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.

How to set up a WeChat business account for your tourism brand

For those new to the Chinese market, WeChat might seem confusing. However with many Western social media platforms being inaccessible in China, WeChat takes centre stage. If you’re asking what WeChat is, what you can do on it, how big it is, look no further. We’ve put together a little introductory guide to WeChat for you.

WeChat explained

WeChat is a mobile text and voice messaging communication service. In just six short years since its release in 2011, it has become one of the largest standalone messaging apps in the world, rivalling Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. In the first quarter of 2017, WeChat had 938 million monthly active users, a 28% growth year-on-year. And according to China Skinny, “WeChat’s reach and influence is unrivalled in China’s online space”, perhaps because the app allows users to do so much more than just messaging.

‘Moments’ is the popular sharing function on WeChat, similar to Facebook updates. You can upload pictures, post updates and videos. WeChat’s blog, Chatterbox, is a good place for technical tips on using WeChat.

Users are also able to manage their lives through WeChat. It starts simply enough with playing games, catching up on current affairs, buying film tickets, ordering food and taxis. Then it steps up a gear with in-store payments and online shopping, paying bills, transferring money, and even booking flights. You name it, WeChat probably does it. The key to WeChat’s success may lie in its ability to attract millennials. In September 2015, 60% of users were 15-29 years old. Perhaps this young and dynamic following are the reason why WeChat offers so many different functions and, as a result, have nurtured WeChat’s capacity to innovate and grow. It’s no wonder that WeChat is a powerhouse. Having taken over China, its next step is to take over the world.

Using WeChat for work

Despite their best efforts, Facebook and LinkedIn have never quite been able to catch up with WeChat’s status in the business world. Yes – LinkedIn is specifically used to build professional networks but it hasn’t successfully managed to embed itself into the daily workflow in the same way, and WeChat is becoming an increasingly more common workplace tool. In fact, 87.7% of 20,000+ Chinese web users would place WeChat as their choice app for daily work communication, even beating phones and emails; a staggering number. At China Travel Outbound, we use WeChat to share documents, images and presentations and we abandoned Skype as a method to communicate with China long ago. Now all our team calls with Beijing are made on WeChat. It’s far more stable and the app makes it simple to operate group calls.

According to the Financial Times, “at almost every Chinese workplace, WeChat has become the primary means of communication”. For instance, 57% of new contacts that are added every month are work-related, with family and friends being next on the list at just over 20%. This is a huge difference and is evidence of WeChat’s power in the workplace, so much so that according to Xue Yu, a senior market analyst with IDC China, “WeChat is becoming WeWork”.

Not only that, but WeChat is also used for a myriad of other workplace functions. Coordinating and arranging tasks is top of the list with 50%; sending notifications, making transactions and arranging tasks are next on the list, whereas having meetings and conference calls and marketing purposes are lower down. Then again, it’s only a matter of time. WeChat’s next challenge? To go beyond being used only for workplace communication purposes and become an essential part of the daily workflow. And, perhaps, that will happen sooner rather than later. The majority of Chinese office workers have been said to find WeChat a helpful working tool, with nearly all of the 90% who are regular WeChat work users finding value in the platform.

Using WeChat to promote your European travel or tourism brand to the Chinese

This is where things get a bit more tricky. You have done your research and recognised the importance of WeChat, and you’ve decided you want to set up a WeChat account for your tourism attraction, tour operation or hotel. So you try to set up a WeChat business account. And there is your problem. You can’t set up a WeChat business account which can be accessed by mainland Chinese unless you have a Chinese business licence.

So what are your options?

Option One

Commit to a one-off spend on WeChat advertising of around €25,000. In return, WeChat’s head office will authorise your account.

Option Two

Find a Chinese third party agency which is willing to allow you to use one of its WeChat licences to host your account. They will charge you for the privilege but, more importantly, they will have control of your account. It is important you trust them, have an ongoing relationship with them and, preferably, some kind of written agreement which would deliver the account to you in the event of a split (although contracts in UK law are likely to be of limited use to you in the event of a breakdown in a relationship with a Chinese agency.)

It is worth noting, however, that there is a limit on the number of WeChat accounts that a Chinese business can own. And once one has been allocated to you, it can not be closed down and allocated to someone else. Also, if the third party agency  allows the client to post freely on the account, it is running a risk (albeit potentially a small one) that the client could post something controversial in the eyes of the Chinese government. Social media is tightly monitored in China and the wrong post on WeChat could, potentially, lead to the revocation of the Chinese agency’s business licence. That is why we, at China Travel Outbound, will only consider licensing a WeChat business account to retained clients with whom we have worked for a while, and whom we feel confident are committed to the market. We also insist on editorial control over content, just to keep an eye on things.

If a third party agency is managing your WeChat account, we urge you to double check what plans are in place should you (or the agency) decide you no longer wish to continue the arrangement.

Option Three

Use a personal WeChat account instead. This is not recommended for prestigious tourism brands as it does not give the right impression. The management information from it is also very limited, but at least you will be able to communicate with your customers and you will be able to have full control of your own account.

Option Four

Wait. WeChat is moving so quickly that the rules may change as it seeks to replicate its success in China throughout the world. Or hop over to Weibo.

One final point. Before you decide you need a WeChat account, do make sure it is the right thing to do. It takes time to build followers on WeChat and you might be better off, particularly in the medium term, to use PR, bloggers, and customer interactions to ‘piggyback’ onto the existing accounts of other influencers. It’s going to be far more beneficial for you if a Chinese celebrity endorses your brand to three hundred thousand followers, than if you post an article to three hundred.

If you would like to find out more about WeChat, please get in touch.

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