What is your experience in developing group business into the UK?
I worked at Gullivers Travel Associates (GTA) for nine years, starting at the Far East Department co-ordinating the European itineraries for Chinese groups back in 1998. In 2002, GTA sent me to Shanghai to develop outbound travel business from China and I spent three years in China (Shanghai and Beijing) building a team of local staff wholesaling accommodation and ground handling. In 2005, I returned to the UK and started consulting to tourism boards, hotel groups and tour operators about growing tourism business from China. I have worked with several UK-based tour operators helping them with developing suitable itineraries for Chinese tourists and linking them to travel agencies in China.
How is the Chinese incoming groups market developing?
There have been a few major shifts in incoming Chinese groups and the change is continuing today. Before 2005, the groups came on business or official visas as delegations and technical visits, though their purpose was usually tourism. Part of the job of a ground handler was to help them source an invitation letter from a relevant institution or official body in the UK in order to apply for the visa. Since the signing of the ADS (Approved Destination Status) agreement in 2005, more groups are arriving on ADS (group tourist) visas, which only require approved tour operators in the UK to be listed on the approved ADS list maintained by VisitBritain and shared with CNTA (China National Tourism Administration). There are still business groups coming for the purpose of tourism as well as legitimate business groups and delegations. Many travel agencies in China that are familiar with the UK now book a lot of the components of the tour themselves and are looking to work directly with hotels and coach companies. A new trend we have started to see is self-organised tours, where friends or family will plan the itinerary using online resources and the advice of friends and colleagues. They will go to the travel agent with their itinerary just for help with the flights and visa.
What would your advice be to UK suppliers wanting to target Chinese visitors?
As the market is becoming less homogenous, there are opportunities for suppliers not just in London and the south east. There are several well established travel suppliers operating in the Chinese market. Learning from what they have done well should be the first step. Often they have been in the market for a long time, have sent senior staff to visit China, attend trade shows and make sales calls repeatedly. Increasingly, having online presence through a Chinese website listed on Baidu, the Chinese search engine, and a social media profile (Wechat and Weibo) is necessary to be noticed by Chinese buyers and communicate with them effectively. Chinese agents expect a fast response and competitive rates. They are able to deal with ground handlers that have operations staff based in China and that understand their needs. For suppliers in the UK, employing Chinese-speaking staff and communicating via live chat (QQ or Wechat) is the minimum they must offer to target Chinese visitors.
Do you have any other thoughts on the future of the international group travel market?
Chinese outbound tourism has grown at an average 19% annually since 1998. The expectations are for continuing growth through 2020, reaching over 200 million outbound trips by that year. About 10-15% of that will reach Europe, and if the UK as a country takes steps to welcome them, we should by then receive one million Chinese (compared to about 200,000 last year). The incoming industry can work with the wider travel sector and retail sector to lobby government for an easing of visa regulations and improve the overall reception that the Chinese receive in Britain. Mostly this involves better awareness of cultural nuances and business etiquette, developing more Chinese language collateral (printed materials, audio tours, qualified Chinese speaking guides etc.) and product development with the Chinese visitor in mind.
Roy Graff studied Chinese and Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and has since made his career in travel and tourism business development, involved in e-commerce, online travel and hospitality. In 2005, Roy founded ChinaContact, to work with national and regional tourism promotion boards, luxury hotel chains, high-end tour operators, technology companies, retailers and event companies on strategies and implementation of China market access including group business.