Hilton Inculcating Chinese Travelers
Hilton is a year into its program to cultivate the burgeoning Chinese traveler. Here’s how is going.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
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Soft terrycloth designer slippers, in shimmering shades of blue and emboldened with the images of Chinese dragons, symbolize a comforting welcome from the ground up that Hilton Hotels & Resorts has been giving guests from China for the past year at a number of Hilton properties around the globe.
But the slipper partnership, created with noted Guangzhou-born designer, Vivienne Tam, is only one way Hilton’s Huanying program has been putting its best foot forward in pursuit of this lucrative, desirable travel market. When it launched a little more than a year ago, Hilton Huanying billed itself as a guest-service program aiming to provide touches of familiarity and respect to new arrivals from China – by making Mandarin-speaking members of the hotel staff available, serving authentic Chinese breakfast items and providing a Chinese station on guest room TVs, among many other offerings.
“The idea is to encourage this rapidly growing outbound travel population from China, which is discovering the world, to travel with a brand they know,” said Andrew Flack, vice president of Global Brand Marketing for Hilton Hotels & Resorts. Indeed Hilton, which has had a presence in China for more than 25 years, is no stranger there. In fact, he said, there are presently 15 Hilton locations in China, and Hilton expects to grow those numbers to more than 50 within the next five years.
But even as Hilton itself fans out on the mainland, so too are Chinese travelers expanding their own horizons “and we felt this audience deserves specific attention,” he said.
The August 2011 launch of Hilton Huanying (Mandarin for “welcome”) soon put the brand’s properties in San Francisco, Shanghai, Beijing and London on the map for Chinese travel agencies. (Hilton had earlier piloted the program at its Los Angeles, London and Seoul locations). What got under way with 13 initial hotels has since grown to 70 hotels in 23 countries “and we have averaged in excess of 120 percent year-over-year growth in Chinese sourced business. It has more than doubled,” said Flack.
But the most meaningful numbers are the ones each traveler generates upon arrival from China. Flack cited a number of U.S. government figures that herald the program’s direct economic benefits: Visitors to the U.S. from China stay the longest – more than a week on average - and spend the most - more than $6,000 – he said. Better still, he said, the U.S. Department of State reports that the government is processing visitors’ visas for Chinese citizens at a rate that is 43 percent higher this year than last.
To get the program well-positioned, there was some tweaking and fine-tuning at the outset.
The Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel participated in the program’s beta testing which, according to general manager, Carl Bolte, was a good opportunity to expand services and amenities the hotel already had in place, owing in part to a strong Asian population in the region. The test run allowed the hotel to “fine-tune the services and collect best practices from each test that helped shape the program,” he wrote in an email. The little details paid off, Bolte said. “For example, our team learned that the in-room slippers should be placed by the bed instead of inside the closet because our Chinese guests were accustomed to having them on display.”
With the program up and running, it is a great match for an Asian-flavored community that surrounds the hotel: Chinese guests not only participate in the Hilton Huanying program, receiving a welcome letter in Chinese and having access to menus written in Chinese, but also avail themselves of an “authentic Chinatown experience” as Bolte describes it, in the greater metropolitan environment, which includes the San Gabriel Square Mall, nicknamed “The Great Mall of China.”
Such targeted programs are not unusual and, in Hilton’s case, this newest venture is the third in the brand’s history, said Flack. A worldwide program tailored to Japanese travelers was launched in the 1980s, he said, and as far back as the early 1960s, a U.S.-based program called “Lady Hilton” gave special attention to women business travelers. “That was considered something of a novel trend at that time,” he said.
But 21st century marketing demands 21st century style, and so this time around Hilton reached deep into China’s own social media channels, which do not include Facebook or Twitter: Instead, there is Weibo, a microblogging equivalent of Twitter, and Tudou, a Chinese online video sharing site similar to YouTube. Flack stressed the cost-effectiveness of these formats, but even more importantly, the especially deep reach of China’s numerous travel blogs.
“There is also a very vibrant blog community in China and we, in the early days of the program, brought some Chinese travel bloggers out of China to visit the destinations so they could write about it and it would be read back in China. That would mean 1 million people reading their blogs,” he said.
Digital marketer Kent Lewis called Hilton’s outreach to bloggers “a brilliant strategy on their part,” calling the bloggers a “locally nuanced people who understand the culture” and can carry the Hilton message forward. An added benefit, he said, would be to involve image-sharing in the same style as Instagram or Pinterest. “That would be useful for them. Everything should have an image attached.”
“Kudos to Hilton for figuring this out and then going to this newer trend I am seeing in marketing and sales, which is identifying the most lucrative markets, ones with great potential and going a layer deep,” Lewis said.
At the end of a year, that has translated into an exponential growth in traveler traffic and now, with Vivienne Tam’s 20,000 pairs of limited-edition slippers out in circulation, there’s likely to be plenty more foot traffic too.