A who’s who of global travel brands still face a number of challenges in the Chinese travel industry.

At a panel discussion during the Travel Daily China in Shanghai, executives from Booking.com, Skyscanner, Kayak, HotelsCombined, Air New Zealand and Travelport discussed the problems they face in the Chinese market, and also about the importance of localizing their services and brand.

A common theme emerging from the debate was the key role Chinese travellers are playing when it comes to both domestic and outbound travel, not least the eye-watering growth numbers expected in the coming years (becoming the largest outbound market).

Nevertheless, China is very dynamic, the panel agreed, with almost everything (apart from the paperwork required to operate in the country) evolving so fast, ensuring companies have to constantly tune their strategy to “remain relevant and competitive”.

Localization, marketing and branding

Booking.com looks to China as a long term strategy market, and aims to focus on its strength area of international travel (it has half a million properties of varying description in its system now).

Although the Priceline-owned brand spends billions of dollars globally on search marketing activities, such as Google Adwords, interestingly the company has not replicated this in China.

Booking.com has spent a lot of time optimizing its website for local use by studying the behaviour of Chinese customers. For example, users expect a website to pre-load with data (such as displaying top destinations) rather than asking them to enter data.

While brands such as Skyscanner, HotelsCombined and Kayak have adopted local versions of their brand name (or changed the name entirely), Booking.com is sticking with its well-known, literal title.

Kayak launched its local Chinese site just four weeks ago. Interestingly, out of the 33 countries that Kayak operates in, China is the only one where it has chosen to switch the name Kayak in favour or something else.

When it comes to the marketing activities adopted by brands such as Skyscanner, Air New Zealand and HotelsCombined in China, they spend money on the local search giant Baidu and leverage social media marketing.

Skyscanner also displays its branded data in other partner websites to promote its brand.

However, HotelsCombined has an alternative view on Baidu, seeing suggesting that whilst the search giant was a good channel for increasing conversions it has now become too expensive for market.

Baidu isn’t the best channel when it comes to “building brand memorability”, the Australia-based accommodation meta player claims.

Challenges in China

When it comes to seeing off some of the challenges associated with the Chinese market, Booking.com says they are mostly operational, such as the site traditionally using Google Maps, yet the infamous firewall of China can cause loading issues for users.

Kayak and Skyscanner, also both users of Google Map services, face similar woes. This can cause problems with partners given that many have a strict API requirement around speed of connections.

The same can be said the global travel tech provider, Travelport, which aims to be a leading technology and data driven travel service in China in the coming years, yet currently sees speed of its service as an issue.

It is investing in building a local infrastructure.

Still, Kayak (and the panel agree) sees the Chinese market as “scary and complex, there is a lot going on here, local players are very competitive, they are fast and respond quick to the market”.

Executives in the panel were:

Debby Soo, VP – APAC, Kayak Ming Foong, director – OTA APAC, Travelport Oliver Hua, MD – APAC, Booking.com Sandeep Bahl, regional GM – Asia, Air New Zealand Hichame Assi, COO, HotelsCombined Andy Sleigh, GM – APAC, Skyscanner

NB: Enter China image via Shutterstock.

NB2: The panel was moderated by Tnooz editor Kevin May.

Original author: Karthick Prabu