The Secret to Luring Chinese Travelers? It's All About the Little Comforts

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A commercial set in a Holiday Inn shows a Chinese family snuggling up in bed, with mom, dad and daughter all wearing complimentary hotel slippers. Why focus in on a small thing like slippers? They're part of a master plan to win over Chinese travelers by getting the details right.

Holiday Inn's parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group, has made a digital advertising push lately around its hospitality effort for Chinese guests traveling overseas. Short, simple video ads by Ogilvy Shanghai tell stories about the little comforts the hotels offer to Chinese travelers far from home -- Chinese dumplings in Paris, a Mandarin speaker at a hotel's front desk in Seattle, or something as basic as disposable slippers, something Chinese hotel guests look for. The effort to court China's outbound travelers carries across all the company's brands, including Crowne Plaza and InterContinental.

China has more overseas travelers than any other market: 135 million in 2016, up 6% from the year before. And China's tourists spent $261 million on international trips, more than double what Americans spent, according to U.N. tourism statistics. Big international hotel groups are trying to woo them with hospitality programs that offer tea and Chinese-language tourist maps. IHG's program targeting outbound Chinese tourists is called Zhou Dao, which roughly translates to "InterContinental welcome."

"Our key message is that 'we serve you well, because we understand you well,'" said Emily Chang, chief commercial officer at InterContinental Hotels Group in Greater China.

IHG did extensive consumer research to find out what amenities were essential versus nice-to-have. Slippers were important, and so were Chinese TV channels. Chinese travelers want bottled water, because they aren't accustomed to drinking tap water, and they want a kettle. Chang cites research showing that over a third of Chinese guests will check out of a room that doesn't have a kettle, "because they can't make tea or ramen noodles, which is their comfort food."

An IHG hotel needs to offer at least those basic offerings and a few others, like a welcome letter in Chinese, to get accredited for the program; some hotels have fancier fare too, like dim sum breakfasts.

To marketers familiar with China, slippers and kettles might seem like straightforward requirements. But the hotel industry is complex – IHG needs to market the program to Chinese consumers, but also to the owners of its international properties, who might have varying levels of understanding of China. Individual owners ultimately decide whether to invest in the extra amenities and get approved for the Zhou Dao program.

"While they know they want to attract the Chinese outbound consumers, they may be wondering, is this really necessary?" Chang said. "And everybody has their own view of what a Chinese consumer wants, and that's why we did so much research upfront."

So far 125 IHG hotels are accredited in key markets including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sydney and Moscow. Another 50 are in the process.

IHG has used its ad campaign to promote the program to hotel owners, as well as to Chinese consumers. Darren Crawforth, executive creative director at Ogilvy Shanghai, says the ads are "meant to appeal to people on quite a basic level -- to show that if you're traveling to Paris, they'll prepare some sort of Chinese food for you ... It's just that little extra layer of comfort."

Chang declined to say how much IHG is spending to promote the program, but she said it was on par to what it would spend annually marketing one of its big hotel brands in China. The program goes beyond marketing, since the company has to make sure hotels in far-flung markets execute the vision right.

"It's easy to put something on a commercial but if you can't deliver it, it's not meaningful," said Chang, a former Apple marketer who is set to leave IHG soon to be Starbucks' China CMO. "In fact, you're going to lose people later because you've promised something, and they show up and it's not there."

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