by Iain Shaw
Around the world, more people are traveling overseas, but as concerns grow about the United States’ ability to keep pace with the booming global tourism market, hotel owners should consider what they can do to attract more international visitors.
The latest Travel Trends Index released by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) showed tourism in the U.S. – accounting for both domestic and international travel – grew by 3 percent in July compared to last year. However, growth has slowed through 2018, and U.S. Travel’s Leading Travel Index pointed to a further drop-off in growth for the remainder of the year.
That USTA data has stoked fears that the U.S. is struggling to make up the 1.7 percent share of the international travel market lost between 2015 and 2017. Over the same period, global travel expanded at a rate of 7.9 percent. Dismay at the loss of market share prompted a group of 15 industry stakeholders, from retail and gaming associations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, to join forces in January 2018 under the banner of the Visit U.S. Coalition (VUSC).
The VUSC’s aim is to promote travel to the U.S. and lobby for policies creating optimal conditions for attracting international travelers to the U.S. Although data released in September by the Department of Commerce International Trade Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Office revealed international travelers spent a record $251.4 billion in the U.S. in 2017, the Coalition insists that loss of market share has cost the U.S. 7.4 million international visitors, $32 billion in lost travel spending and 100,000 jobs not created.
Hotel owners need to make their voices heard
Hoteliers may be inclined to ask “What can we possibly do?” and look to the government to solve the problem. The policy landscape obviously plays a huge role in setting a framework for promoting tourism and creating an image of the country in the minds of potential visitors.
The coalition’s policy platform advocates measures that would give international visitors smoother, less stressful access to the United States. These include streamlined entry procedures at ports of entry, and an expansion of partner countries able to participate in the visa waiver program.
If the goal is to persuade Congress to embrace and enact tourism-friendly policies, hotel owners need to make their voices heard by supporting lobbying efforts. On September 4, representatives from the U.S. Travel Association and 13 travel industry executives – including CEOs from a number of major hotel groups – met with President Trump at the White House. The discussion covered topics including the significant role travel plays in the U.S. economy, job creation and lowering of the trade deficit.
Hotel owners also have the option to support Brand USA, the marketing agency tasked with promoting the United States as a top-end destination to travelers around the world. Brand USA is partially funded by private sector contributions, including many travel and tourism industry organizations. Vitally, the U.S. government matches the private contributions with funds drawn from fees paid by travelers using the ESTA visa waiver program.
Hotel owners should also review their own marketing strategies to ensure they are achieving maximum reach globally. David Huether, senior vice president for research at the U.S. Travel Association, noted in the USTA’s August 2018 Outlook trends report that the U.S. is still the most-searched destination in international lodging searches. The upshot of this is that hotels with an attractive online presence can make a real difference in persuading international travelers to commit to spending their vacations in the United States. Citing a report by Market Research Future, Huether writes: “The growth of mobile channels and changing booking patterns means the average traveler reads dozens of reviews and checks multiple websites before traveling which creates significant advertising opportunities.” Make sure your property is visible on popular online travel platforms. Additionally, consider advertising and other partnership opportunities with online travel agencies and other promotional channels.
Attracting Chinese travelers: Take it slow, build trust
Chinese tourists could be the key factor in the United States’ bid to grow its share of the international travel market. China sent three million visitors to the U.S. in 2016 alone, the largest group from any country. Spending $6,900 per trip on average in 2016, Chinese travelers also inject more money into the U.S. economy than visitors from any other country.
The Chinese market is incredibly lucrative. It’s also a challenging one to navigate, and that starts with the Internet. Services like Google, Facebook, and Instagram are blocked in China, meaning only a small percentage of Chinese people – those using VPNs to circumvent censorship – have access to them. To effectively target a broader Chinese audience, you’ll need to build an online profile using a new toolbox of platforms for travel bookings (Ctrip), social media (WeChat, Weibo), and search (Baidu).
Mobile search and bookings account for a significant percentage of Chinese travel transactions. Online payment platforms like AliPay and WeChat Pay are ubiquitous in China – Chinese consumers are increasingly relying on these platforms for making everyday purchases rather than cash or credit cards. This can have implications for hotels both in terms of streamlining bookings but also post-arrival – the ability to accept mobile payments from Chinese platforms will soon become essential to any property hoping to attract visitors from China in large numbers.
Engaging Chinese consumers is all about earning trust, which can take time. Hotel owners need to develop online content strategies that speak to Chinese travelers, their values and interests. Although many Chinese people speak English very well, you’ll see better results if you invest in Chinese-language content and services, both online and in your hotel. Consider the timing of your campaigns – Chinese outbound travel spikes around Chinese New Year and the National Day “Golden Week” in early October.
Above all, marketing to Chinese travelers requires commitment. Roger Wu, CEO of Cooperatize, a New York-based travel influencer marketplace, says hotel owners need to consider carefully how important the Chinese consumer is to their particular property. Wu says, “Is the destination a place that is starting to attract Chinese travelers?” Don’t make assumptions either, as Chinese visitors can show up in unfashionable destinations, as Wu notes. “I think the best example of a city in the U.S. that seems the furthest place that anybody from mainland China wants to come to is Omaha. But there’s a main attraction there, which is Warren Buffett.” Indeed, an estimated 5,000 Chinese Buffett fans made the pilgrimage to Nebraska in May this year for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting.
In China, word of mouth recommendations are extremely powerful. Chinese people enjoy sharing photos and stories about their travel experiences on social networks and are likely to value a friend or family member’s endorsements. Many people in China are suspicious of the authenticity of media coverage of travel destinations, but enthusiastic followers of online influencers, or “key opinion leaders” (KOLs). Popular Chinese KOLs can reach hundreds of thousands of followers with their content, and can be effective partners for hotels.
As Chinese travelers are such enthusiastic social sharers, it pays to optimize the onsite guest experience with Chinese travelers in mind. Make life as easy as possible for your Chinese guests. Review your F&B offerings to include at least a few items that Chinese guests will recognize from home – especially for breakfast, where things like rice porridge and hot soy milk are common. Many Chinese people drink hot water habitually, so travelers appreciate having a kettle provided in-room. Stocking rooms with things like instant noodles, green tea, and slippers will also be welcomed. Many younger people in China are excellent English speakers, but having a Mandarin speaker on staff will help make older guests feel at home. Even training service staff in a few simple greetings will likely delight Chinese guests.
A spokesperson for Ctrip, China’s biggest online travel agency, said U.S. hotel owners need to “understand Chinese travel patterns, behavior and preferences, and make cultural adjustments to stand out in. Making them feel welcomed, safe, familiar, and at home is important.” Ctrip’s “Chinese Preferred Hotel” initiative evaluates lodgings according to how well they accommodate Chinese traveler preferences across a range of categories. These range from front desk service to featuring Chinese channels on in-room TVs to mobile payments using WeChat or AliPay. In May, Ctrip also launched the Ctrip Hotel Institute, which provides research and training courses to properties interested in understanding and capitalizing on the Chinese market. According to Ctrip, as of August 2018, participating hotels had experienced a 20 percent increase in bookings.
Help guests enjoy authentic local experiences
A major current trend among younger travelers, not just in China but all over the world, is a focus on travel as a way of enjoying unique local experiences and unfamiliar ways of life. In fact, this is a major driver of the global travel boom. Authenticity in everything – from food to local crafts and cultural experiences – matters to tourists like never before. This calls on hotel owners to keep pace by doubling down on helping guests access authentic local experiences.
One way of achieving this is for hotel owners to partner with local travel companies who run tours, events, and activities giving travelers the opportunity to enjoy unique local experiences. This means careful vetting of potential partners: Is their customer service up to par? Are the experiences they provide legitimately “authentic?” Do they give travelers the opportunity to enjoy meaningful and respectful interaction with the local people and culture?
Writing in Deloitte’s 2018 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook, Guy Langford and Adam Weissenberg urge hotel owners and other travel brands to help guests connect with the local community, or what they call “unlocking the power of adjacent spaces.” Langford and Weissenberg write, “For travel brands, the right partnerships in the tours and activities space could be a key stepping-stone to bigger ecosystems and driving experiences for their guests beyond the walls of their properties and core offerings.”
The Deloitte report acknowledges that one difficulty with implementing these partnerships is that many local travel operators are behind the times digitally, with telephone bookings and paper tickets still prevalent. However, with the travel activities sector expected to be worth $183 billion worldwide by 2020, “hotels and online travel players have an enormous opportunity to integrate tours and activities into their digital ecosystems. Tours and activities can not only create new revenue streams, it has potential to give travel brands an entirely new lens on their travelers’ preferences and interests.”