Travelers opting for bespoke experiences
A growing number of middle-class Chinese are opting for bespoke experiences. Xu Lin reports.
Wang Wei will never forget her trip to Italy in June - her first bespoke tour.
The 27-year-old and five friends enjoyed cultural heritage, natural landscapes and luxury shopping.
It enabled them to do what they wanted without having to make arrangements themselves.
"We each had different goals for the trip," Wang explains.
"The travel agency designed an itinerary that satisfied all of us. It was so relaxing."
And it offered convenience, says Wang, who works in a finance company in Beijing.
"We blew a tire. We didn't know what to do. But our experienced guide got another car to send us to the airport."
She also appreciated the guide helping them sample authentic food since they don't speak Italian.
China's National Tourism Administration named 2016 a milestone year for customized tours. A growing number of companies, including many online travel agencies, are emerging. They're attracting both capital and consumers.
"Service is paramount in our business. Customers are willing to pay for it," says Jia Jianqiang, founder and CEO of Beijing-based 6renyou.com, an online travel agency that specializes in domestic and international bespoke tours.
The company targets middle-class families. They're often busy with work and prefer to tailor their own itineraries while someone else makes the arrangements.
"It's more like a small group tour," Jia says.
"We offer a chartered vehicle with a local driver, who will guide them during the trip. It's convenient for those who travel with the elderly or children."
There are no standard products.
Elderly people tend to prefer slower schedules with Chinese meals. Children enjoy zoos, amusement parks, he says.
Customers can contact them during the trips if they encounter problems, such as flight cancelations.
"More customers trust online sales in the e-commerce era," Jia says.
"We can reach them and also lower our costs as the internet increases our efficiency. Prices are reasonable. About half of last year's customers used our services again this year."
Tourism consumption is low frequency, he says.
Most customers travel only once or twice a year.
Market competition is fierce. So, companies like his pay for expensive search-engine ads.
Beijing-based Uniqueway offers bespoke overseas tours for independent travelers, especially young clients.
Customers receive customized guidebooks with all the information they need for independent travel, including restaurant recommendations, local customs and safety tips. A digital copy helps them navigate roads.
Online and telephone customer service is available 24/7.
The company has worked with Tsinghua University's artificial intelligence team to use AI technology to design bespoke itineraries based on big data from about 180,000 customers.
"AI designed about three-quarters of our orders this year," the travel agency's cofounder Lei Tao says.
"That's because many customers' demands are similar and can be found in our database. It improves efficiency. So we can accommodate more orders."
He likens it to a self-service shop.
"Travelers can browse our products online and put forward their needs and expectations, and our system will automatically design an itinerary for them. Our staff will help with unique demands. Or, they can simply visit our offices for consultation in about a dozen Chinese cities."
He says the company had to "educate customers" when it was founded five years ago.
"But more Chinese are accepting the idea. We're also opening up markets in second- and third-tier cities."
Many traditional travel agencies are entering the sector. Some purchase Uniqueway's products.
A growing number of the customers are Chinese newlyweds who take overseas trips for wedding photos or small ceremonies in such destinations as Europe and Japan.
The agency's local photography teams take pictures and short videos for a day. They provide wedding dresses and cosmetologists.
"China's emerging middle class embraces consumption upgrades," says Wang Pin, who's in charge of customized trips business offered by Ctrip, China's biggest online travel agency.
"Regular tours and independent travel products can't meet their specific demands. So, customized tourism is growing rapidly."
Ctrip's customers submit requests online and purchase popular customized products. Or they select staffers to design their itineraries.
The company offers a variety of customized trips with different themes by using its 1,200 suppliers, she says.
Popular domestic destinations include Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Hainan province's Sanya and Chongqing municipality. Favored overseas destinations are Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Most clients are from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong's provincial capital, Guangzhou.
Wang's division of Ctrip also organizes customized group tours to climb Qomolangma, known as Mount Everest in the West.
"It's amazing to enjoy a splendid view of starry skies on the highest peak in the world," she says.
Indeed, a growing number of Chinese are exploring every degree of longitude, latitude and altitude of the planet in ways that increasingly place them at the center of these experiences by suiting their individual tastes.