Brands and destinations are using social media to attract China’s big-spending overseas travelers.

California is already the top US destination for Chinese travelers, but the state’s tourism bureau isn’t taking any chances. In June, Visit California announced that Chinese actress Gao Yuanyuan would travel the state as part of the organization’s celebrity tourism ambassador program.

Gao’s trip took her to downtown Los Angeles, Venice Beach, San Francisco, and Napa Valley, and along the way she posted updates and photos of the trip to more than 21 million fans on Chinese social networking site Weibo.

Gao is the first Chinese national to serve as a travel ambassador for the state—past celebrity ambassadors have included American actor Rob Lowe and Korean actor Lee Byung-hun—and her role is just one sign of the growing importance of Chinese travelers to the US tourism industry and retailers.

The number of Chinese travelers in the United States is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. In 2012, 1.5 million Chinese travelers visited the United States, according to the US Department of Commerce. California projects that the state will receive 1.1 million annual Chinese visitors by 2015.

Not only are more Chinese traveling overseas, they’re spending more—especially on shopping. According to the Boston Consulting Group, Chinese travelers spend nearly half their travel budget on shopping. And last year Chinese travelers spent $102 billion on overseas travel, more than tourists from any other country, according to the UN World Travel Organization.

 “Give them a chance to find you”

Chinese travelers still largely rely on package tours for international trips—to make it easier to get visas and to help with language barriers—but engaging potential customers online has become more important as more Chinese travel abroad and plan more diverse and independent itineraries, according to Sage Brennan, co-founder of China Luxury Advisors.

“They’re going to look for advice for what to do when they’re in New York and Los Angeles,” Brennan says.

Brennan advises consumer brands—even brands without a brick-and-mortar presence in China—and destinations to engage potential Chinese customers through social media before they travel. Brands like luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman will likely never have a physical presence in China, Brennan says, but the company recognized the need for a Weibo account to interact with customers who may travel to New York and stop by their Fifth Avenue store.

“You have to give them a chance to find you to have a chance” at attracting Chinese customers, Brennan says.

Increasingly that web presence is on Weibo, and for good reason. Most Chinese Internet users now browse the web on mobile devices. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, nearly 80 percent of China’s 591 million Internet users browse the web on mobile devices. Brennan says younger consumers in particular are rarely on desktop computers.

Visit California was looking to leverage these numbers when they named Gao their tourism ambassador.

Between Visit California’s own Weibo presence—61,000 followers at last count—and actress Gao’s updates on her trip, Visit California’s Brian Wright says the trip was a success. “We’ve calculated the reach to be more than 50 million,” he says.

The group’s surveys show that roughly 67 percent of Chinese respondents learned about California from websites and 66 percent from social media. Almost half of respondents said they used a mobile device while researching vacation plans and a third used a tablet.

Social media, brands, and travel

Social media platforms in China have different features, but Brennan notes that one of the biggest differences for brands on social media in China is how Chinese Internet users interact with companies. While Americans might comment on a brand’s Facebook page about how much they like a specific item, Chinese consumers use social media to actively obtain information.

“A lot of times on Weibo they will actually be asking, how do I get to the store?” Brennan says. “The networks play into people’s lives in a different way in China. It’s almost the equivalent of text messaging a friend. They feel like it’s more personal.”

Brennan says brands and destinations are just starting to catch on than they need to engage Chinese tourists before they travel. “Everyone is curious. They’re saying, what does this mean to me?”

For some companies it means thinking about how their brands fit with a specific destination.

“The travel and fashion industries really go hand in hand, especially in the Chinese market,” says Courtney Gerring of Fashionbi, a firm that specializes in digital and social media analytics for the fashion industry. “Many Chinese travelers are taking specific trips just to go shopping. They are planning their travel itineraries around key shopping destinations.”

Gerring says videos on Weibo tend to be popular. “The most engaged posts on Chanel’s Weibo page were video posts about the origin and craftsmanship of the products in France, giving a real look into French culture,” she says.

While brands like Chanel or Burberry—which added Mandarin-speaking staff to its flagship stores in Europe to cater to increasing numbers of Chinese tourists—are looking to sell their goods when Chinese travelers are in town, California officials want travelers to think of destinations in the state as they plan their itineraries.

“Our goal is to get as many Chinese travelers here as possible,” Visit California’s Wright says. “We want to make sure we’re front and center to meet their wants and needs when they’re over here.”

[author] Christina Nelson ([email protected]) is editor of the China Business Review. [/author]

(Photo by Marc Dalmulder via Flickr)

Posted by Christina Nelson