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.

Get Ready for Golden Week

Golden Week is one of the most important holidays in the Chinese calendar, a week-long holiday that happens annually at the beginning of October. Traditionally, the Chinese flock in their droves (589 million to be precise) throughout China via train and by car, visiting domestic tourism attractions such as Beijing’s Forbidden City which sold 166 tickets per minute during last year’s festivities. However, times are changing and Chinese tourists are turning their attention to international travel during their week off work.

In 2016, it is thought that a record 6 million Chinese nationals opted to travel overseas for their holiday. Not only are they venturing abroad, they also have money burning holes in their pockets, in 2015 the Chinese spent $180billion abroad. Europe is seen as a favourable destination due to the ability to claim tax back, in the UK goods are almost 30% cheaper than Chinese high street prices because Chinese tourists can reclaim the VAT they’ve spent and taxes on luxury items are lower.

Attract a new market in a quiet period

2018, has been announced as the year for EU-Chinese tourism and, the spotlight is firmly placed on links between Europe and China. As relationships start to strengthen, the number of visiting Chinese should start to multiply. Europe needs to find ways to entice tourists in the off-peak seasons, and adding Golden week to the roster alongside Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter maybe the perfect way. Golden Week is all about shopping to excess, and the European high streets, and particularly the gift shops, could really benefit from this shopping extravaganza in the post-summer, pre-Christmas lull.

Exchange rates have an impact

Golden Week 2016 saw sterling at the lowest it had been in 10 years, meaning the UK was 10% better value for money than it had been in 2015, enticing Chinese tourists to dig deep and spend, spend, spend. The UK saw a +58% rise year-on-year in Chinese Tax free shopping during Golden Week last year; fuelled not only by the post Brexit exchange rates, but also by dedicated promotions on travel websites such as Ctrip. This steady rise has seen stores such as Gieves and Hawkes on Saville Road benefit from the kind of shameless spending that Golden Week promotes.

So how many Chinese tourists will travel to Europe for Golden Week in 2017? Well, sterling has made a slight come back so the UK isn’t quite so cheap. In October 16, tourists could expect to receive around £0.12 for their Renminbi, where today (August 17), they would receive slightly less – around £0.115, but this is still a good rate in comparison to previous years. Looking at the euro, last year the Renminbi would have bought you €0.136 to splash out in the designer boutiques of the Champs-Elysees, but today that same Renminbi may only take you to Printemps, with a rate of €0.127. So the Chinese will get around 6% less for their money in the Eurozone this year, and around 4% less in the UK.

More importantly, perhaps, will be the response of the Chinese to the recent terrorist attacks in the UK. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, Paris saw a drop of approximately 30% to the city . But, anecdotally, we have heard that the terrorist attacks in the UK received less media coverage in China so perhaps the impact will not be so deeply felt. Let’s hope so.

Are you ready with a Chinese cashless payment solution?

Another important factor for Chinese shoppers, is the availability of Chinese cashless solutions, such as AliPay, Union Pay and WeChat Pay. The might of Alipay is incontestable, more than 250,000 Chinese tourists visited Britain in 2015, and during this period the spend on Alipay topped £586.22 million. The mighty Tencent has brought WeChat Pay to Europe this year, and we can’t wait to see what effect this will have on Golden Week 2017.

Here’s hoping for a golden October.


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7 steps to hotel heaven

The Chinese outbound travel market is not just the largest in the world – it also grew by 12% in 2016. Chinese tourists outspend and outshop all other tourists. And yet many hotels are missing out on this valuable market, because they think either that Chinese tourists are difficult to cater for, or that they all travel in large groups and stay in mid-market chain hotels on the unfashionable outskirts of cities.

But the Chinese market has moved on, and Chinese tourists are increasingly seeking out stylish independent hotels. And you’ll be pleased to hear that making your hotel Chinese-friendly doesn’t require big investment or massive changes – just a few tweaks to your offering, core information translated into Mandarin and some understanding of cultural norms can make you a great proposition to this market. Here’s our list of 7 great ways to make your hotel appealing to the Chinese …

1. Food: it’s not just about congee and chopsticks

Just a few short years ago, congee was widely touted as the ‘must have’ breakfast for Chinese tourists overseas. But these days food tourism is on the rise among Chinese millennials, and genuine local cuisine is an important part of the holiday experience. From Brighton’s Regency restaurant to The Plough at Cadsden, host of Prime Minister Cameron and President Xi Jinping’s fish and chip dinner in 2015, restaurants of all types are welcoming the modern Chinese tourist.

Make both first-time overseas travellers and millennials happy by offering a local hot breakfast option and having hot water available. Be ready to recommend local restaurants and regional cuisine too. From shortbread in Scotland to oysters in Brighton, Chinese food tastes are evolving beyond rice and dim sum.

2. Authentic experiences make you more attractive

While non-Chinese hotel chains such as Hilton and Kempinski are learning the value of adapting their product to Chinese tastes in China, this is outweighed in overseas destinations by the demand for authentic local experiences. If they are memorable, exclusive and Instagrammable, all the better – there’s a reason that China is now the 4th largest source market for polar tourists.

Remember that the Chinese are rarely travelling for relaxation, rather to experience different cultures and see how other people live. Make sure you promote experiences which offer genuine insight into local life, as well as VIP trips. Chinese now make up the 2nd largest group on winery tours in Australia; if you have vineyards nearby, why not partner to offer VIP tours with paired wine tastings?

3. A little Mandarin goes a long way (to making your Chinese guests feel welcome)

It isn’t always practical to have Mandarin-speaking hotel employees, but offering menus and general hotel information in Mandarin goes a long way to making your Chinese guests feel welcome. It’ll reduce cultural misunderstandings and unanswerable queries too (unless your receptionists already have enough Mandarin to communicate the location of smoking areas and explain that breakfast takes place from 7am). Making core hotel information in Mandarin available by QR code will also tick an important technological Chinese box, as well as making it easier to update.

Small cultural gestures, such as accepting credit cards with two hands, and addressing the oldest person in the party first, are also greatly valued as signs of understanding. Rooms including the number 8 are a great choice for Chinese guests, since the number 8 is considered lucky. Conversely, don’t ever give Chinese guests rooms on the 4th floor or containing the number 4, since the number sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.

4. China UnionPay: a surefire way to increase revenue

China UnionPay is by far the preferred payment method for Chinese tourists. Accepting UnionPay shows your Chinese guests you are serious about their custom; according to Australia’s Commonwealth Bank, Chinese tourists are 20 times more likely to use a business which accepts China UnionPay. Your afternoon tea probably costs less than £50 per head, but it’s still worth noting that The Ritz saw spend by Chinese visitors increase by 25% in the first year it accepted UnionPay.

5. Delight your Chinese guests with free Wifi

Over 80% of Chinese share photos of their travels in social media – a figure which rises to over 90% amongst millennials. And over 70% of Chinese under 40 years old rely on social media for travel inspiration. So it makes sense to offer free Wifi: not only is it a great draw for visitors, it also allows them to share content which will help to promote your hotel and region to at-home Chinese looking for holiday ideas.

And there’s another reason for offering free Wifi; Ctrip and Qunar, China’s two largest travel sites, give great weight to free Wifi in their hotel rankings.

6. Style and heritage lift your hotel above the crowd

Boutique hotels are taking off in China and the growing number of independent travellers are looking for something more interesting than a standard mid-market chain hotel. Stylish architecture, on-trend interior design and local heritage are all attractive draws, especially to millennials seeking that perfect Instagrammable moment. Promote your local roots and what makes you unique, whether that’s local music heritage in Liverpool or links to Royalty in London.

7. Welcome multi-generational families

A growing trend in Chinese outbound travel is multi-generational travel, where sons and daughters bring their parents on overseas trips for a shared family experience. You already know to address the most senior member of the party first, and it turns out you can probably offer the ideal room arrangement too. Make it possible for multi-generational parties to book several rooms together; the old family rooms linked by internal doors turn out to be perfect for this, allowing Chinese family members to create a common meeting space when holidaying together.

So it turns out that just a few small changes will make your hotel Chinese-friendly – and they’re your first step into a virtuous circle whereby your Chinese guests will help your promotion by sharing their experiences on social media. But first you’ll need to make yourself known in China. Our next blog will look at the key steps to promoting your newly-China-friendly hotel to Chinese travellers and travel agents.


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Royal Museums Greenwich appoints China Travel Outbound to handle Chinese promotional campaign

Following a competitive pitch, Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) has appointed specialist Chinese travel PR and representation agency, China Travel Outbound, to deliver its first ever promotional programme in China.

Chinese tourists already account for 4% of visits to the Royal Observatory, making China one of the key international markets for the museum. China Travel Outbound has been tasked with driving significant growth in Chinese visitors to the Royal Observatory and with developing stories and key selling points to build Chinese visitation to the other three museums within RMG; the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House and the Cutty Sark.

The Chinese campaign will include a sales mission to visit key Chinese travel agents and tour operators, trade communications, and a Public Relations campaign in mainland China. Promotional literature and visitor information will also be translated into Mandarin Chinese.

Helena Beard, Managing Director, China Travel Outbound, said,

The Royal Museums of Greenwich are prestigious London attractions and we are delighted to be working with these world-famous brands. With the right promotional support, we believe there is a great opportunity for RMG to grow its Chinese visitor figures significantly across the museum portfolio.’

Amy O’Donovan, Travel Trade Marketing Manager, Royal Museums Greenwich said,

‘We were looking for an agency with the skills, experience and contacts to help us enter this complicated market. China Travel Outbound fully understood our needs and offered an insight-driven, realistic and sustainable plan of work which we can put into action simply and immediately.’

For further information about China Travel Outbound, please visit

For further information about Royal Museums Greenwich, please visit


5 ways to attract more Chinese shoppers

Recent research showed that the Chinese make up one third of all global tax-free shopping spend, and the Chinese tourist’s average holiday spending budget is ¥16.702 (£1,900). These figures once again remind travel and tourism businesses that the Chinese constitute an extremely lucrative market for retail. And it’s also a market which is predicted to grow to 200 million by 2020.

In 2014 the total overseas spend by Chinese tourists was over ¥1 trillion (£100 billion). The key factors driving Chinese overseas purchases, which we looked at in Part 1 of this blog, are a history of fakes and poor quality goods, a limited range and much higher prices. This trend shows no signs of slowing. Here’s the 5 ways to make your how retail offering Chinese-friendly and attract this cash-splashing segment.

Make sure you’re big in Beijing (and Shanghai, and Chengdu, and Guangzhou …)

81% of all Chinese overseas tourists plan to shop in their destination and they’re researching their options before they travel, so it’s essential to promote your brand in China. There are various routes to attracting the interest of Chinese tourists before departure, and they’re best used in combination to maximise your impact. PR to key consumer and trade media is essential, and inviting bloggers to visit can garner good coverage too.

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and celebrities are very influential in China and an endorsement, or ideally a visit, can place your offering into the social media streams of millions of Chinese. And choosing the right KOL is essential. While The Plough at Cadsden in Buckinghamshire can hardly find space for its Chinese visitors thanks to President Li Xinping and David Cameron’s beer and fish & chips pitstop last year, most brands are going to have to work a lot harder to raise their profile in China. The rise of internet celebrities such as Ling Ling, who by some accounts earns more than top Chinese actor Fan Bingbing, is just one aspect of a complex market for the unaware. There are even internet celebrity incubators. A specialist agency is vital to identify the KOL who will fit your brand and appeal to your target market; we knew Chinese rock band Miserable Faith were the right celebrities to promote our client Hard Rock Cafe – a simple lunch resulted in postings on Weibo which reached over 3 million.

So make sure you’ve done extensive research – or work with an expert agency – to find the right celebrity or KOL for your brand, use PR to consumer and trade media, and cultivate relevant Chinese bloggers.

Cash isn’t king

The Chinese don’t have access to Visa and Mastercard credit cards and have tended to pay in cash overseas – a natural spend inhibitor given concerns about the safety of carrying too much money in a foreign land. Hence the need for merchants to accept payment by China Union Pay, the bank card most widely used by the Chinese, is well-established. If you want to be included on a Chinese itinerary, you really ought to accept China Union Pay; Harrods has over 100 Union Pay terminals throughout the store.

The need to accept Union Pay is so well-established, in fact, that the world of Chinese payments is moving on. 99% of all Chinese online shoppers use mobile payment apps. In China these days even small retailers such as food stalls accept payment by mobile app. And Chinese outbound tourists increasingly wish to use the same payment methods overseas as they do at home.

The spread of Alibaba’s payments platform Alipay into Europe is designed to do just that; allow Chinese tourists to pay overseas using a familiar payment method. Alipay is increasingly available at European airports, luxury retailers and other places with high visitation by Chinese tourists. Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) recently signed a global partnership deal to accept payment by Alipay at all its hotels and through all digital and offline channels – not surprising when you realise that China is now IHG’s 2nd largest market globally. WeChat Pay is smaller than Alipay but still widely-trusted and used, and both payment channels are already spreading into Japan.

So make payment easy for the Chinese by accepting China Union Pay, and if you’re a big retail outlet, think about Alipay and WeChat Pay too. Making this change could give you a valuable return. The first US shopping complex to accept China Union Pay soon became the site of Union Pay’s single largest transaction ever. Which was a 6 figure sum.

Welcome the Chinese in Chinese

Making the Chinese feel welcome could bring great rewards. If your destination or tourist attraction is Chinese-friendly, it’s far more likely to feature in a group itinerary, make it into the Chinese media, or appear in an independent traveller’s plans. Communications and signage in Chinese and a dual language website – not just translated but localised so it makes cultural sense to the Chinese – will all contribute to raising brand awareness and making Chinese visitors feel welcome. And Mandarin onsite signage is vital for that all-important selfie.

Cultural training will help your onsite team welcome the Chinese and help them make the most of their visit. One of our services, GREAT China Welcome training, backed by Visit Britain, takes just one day and will equip your team to better serve the Chinese, even if becoming fluent in Mandarin takes just a little bit longer. Could you answer a question in Mandarin? If the answer is no, consider having a few key points about your most expensive items available to read in Mandarin. That could clinch a sale which would otherwise walk away to the next store.

Get yourself onto Chinese group itineraries

Legend has it that there was once a time when Chinese tour guides could be encouraged to visit particular places on receipt of a small monetary reward. No more. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown has reached into tourism and legitimate methods are required to get your offering onto Chinese group itineraries. And sadly this is not just a matter of meeting a few Chinese tour operators, liaising by email, agreeing rates et voilà, behold the arrival of many Chinese tour groups.

China’s time-honoured social hierarchy and cultural norms around trust impede speedy relationship-building. The Chinese favour long-term connections and these can’t be developed over just a couple of meetings. Expect to undertake repeated visits to meet your prospective partners or work with a local intermediary who can use their established connections to benefit your business. And don’t forget that ‘yes’ can mean ‘no’. British-Chinese cultural differences are multiple and challenging.

Tailor your brands to the Chinese

Chinese tourists are still eager to snap up luxury fashion in the form of clothes, handbags, sunglasses, watches and jewellery.

Bicester Village’s mix of designer and mid-market shops has proved a hit with the Chinese for whom it is reputedly the 2nd most visited destination in the UK after Buckingham Palace. A mix of high-end designer shops and mid-market brands is a great combination. And there’s a growing segment of Chinese visitors keen to seek out more quirky or original fashion too. New shopping app New Arrival is designed to bring independent overseas designers to the attention of Chinese fashionistas, highlighting shops in popular city destinations within and outside China as well as facilitating in-app purchases. Millennials in particular are making more self-focused decisions than older generations, opening up opportunities for the right smaller or niche brands.

Cosmetics and skincare, cheaper than in China and perfectly portable, are also a popular purchase for Chinese tourists in the UK. Gift purchases are common too, so consider offering bulk discounts and having traditional Chinese red gift envelopes available.

And make sure you offer heritage and quintessentially British and regional goods too. Tell the story of the brand and focus on its heritage, authenticity and quality to boost its appeal to Chinese tourists. For example, traditionally Scottish products such as tartan, whisky and cashmere are popular with Chinese tourists in Edinburgh. For authenticity’s sake, products should ideally be stamped Made in the UK – and certainly not Made in China.

Are you doing enough to attract Chinese shoppers?

So – are you doing enough to get your share of Chinese shoppers’ holiday spending? Are you promoting your offering in China; accepting China Union Pay; welcoming the Chinese in Mandarin; building relationships with the Chinese travel trade; and tailoring your retail offering to Chinese tourists? It might seem like a lot of work but it’s worth it; the Chinese are now in the top 10 inbound markets to the UK by value and their total visits to the UK were up +46% yr/yr to 2015.

To find out more about how you can make your retail outlet more attractive to the Chinese, contact us now for a no obligation chat.

For more news and views on the Chinese tourism scene, please read our other articles and sign up below to receive our newsletters.


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Could China’s love of wine be a new source of outbound tourism?

In a peculiar turn of fate, China is now the world’s biggest market for red wine, surpassing France and Italy. Wine drinking is a relatively new habit in China but the nation is already the world’s 5th largest consumer of wine overall, and Alibaba expects 100 million consumers to take part in its 1st ‘Wine Day’ later this year. The global wine industry is seduced by the size of the opportunity as China’s population of around 1.4 billion grows richer and seeks to spend money on imported goods. And could this growing consumption of wine be a new source of outbound Chinese tourism too?

Wine is becoming more affordable in China

Imported wine started as a luxury purchase in China. In 1996 Chinese Premier Li Peng toasted the 5th 9 Year Plan with red wine, and soon the elite were using bottles of prestigious French reds to win favour and smooth relationships. Record-breaking sales prices have been set in Hong Kong where a 66-bottle vintage collection sold online for £251,365 last year.

Hong Kong is a popular destination for wine-loving Chinese, in part because it has no tax on wine, in contrast to the steep alcohol taxes on the mainland. But even on the mainland wine is slowly becoming more affordable as more lower-priced labels enter the market. These come especially from free trade partners Chile and Australia, with volume imports from the latter up 51% in the first 3 months of 2016.

And wine-loving Chinese are no longer just interested in consumption. In May two Chinese Baiju (white spirit) producers bought South Australia’s Belvidere Winery, just the latest of a number of Chinese purchases of wineries and vineyards including at least 60 chateaux in Bordeaux in the last 5 years.

China is also the country with the 2nd biggest vineyard surface area in the world, behind Spain and (quelle horreur) ahead of France.

The growth of oenology in China

Enthusiasm for wine in China extends not just to its status-enhancing qualities but also to a genuine interest in oenology. WeChat’s Wine in University account has over 7,000 members. And it’s in this more sophisticated enjoyment of wine that the beginnings of wine tourism lie.

Chinese domestic wine tourism started to take off a few years ago. Large domestic wineries such as Changyu Pioneer Wine Co introduced tailored wine packages to cater for varying levels of customer knowledge. The addition of other entertainment such as mahjong and football seek to widen the wineries’ appeal to families and offer a rounded day trip destination.

The beginnings of Chinese outbound wine tourism

This interest in wine is slowly spilling into outbound tourism. Michelin published its first French Wine Tour guidebook in Mandarin in 2011 and 1/3 of the students in France’s Bordeaux Wine Institute are Chinese. In fact Bordeaux, sometimes known as the world’s wine capital, has been at the forefront of attracting Chinese tourists in recent years. Its website, brochures and a presentation DVD of the city are available in Mandarin.  Chinese-speaking assistants are available to guide tour groups. Luxury hotels in the region are adapting too; the 5 star Grand Hotel de Bordeaux and Spa has developed special VIP tours of Chinese tours which couple tastings of premier vintages with a gourmet lunch.

The Chinese have recently become the 2nd largest group of overseas visitors to Australian vineyards and make up 10% of all such visits.  Only the British, it seems, are more interested in the authentic Australian wine experience. Jacobs Creek Visitor Centre trains its staff in Chinese cultural norms and has introduced Mandarin signage while Red Dolls Wine in McLaren Vale bills itself as the first bilingual winery for the Chinese wine enthusiast.

And what’s particular notable is that Chinese visitors need a different kind of wine experience to score high satisfaction levels.  The natural setting and clean, fresh air around a winery can be just as attractive to the Chinese as the wine tasting itself.  And when it comes to wine tasting – well, Chinese visitors don’t just want to taste wine; they want to observe work in the vineyards and gain insight into the production process.  High-end visitors may like a tailored private tour and pretty much every-one will want to buy (expensive) red wine as a gift.  Red wine offers the best pairing with Chinese food and red is an auspicious colour in China.  Is the future auspicious for Chinese outbound wine tourism too?


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Generating Results with the Chinese Travel Trade

Last month, we wrote about the Top Five Challenges faced by UK tourism brands in accessing the Chinese travel market. Here, we look at the first of those challenges; Generating Results with the Chinese Travel Trade


When I talk to marketing managers on their return from events or sales missions where they have met with Chinese tour operators, they are full of optimism about the receptiveness of their counterparts. However, a few months later, the same people will tell me that nothing has happened. Despite the interest, the questions, and the promises that your attraction or destination would be featured in itineraries and promotions, six months later your follow up emails have gone unanswered and there are no results to shout about. So what went wrong?


In order to understand what is happening, you first need to understand two elements of Chinese culture. The first is Guanxi. Guanxi is an important ideal in Chinese society and its origins lie in the Chinese philosophy Confucianism. China is a hierarchical society and social order, trust and giving and receiving are central to the foundation of Guanxi networks. It is also a collectivist culture and the interests of the group are paramount.


Put more simply, the concept of Guanxi explains why it is going to take you a very long time to start to generate business with Chinese tour operators if your only connection with them comes once a year at an event followed up by a few emails. Relationships are what matter in Chinese business culture, and you need to give before you can start to receive. Once your relationship is established though, and you start to work together, the partnership will be long lasting and fruitful for both sides.


The other important thing to understand is that it is considered very rude to say ‘no’ in China. The Chinese society is one which believes that it is acceptable that we are not all equal. We have a rank and we accept it. This also makes the Chinese people very eager to please. So Chinese people will always try to find a way to say ‘yes’. You sit in front of them with your sales presentation and boundless enthusiasm for your attraction, hotel, destination, or product. They sit in front of you feeling that they want to help you. Whether they can or not may be irrelevant. It would be too rude to say ‘no’, so they say ‘yes’. Afterwards, they try to find a way to deliver that yes. If they can, they will. If they can’t, they won’t. This seems very strange to the British culture where we are more used to dealing with the European ethic that it is more morally acceptable to say ‘no’ and move on. What we see as ‘wasting time’, the Chinese see as politeness and standard practice.


Once you understand these two fundamentals, it is easier to see that you are not failing, you are just facing some of the challenges of a working with a unique business culture. The question is, how do you overcome these challenges?


If you have the time, the money and the inclination, you can start to build your own relationships with your Chinese colleagues. Visit them in their offices in China, spend time with them socially, and connect with them on social media. Ask questions about their families and try to form proper friendships and connections. Be generous, do not focus on money, think what you can do for the other person. If you can, help them out with personal favours, such as offering an internship to a young relative, or giving advice.


The Chinese society is a collective society, and Chinese people will always do business with a friend or family member before a stranger. If you do not have the ability to build these relationships yourself, you can employ an intermediary, such as China Travel Outbound, to represent your brand and benefit from the relationships its staff already have. In this way, your brand will be supported by the tour operator friends of your account manager because they want to help him or her and they understand that he/she needs to generate results for you in order to be successful.


And how do you know when a ‘yes’ is actually a ‘no’? This takes time and experience and can also depend upon whom you are talking to. Some operators are more forthcoming and comfortable in an international environment than others. Again, working with a Chinese national with experience in the industry will help. We often organize escorted tailored sales missions for our clients. Each meeting is attended by our staff who not only translate your language for the tour operator and manage questions and answers but, valuably, are able to probe effectively and politely to deliver genuine feedback to our clients about what is possible, what isn’t, and what needs changing before a deal is likely to be done.


Using these methods, you can get a true picture and start to make some progress. It may take a bit longer to start seeing results in the Chinese market compared to Europe or the US, but the rewards are definitely worth the wait.


To find out more about Chinese cultural differences, read this article by Csaba Toth from ICQ Consulting, our guest blogger and International Culture expert.


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Cross-cultural challenges for British people doing business in China

Our guest blog this month comes from Csaba Toth MA, MSc, FCMI, Managing Partner of ICQ Consulting and an expert in International Culture.

With the globalisation of world business, China has become an appealing market for foreign investors. The problem of cross-cultural management and communication arise as the cooperation between China and its culturally different Western partners continues to increase at an unprecedented rate.

The 21st century is an era of the globalisation of world economy. Cross-national business is facing great challenges in cultural differences. In one survey entitled What is the biggest barrier in doing business in the world market, “cultural differences” ranked first!

It can also be observed that most of the failures faced by cross-national companies are caused by neglect of cultural differences which costs the UK £48 billion a year according to UKTI. The globalisation of the world economy, on one hand, has created tremendous opportunities for global collaboration among different countries; on the other hand, however, it has also created a unique set of problems and issues relating to the effective management of partnerships with different cultures.

With the increasing importance of the China market in the world economy, many international companies rushed and planned to enter China to explore business opportunities. They enter the huge market by forming joint ventures or participating in mergers and acquisitions. It was reported that the great barriers caused by cultural differences like difficulty of communication, higher potential transaction costs, different objectives and means of cooperation and operating methods, have led to the failure of many Sino-foreign cooperation projects. The questions like “how to understand China” and “how to do business with Chinese people” have occupied the minds of international business people who are planning to enter China.

General Cultural Differences between the West and China

To clarify the differences between China and the West, we will refer to Hofstede’s 5 cultural dimensions. Among researchers who have given a variety of definitions of culture, Hofstede is one of the first to adopt a pragmatic problem-solving approach in the field and relates culture to management. He defines culture as a kind of “collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another” (Hofstede, 1980). He explained that culturally-based values systems comprised five dimensions: power distance, individualism/ collectivism, masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance and short/long term orientation.









Power Distance
This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized and there is no defense against power abuse by superiors. Individuals are influenced by formal authority and sanctions and are in general optimistic about people’s capacity for leadership and initiative. People should not have aspirations beyond their rank. 

The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

At a score of 20 China is a highly collectivist culture where people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves. In-group considerations affect hiring and promotions with closer in-groups (such as family) are getting preferential treatment.  Employee commitment to the organization (but not necessarily to the people in the organization) is low. Whereas relationships with colleagues are cooperative for in-groups they are cold or even hostile to out-groups. Personal relationships prevail over task and company.

A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner / best in field – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life.

A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).

At 66 China is a Masculine society –success oriented and driven. The need to ensure success can be exemplified by the fact that many Chinese will sacrifice family and leisure priorities to work. Service people (such as hairdressers) will provide services until very late at night. Leisure time is not so important.  The migrated farmer workers will leave their families behind in faraway places in order to obtain better work and pay in the cities. Another example is that Chinese students care very much about their exam scores and ranking as this is the main criteria to achieve success or not.

Uncertainty Avoidance  

The dimension Uncertainty Avoidance has to do with the way that a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and different cultures have learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways.  The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these is reflected in the score on Uncertainty Avoidance.

At 30 China has a low score on Uncertainty Avoidance. Truth may be relative though in the immediate social circles there is concern for Truth with a capital T and rules (but not necessarily laws) abound.  None the less, adherence to laws and rules may be flexible to suit the actual situation and pragmatism is a fact of life. The Chinese are comfortable with ambiguity; the Chinese language is full of ambiguous meanings that can be difficult for Western people to follow. Chinese are adaptable and entrepreneurial

Long Term Orientation

This dimension describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future, and societies prioritise these two existential goals differently. Normative societies. which score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.

China scores 87 in this dimension, which means that it is a very pragmatic culture. In societies with a pragmatic orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions easily to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results.

Written by Csaba Toth, Managing partner of ICQ Consulting


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Top Five Challenges in Attracting Chinese Tourists to the UK

The benefits of doing business with China are plentiful and the opportunities for tourism vast. You will have heard the facts and figures about China being the largest travel source market in the world and the ever-expanding affluent middle class, hell-bent on having new experiences, visiting exciting destinations and spending their holiday money on posh perfume and desirable fashion labels. However, for many tourism brands, whilst the reasons to work with China are straightforward, the actual business of doing business can be complicated.

I recently attended the UK Inbound Annual Convention in Scotland where I met with dozens of sales and marketing  professionals who were interested in attracting more Chinese tourists to visit their attractions, hotels and destinations. We talked a lot about the opportunity, but also discussed the barriers to achieving their objectives. Not everyone said exactly the same, but, broadly speaking, these were the top five challenges being faced.

1. Generating Results with the Travel Trade

There are lots of excellent opportunities to meet with Chinese tour operators and agents (sales missions, Visit Britain initiatives etc). Meetings generally seem really positive but some people told me that, once they get back to the office and send off those follow-up emails, they are receiving very few responses and find it hard to identify tangible results for their investment of time and money.

Read more about how to generate results with the Chinese travel trade.

2. Language Barriers

Many Chinese business men and women have a good command of the English language and some don’t. But even when language is structurally sound, pronunciation can still be a big issue, especially on telephone calls. It can be difficult to concentrate on trying to build a relationship, whilst selling your product and trying to understand each other all at the same time. As only one person I spoke to actually spoke any Mandarin, we are relying on our Chinese counterparts to speak English in nearly all cases.

Read more about overcoming language barriers.

3. Where to start?

China is a very big country with different customer segments, unfamiliar travel distribution structures, state and private media, and different social media and digital platforms. Most of the people I met with had some degree of uncertainty about where to start trying to make an impact. There was a healthy fear that they might not have a big enough budget to achieve cut through and a concern about where they should spend the budget they do have.

Read more about where to start.

4. We’re not ready and we don’t have the right product

I also spoke with some brands which didn’t feel they were ready for China. That was either because they didn’t feel they had the necessary infrastructure in place, that their businesses and staff were not geared up to deal with Chinese visitors, or that they weren’t on the right ‘Chinese tourist track’ with what they considered to be a desirable product. Some also said that they didn’t yet have any of their international marketing budget allocated to the Chinese market.

5. We don’t have time to do it properly

This I heard a lot. Taking a trip to China is a big investment, not only in monetary terms but, perhaps more importantly, in time. And one trip, once a year, is not enough to build those all-important relationships with the Chinese travel trade. On top of that, people felt more nervous about the Chinese market than they did about other international markets and were keen not to make any cultural faux pas. This meant more time, attending workshops, training and events to learn more about how to do business successfully with the Chinese.

Over the next few weeks, we will be addressing each of these Top Five Challenges here on our blog, digging a little deeper into the issues and making some practical suggestions on how to overcome these obstacles to achieve success in the Chinese travel market.


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Tailored Luxury Sales Mission to China

I recently joined one of my clients on a sales mission to China to visit some potential tour operator partners who specialise in tailor-made itineraries for their wealthy Chinese customer base.  My client’s product is aimed at such individuals (though not yet in China) with a taste for accommodation outside the traditional luxury 5* hotel, usually involving a minimum of 3 nights.  The attraction of China is that, according to the Boston Consulting Group,  it had 2.4m millionaires in 2013, a rise of 81% on the previous year, and now places it second in the overall global league table of the mega wealthy.

But the rise of the independent Chinese traveller is still a relatively new phenomenon, so the purpose of the mission was to establish whether the Chinese market has matured to such an extent that there is appeal for such a product, and if so how it will need to be adapted to meet the needs of the Chinese market.

There is a danger in the west that we over generalise about the Chinese market.  China is about the size of Europe; we should regard the Chinese as similarly diverse across their 9.7m square kilometres.  We shouldn’t therefore have been surprised to find that the tour operators we visited represented a diverse customer base, despite the fact that they work with a universally rich customer base.

We visited eight tour operators over 3 days and we were universally welcomed with hospitality (and a glass of hotel water) by senior members of staff – usually 2 or 3 in number.  Of the 25 people we met, approximately half had good English. With the others, we were helped by the translation services of our Account Director who accompanied us on all our visits.

  • Of the 8 tour operators visited, only 2 felt that their customer base was so wedded to the top Western hotel brands, that there was no immediate opportunity for my client’s product.
  • All were fairly universal in their view that it is necessary to deploy Chinese support staff on the ground.
  • Similarly, deploying Chinese sales staff at reservation centres is also key.
  • Interestingly, most believed their sales team could cope with an English booking system, though a couple of demonstrations of the speed of access from a European hosted website illustrated that hosting your booking system in China is more critical. We had more success with a more basic, less dynamic website, but you may wish to consider including Chinese website-hosting in your budget if you are planning on entering the Chinese market.
  • Despite all the tour operators offering tailor made itineraries for their clients, some wanted my client, who only sells accommodation, to build product around the accommodation.

So, was the mission a success?   Undoubtedly yes! My client left China confident that there is demand for his product, but also clear that launching in China will require a commitment that goes well beyond paying my company a fee for a sales mission.  He recognises that he has just taken the first step and that ‘potential’ will not turn into ‘contracts’ without follow-up and important decisions on deployment of resource both at destination and in China.

China Travel Outbound can organise a similar tailored sales mission for you from £2,500.  We will create an itinerary for you over 3 days, making appointments with tour operators tailored to your product.  In addition, we’ll take care of the small detail that will help to make your sales mission a success, such as providing an introduction to your company in Chinese, and printing your business cards in Chinese, complete with your new Chinese name!  During your sales mission, you will be accompanied to all your meetings by one of our team from our Beijing office, who will also act as your guide and host during your trip.  Beijing isn’t the easiest city to navigate around, so we will arrange a private car to pick you up from your hotel each morning and drive you to all your meetings.  We will even pick you up and drop you off at the airport at the beginning and end of your trip.

For more information, please contact Helena Beard.