugh at how unsophisticated we were.”