The reality of the so-called “friction-less” Chinese travel industry is that it is evolving so rapidly.
In turn, some areas are struggling to keep up with developments such as the outrageously (in a good way) mobile connected population who are also eager to explore.
This desire to “see the world” (remember, China is an enormous country, so much of this also covers both international travel and their own backyard) will see one billion Chinese having travelled to another country within five to seven years.
Indeed, some estimate that around 8-10% of ALL international travel will eminate from the Asian giant within a few years.
More factoids to make your head hurt a bit:
By 2023, around 220 million Chinese will be travelling each year – or put another way, one in five people taking a leisure or business trip at any given time are likely to be Chinese.
We all know the primary reasons for this – there is a growing middle class with money to spend who, beyond arming themselves with technology and other high-end consumer goods, have as previously mentioned simply want to see what is beyond their borders.
One of the important things to note is that the Chinese have always travelled – this isn’t a sudden mobilisation of people, it’s just at a far more tremendous scale.
“Traditional” Chinese travellers, as Bart Tompkins, managing director for Greater China at Amadeus, reminds delegates at the TravelDaily Conference in Shanghai last week, were mostly in groups and often seeing trailing a tour guide wielding a brightly coloured umbrella around a city centre.
This is inevitably changing.
Those heading overseas are more adventurous, better educated, sophisticated, keen to have different types of experiences beyond trawling around the museums and other landmarks of the world’s popular capitals.
In fact, Tompkins says around two-thirds of Chinese travellers are now NOT in groups, a sizeable change in behaviour from just a few years ago.
This sudden switch in expectations is, of course, also having an effect on the industry.
Tompkins says 54% of Chinese travellers are using their mobile devices at the “inspiration” phase of the trip cycle.
They want a more personalised AND unique experience, meaning that the product range needs to be broader in its geography AND more creative in its type.
What is also starting to take place, according to Tompkins, is a shift towards a direct relationship with suppliers, whether they are airlines or hotels or tour operators.
As a result, around 50% of hotels are booked direct by travellers.
This is not at the expense of just traditional offline intermediaries – this is a deliberate bypass of both offline AND online travel agents.
Therefore, what can these various types of travel agencies do to fight back?
Someone from Amadeus is inevitably going to say agencies, both off and online, should be armed with more innovative tools and bits of technology to help attract travellers to their brands.
But, he is right – any agency that cannot give instant, accurate and real-time information to those researching a trip will be left behind.
Offline agencies should MUST make their online presence as helpful and intuitive as their staff. In other words, all agencies MUST be multi-channel and multi-device brands.
They must also reconsider where they believe they fit in the cycle of a trip, something that will sadly not reduce their workload.
It is no longer about simply selling an air ticket, hotel bed or tour package – it is about positioning a brand across the following phases:
Now of course the role of any agency is stronger in some of these areas than others.
But the point that Tompkins makes, echoed by many others who know that technology is at the heart of this new agency-traveller relationship, is that there is an opportunity to reach customers at every point along this path.
Be it social media, CRM, mobile applications, feedback surveys – many more touch-points than previously available.
Whether such activity can arrest the shift to the direct relationship is unclear (there are other forces at work, not least around pricing), but adding the word “value” to the agency-traveller relationship is vital for success, says Tompkins.
And this isn’t exclusive to the Chinese market. It is relevant to every other country operating in the travel industry – China is just a fascinating, enormous market, with eye-watering levels of scale where such trends can be seen more clearly.
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