A tale of two kingdoms: how Britain is chasing Chinese visitors
With Brexit looming, there were signs that the mood among French, German and Italian tourists had started to turn negative on Britain as a destination last year, according to a survey from VisitBritain, the UK’s national tourism organisation. By contrast, interest from China is increasing and nearly half of its visitors to Britain last year said they had a more positive opinion of the country.
Helena Beard, who heads China Travel Outbound (https://www.chinatraveloutbound.com), a PR agency with clients including Stonehenge, Royal Museums Greenwich and the Portuguese hotel group Martinhal, says that France, Italy and Switzerland vie for top spot as the favourite destination for long-haul travellers but that the UK is starting to benefit from the Middle Kingdom’s tourist boom.
Visitors from China are also spending more than ever in the UK, with an increase of 54% in 2017, helped by the post-Brexit depreciation of the pound.
The launch of additional direct flights from China is making it easier to get to the UK and awareness of Britain as a destination is helped by the enduring popularity of English football and the newer crazes for television series like Downton Abbey and Sherlock.
The British royal family is another major draw. Visits from China rose by a third in 2011, the year in which Prince William and Kate Middleton were married, and tourism bosses are hopeful that the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May is going to achieve something similar, especially at Windsor Castle, where the wedding will take place.
Beard cautions that it takes time to establish destination brands in tourism terms and that countries need to be clear and concise about the key reasons that make them a compelling place for a visit.
France’s appeal as a destination has played heavily on the notion of ‘romance’, for instance, while Switzerland’s message of ‘fresh air’ has been simple but very effective.
“My personal view is that the efforts to brand Britain are slightly complicated for the Chinese market and we need simple messages that focus on our history and heritage,” she says.
China Travel Outbound also works with individual towns and cities to craft their destination marketing to Chinese tourists. One of its clients is Brighton, a town on England’s southern coast. “When we first surveyed the Chinese travel trade, there was very little knowledge about Brighton or where it was,” Beard recalls. “So we started out simply with a message that talked about it being close to London, and that it is easy to travel there by train”.
“Later we added to the campaign, mentioning that Brighton is a city by the sea and highlighting the Royal Pavilion as an attraction. Chinese state television then filmed a short piece about the Pavilion and it made a big difference because their audience is so huge. So we started talking about some of the other things that make Brighton interesting, like its events and festivals, and the vibrancy of its LGBT community.”
Brighton also turned to social media to boost its reputation by inviting the heads of Chinese student associations at British universities to visit, knowing they would post reviews of their trip online.
“Reaching out to students is a good way of getting onto social media without having to expend a huge budget on key opinion leaders or celebrities,” she explains. “Chinese students in Britain are usually from quite affluent backgrounds and they have extensive social networks, including friends and family who visit them in the UK. We hosted the students for a weekend in Brighton and we got good results through social media and word-of-mouth marketing.”
Beard’s work with another client – Royal Museums Greenwich in southeast London – has taken another direction, demonstrating the enduring influence of the package tour firms on where the Chinese choose to travel.
“When we did our research we found that there were already tour groups coming to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich because it is a place that the Chinese learn about at school,” she explains. “But there wasn’t the same awareness of other attractions in the same neighbourhood, such as the Cutty Sark or the National Maritime Museum, which weren’t getting many visitors.”
Here the strategy was more about telling the tour agencies about the other places in Greenwich to visit. The promotional blitz included an audit of each museum’s online profile in China, a series of press releases and interviews with the Chinese press, sales missions to Beijing and Shanghai trade shows, and meetings with the leading tour operators.
“The travel trade in China is still so important in shaping where people visit and it’s generally a more cost-effective option to try to influence the tour agencies about a destination than trying to communicate with hundreds of thousands of FITs,” Beard says. “Once you get a new destination into an itinerary for one of the package holiday firms you hope that other tour providers will follow too. Brighton has just been included in a Ctrip package, for instance, and we know that more of the smaller operators will add it to tours of their own.”
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