Exploring the Chinese FIT segment

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No tourism segment is growing faster than that of independent, millennial Chinese travellers – but how can accommodation providers reach, seduce and sell to this key demographic?
Not so long ago, the vast majority of Chinese tourists travelled exclusively in large groups on pre-planned itineraries. But things are changing, and changing fast. A report co-authored by the China Tourism Academy counted outbound Chinese tourists at around 130 million in 2017; by 2025, the number is expected to reach 220 million. And, according to figures from Wegogo, a Chinese social travel platform with nearly a billion monthly active users, some 55-60% (and growing) of those 2017 travellers were what it calls FITs – free independent travellers.
Outbound Chinese tourists are expected to reach 220 million by 2025
“This is a trend that we foresaw when starting Wegogo in 2015,” explains the company’s Founder and CEO, Mak Chee Wah, “and one that we realised would be unstoppable. It’s driven by the millennial generation, which we classify as anyone aged 25-40.” Various factors in China are fuelling it, according to Chee Wah, who cites first the particular cultural dynamic of six parents – mother, father and both sets of grandparents – wanting their child to see the world and its cultures, plus the fact that every Chinese child must now learn some form of English during primary education. “Maps and language-translation apps are also widely available,” he continues, adding that this makes the segment fearless in terms of travel.

Authentic itineraries

What are Chinese FITs looking for? Mak is unequivocal on the subject. “They are trying to seek out very local, very authentic experiences. Hotels are important, but it is experiences that drive bookings,” he explains. Christopher Ledsham, Chief Communications Officer at the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, concurs, referring to data released by China’s largest online travel agent, Ctrip. He says: “[In longer-haul destinations], semi-FITs’ (travellers who pre-arrange the basics of their trip ahead of travel, but then purchase some experiential add-ons by smartphone while on the ground) can access more in-depth, local-experience products suitable to their increasingly sophisticated tastes.” Ledsham has advice for hoteliers looking to attract Chinese FITs. “They must look beyond ‘high-end’ services or rudimentary Chinese-friendly offers like having hot-water kettles in rooms,” he states. Instead they should “consider engaging these experienced travellers with local, experience-based activities, culture and cuisine”. Such tailored products might be artisan cooking classes, rooftop tours or expert-led neighbourhood food safaris. This tallies with Mak’s own view; he also first stresses the urgent need for accommodation providers to incorporate regional cultures and activities to entice Chinese FITs. “They should also present a unique story expressing their service and heritage, (ideally) delivered with videos – this excites our travellers, and shows more detail and depth.”

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This leads onto the second part of his recommendation, concerning technology. “With Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp all inaccessible in China, WeChat (which Wegogo primarily uses) and Weibo are the two social-media platforms,” he clarifies. “So hosts need to carefully establish presence on both.” He also suggests using key influencers, as well as marketing on Baidu, the dominant search engine inside China.

Travel essentials

One property successfully reaching out to Chinese FITs is London’s The Milestone Hotel. When quizzed about how it has adapted to this segment, Andrew Pike, the General Manager, lists several pragmatic practices. “We contact all guests with a preference form ahead of arrival to learn more about them, their reason for travelling and any particular predilections they have, in an effort to make their stay more enjoyable,” he outlines. The Milestone also accepts various Chinese methods of payment, such as UnionPay, and has Chinese TV programmes available in all rooms. “Then, I think it’s really important to have an expert on the team who truly understands the etiquette, customs, habits and desires of Chinese guests,” Pike continues. “From a service point of view, it’s imperative that all hotel staff understand these needs, so our in-house expert trains them.” Ultimately, though, the Milestone’s biggest masterstroke might be the one making Chinese FITs feel like they aren’t at home. “We’ve found that these increasingly-savvy travellers love to embrace the traditions of the country they’re visiting,” Pike details. “Therefore, rather than leaving a Chinese-centric welcome gift in their room, we provide something quintessentially British like mini-scones with jam and clotted cream. That goes down very well indeed.” Hero image: credit to Fancycrave

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Around 130 million Chinese tourists travelled in 2017, with some 55-60% of those identified as FITs – free independent travellers
Chinese FITs look for authentic, local experiences that incorporate regional culture, cuisine and activities
Accommodation providers should consider working with experts that understand the etiquette, customs, habits and desires of Chinese guests