China travel market update 20 November ‘20

China’s domestic travel market continues to make a strong post-pandemic recovery. China’s three largest carriers each launched 10 new domestic routes in October while China’s largest airline, China Southern, returned to profit in Quarter 3. Meanwhile key hotel markets including Sanya, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Xi’an have recently recorded occupancy levels of more than 70%.  And Alibaba’s online travel platform Fliggy reported more than double last year’s sales of domestic hotel nights during China’s annual online shopping bonanza Singles Day.

Intra-China passenger flights stood at 98% last year’s volumes in September in the build-up to Golden Week, the first in the time of Covid-19. And while countries across Europe were entering second lockdowns in early October, photos of busy tourist spots and transport hubs showed the Middle Kingdom rediscovering its wanderlust. The chairman and co-founder of online travel mega-agency Trip.com, Liang Jianzhang, forecast that China’s domestic tourism market would be fully recovered by the end of 2020.

China-Southeast Asia travel bubbles opening

At least 500 million Chinese went on holiday during Golden Week. In fact China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism puts the number of travellers as high as 637 million. And Chinese online travel agency Qunar.com reported an increase of around +20% in the average hotel booking price compared to last year.

Attesting to China’s regained consumer confidence, a USD500 million Legoland theme park is planned for Shanghai. The first Chinese holidaymakers in 7 months arrived in Thailand in October, and a Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble is due for launch on 22 November.

A return to explosive shopping?

The Pfizer/BioNTech announcement that their Covid-19 vaccination candidate proved 90% effective in global trials has received widespread coverage in China. This follows positive news for the nation’s own candidate vaccines. And with Covid-19 largely under control at home, the return of one coronavirus positive tourist from Mongolia in recent days has been headline news.

Chinese tourists are not just returning to travelling – they’re spending too. The Middle Kingdom’s – and perhaps the world’s – biggest annual shopping day, Singles Day, on 11 November broke all spending records. China’s online retail giant Alibaba reported record sales of 583,000 purchases every second with 1.9 billion sales in total.

Although the Chinese economy took a significant dip during the heights of the pandemic in Quarter 1, it picked up speed in Quarters 2 and 3. Quarter 3 saw growth of +4.9% year/year, and retail sales grew by +3.3% in September. China is the first major economy to resume growth at pre-pandemic levels and is expected to be the only G20 economy to grow this year.

Chinese students and the UK education market: an interview with Tony Evans, Co-Founder of Experio Life and Bristol International College

Tony, tell us about yourself; what’s your experience in education and what do you do?

After graduating in Modern European Studies in 1984 and travelling extensively throughout Europe for a year, I embarked on a career in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) which spanned 6 years and took me to Germany, Italy and France. I then moved into Operations Management (staff recruitment, programming and troubleshooting) before taking on roles in Sales and Marketing with a number of leading organizations in the industry. Since September 1995 I have been involved in the creation and management of 4 start-up companies in the UK, France and Germany. In 2001, I set up Experio Life Ltd., a consultancy business specializing in educational travel for the youth market and in 2019 I co-founded Bristol International College, a University of London-recognised teaching centre located in the heart of Bristol.

What proportion of Chinese students attend your independent and public schools? And how has the market changed over the last few years?

In 2019, 50% of our international students were from China compared to less than 10% in 2016. While it’s true that we saw growth in many existing and several new markets over that period, none was so strong as that from China.

When did you start first realise that there might be an opportunity to attract Chinese students to independent schools and summer schools in the UK?

Since the early 2000s, we have had a good number of Hong Kong students every year but in spite of the best efforts of those Hng Kong-based agents to penetrate the mainland Chinese market, we didn’t welcome our first Chinese students until 2014.

How did you approach the market?

In the first instance, we were approached by the Bristol-China Partnership (now known as the Bristol & West of England China Bureau) to host a small group of friends and relatives of one of their Chinese staff members who was also a Post Graduate student at the University of Bristol. This turned out to be a very positive experience for all concerned and was repeated the following summer with a much larger group. At that point I realised the growth potential for student recruitment from China.

How did you find someone to work with in China?

We received another local contact from the Bristol-China Partnership, a Chinese lady with a background in Finance but with great entrepreneurial spirit and skills who had recently moved to Bristol to accompany her son, who had taken up a place in Clifton College Prep School. We immediately agreed to work together on the recruitment of Chinese students for our summer schools and state school integration programmes and I’m delighted to say that we are still working together and had great success up until Covid-19 struck.

At around the same time in 2015, we were talking to a student marketing company about how best to access the Chinese market from an in-country perspective and they recommended that we engage a full-time bilingual Sales Representative who we trained in the UK and then deployed in China to contact and pre-select educational travel agents on our behalf.

You visited China for 30 days/year for several years to build contacts; how did you plan your visits and decide who to meet?

Yes, that’s correct…so from 2016 – 2019 I visited China two or three times per year in order to meet and consolidate existing relationships and to forge new ones with agents who had been pre-selected by our local representative (ie vetted to meet certain criteria that qualified them as having good potential to deliver students to our portfolio of programmes). Our local rep was responsible for the itinerary for each trip including accommodation, ground transportation and flights but in some cases these costs were borne by the agents that we were meeting since I would be required to visit schools and universities together with the agent and often give a presentation to Senior Management Teams, English teachers, students, parents etc.

What are your general experiences of working in China? What were your biggest challenges?

I must say that despite the extensive travel involved and the somewhat repetitive nature of visiting schools and giving presentations, I have really enjoyed all my trips to China and I have been made to feel extremely welcome wherever I have been. And I have eaten some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had anywhere. On the few occasions that I have travelled alone in China, I found the language barrier the biggest challenge…especially with taxi drivers!

Can you tell us about guanxi and how it has affected how you work with the Chinese?

Guanxi is a Chinese term meaning “networks” or “connections” that open doors for new business and facilitate deals. Understanding this concept and how to implement it within the context of student recruitment has been fundamental to our success in developing China as a market. Having a basic understanding of Chinese culture and demonstrating this understanding and your respect for the ways in which things are done through the way you behave yourself in everyday situations, and in the way you do business, is key to creating the guanxi from which successful and long-lasting business relationships and partnerships develop.

What are the most important factors in attracting Chinese students in the age of Covid-19?

The most important factors are showing empathy and understanding for the concerns that students, parents and agents have surrounding safety and security issues, and then being able to address those concerns with tangible solutions. Students want to study abroad and many would be prepared to take the small risk involved currently but parents are the ultimate decision makers since they are financing it and they won’t take any risks where their children are concerned. Consequently, we have to satisfy the parents that not only will we provide an excellent educational experience for their children but that we can also guarantee their safety and well-being. We need the external factors such as transportation and visa processing to be available too.

How to do business in China: the importance of guanxi

If you’ve ever made a business trip to China, you’ll have heard about guanxi. If you’re new to China and considering doing business there, you need to know about guanxi. So what is this key element of building relationships with Chinese business partners? What is the importance of guanxi?

Who you know is more important than what you know

It isn’t easy to directly translate guanxi into English but its approximate meaning is ‘social connections’ or ‘personal relationships’. Essentially it refers to the interpersonal networks of people we each build to help us succeed in our careers. And guanxi is key to being successful in business in China.

For much of Chinese history, guanxi has been the glue that has held society together. Traditional Chinese society was mostly rural and built around family and social connections, which are also emphasised in Confucianism. Essentially, it’s natural to do business with people you know. We might even characterise guanxi as ‘Who you know is more important than what you know’.

So how should you approach doing business in China, taking guanxi into account?  And can you create your own guanxi?

Creating your own guanxi

Is it possible for a non-Chinese person to create their own guanxi? Tony Evans did. Tony is Co-Founder of Bristol International College and Experio Life Ltd, a consultancy business specialising in educational travel for the youth market. With more than 30 years’ experience in education and a continent-spanning career, Tony is used to cross-border working and international collaboration. So he wasn’t phased by getting involved with the Chinese market. We spoke to Tony to hear more about his experiences.

In 2015 Tony identified untapped Chinese demand for international education. Working with a Chinese business partner in the UK, Tony selected and appointed a bilingual in-country representative. The local rep identified suitable schools and agents, arranged local introductions, and planned itineraries and every aspect of travel. Tony visited China two or three times every year, spending about 30 days annually travelling vast distances and holding many meetings in China to build relationships and establish that all-important guanxi.

The result? In 2019, 50% of Tony’s summer school students were from China – an increase from just 10% in 2016.

How to do business in China

So it is possible to create your own connections, or guanxi. But it’s a lot of work and commitment, and you need inside help.

  1. Have a trusted local partner

Work with a local partner to identify the right people to meet. The right person in China knows your market and industry, and will have the necessary connections to match you with promising business contacts.

  • Get introductions

Make sure you’re not approaching potential business partners ‘cold’. A written introduction from a trusted Chinese contact is the minimum; an inperson introduction is better.

  • Work with a local translator who is not just bilingual but bicultural

Use a translator who understands your industry jargon and can interpret cultural differences for you. Understanding cultural and linguistic nuance is vital to achieving results.

Many cross-cultural challenges in business

And tackling guanxi is just one cross-cultural challenge among many. Don’t forget:

  • Seniority is important. It’s vital that senior associates make contacts and nurture relationships. Don’t ever send someone who the Chinese might perceive as junior to a meeting
  • The Chinese don’t like to say no. Apparent agreement is often not what it seems
  • Meeting etiquette is important. What Westerners perceive as ‘small talk’ is crucial relationship-building

We can help you establish great working relationships with business partners in China. We are experts in promoting tourism brands in the Chinese market and have long-term relationships with the important Chinese media, Key Opinion Leaders (influencers) and travel trade. The travel specialists in our Beijing office have existing guanxi with many of your potential business partners – and can visit them in person to promote your product ready for when China’s 100 million plus outbound tourists start booking overseas travel again.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about the possibilities of the Chinese outbound travel market and how we can help guanxi work for you.