Shelling out $277 billion worldwide in 2018, Chinese travelers are the world’s top tourism spenders.
The global travel industry is constantly battling to snag a piece of this lucrative market and, as we’ve seen in recent years, falling out of Chinese travelers’ favor can have a dramatic impact on a country’s annual tourism figures.
Few executives understand the needs of this market better than Jane Sun, the CEO of Ctrip.
With more than 300 million registered users, it’s the country’s largest online travel agency and the world’s second-largest in terms of the gross merchandise value.
The company was founded in 1999 by James Liang, Neil Shen, Min Fan and Qi Ji. Sun joined as the chief financial officer in 2005, rising through the ranks to eventually succeed Liang as the group’s CEO in 2016.
During a recent interview with Sun, CNN Travel asked that all-important question: What are Chinese travelers looking for in a holiday right now?
First of all, the CEO says times have changed. Younger Chinese travelers are shunning the flag-waving group tours that once dominated the market in favor of independent travel.
“In the old days, people spoke very little English,” says Sun.
“They tended to travel with the big groups, but now the new generation [studies] English when they’re young. Even before they reach high school, they probably already studied a couple of years in the US, in Australia, or the UK. So they feel very competent to travel on their own.”
This growing segment is looking for something beyond your usual cookie-cutter itinerary, or, as Sun says, “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences.
“The young generation is even more adventurous, for example, [they’re into] skydiving, deep-sea diving, skiing. Anything exciting for them, they want to do it,” she says.
“We’ve seen [more] people going to adventurous areas such as Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Everest [basecamp] and Antarctica.”
Easter Island and India’s Taj Mahal are two other trending destinations on Chinese globetrotters’ wish lists right now, says Sun, adding that today’s travelers “want to learn something memorable and unique.”
Making travelers feel at home
Sun says she usually visits an up-and-coming destination two to three years ahead of time to look for unique services and work with local tour operators before offering the products to their customers.
“We help different hotels, airlines and destinations to develop ‘welcome Chinese’ programs,” says Sun. “With that program, lots of customers are willing to travel to these sites.”
Next comes the hard part: Impressing them. Sun says that most Chinese travelers value places that make them “feel at home.”
“Once the customers are on site, if you offer something special and friendly, that’s very helpful,” she says. “For example, hot tea, slippers, some Chinese speaking staff. It costs you very little but makes the environment very friendly.”
On the flip side, Sun acknowledges that in an era when bad tourist behavior is continually hitting news headlines, it will take time to change global perceptions of Chinese travelers.
“For lots of people, it’s their first time going outside of China,” she says.
“So, a lot of times they are very excited. They talk quite loud, taking pictures in the middle of the road, but as they travel more and more, they become more and more sophisticated. For example, when they go to Japan, they see people are very orderly. When they come home, they bring these good traits back.”
Sun adds that Ctrip works very closely with the Chinese government and issues customers travel guidelines.
“The best way is really to learn from each other,” she says.
“So before they travel, we write in the travel guideline what they need to pay attention to. During the trip they will personally observe how people behave in this local area, and when they come back, we encourage them to post the pictures and write their travel journals on our sites so the [next travelers] will be able to learn. I think gradually it will improve.”
Sharing travel moments
Stepping inside Ctrip’s Shanghai-based headquarters is an eye-opening experience, demonstrating exactly why the company is leading the travel booking game.
Large screens dominate a huge data center, where real-time travel needs are fed in from customers around the world. There’s even a 24-hour SOS program for customers facing emergency situations, such as natural disasters and travel accidents. (More on the data center in the above video.)
“Within minutes, our team will reach out to customers,” says Sun. “And if the customers want to come back home, then the plane will take them back to their home countries the very next day. We want to make sure the customers feel peace of mind when they travel with Ctrip.”
The CEO considers Ctrip a one-stop shopping platform, where travelers can purchase everything from high-speed railway tickets, air tickets and hotel rooms to photography, hiking and diving trips.
“Anything you can think of, you can find it on Ctrip,” she says. “That’s our strong strength. Also, the service element is very, very strong.”
Ctrip also offers products that tap into travelers’ desire to share their experiences on social media.
For instance, the company’s “Trip Moments” is an Instagram-type platform that allows travelers to search for fellow tourists’ travel tips and book similar experiences.
“Our customers will post their pictures, write their journals, and these pictures attract a lot of customers,” says Sun. “When they hit a button, instantly they can make a booking for these beautiful areas.”
Though Ctrip is most famous for its operations in China, where it dominates 60% of the market, it’s been investing internationally as well.
The company acquired UK-owned flight booking website Skyscanner in 2016 and US company Trip.com in 2017, among other ventures.
“We noticed that the product we built not only is very well-liked by Chinese customers, also, they are liked by other customers outside of China,” says Sun.