In 2017, Los Angeles welcomed a record 1.1 million visitors from China—a 6 percent increase from 2016—and a large share of that traffic led to beachside Santa Monica.

The scenic birthplace of the original Muscle Beach might seem like an unusual choice for Chinese tourists, but the beach town’s luxury shopping and renowned sights have proven to be a growing draw, in part due to Santa Monica Travel & Tourism’s outreach program.

Jing Travel spoke with Misti Kerns, President and CEO of Santa Monica Travel & Tourism about what they’ve been doing to engage the China market and what’s been working for them.

More than most U.S. destinations, you’ve turned to Chinese social media to attract visitors. Why and how? 

We see social media as a vital tool to help build relationships with Chinese travelers. In the spring of 2016, we launched our presence across both WeChat and Weibo platforms. In just two years these platforms have grown to receive a combined average of 28,664 views per month. With a limited social media budget, our team has worked to grow engagement on these platforms organically by promoting them face-to-face (at in-person events such as missions, trade shows, and FAMs) with China-based travel agents and key opinion leaders.

Those pages have become one-stop-shop resources for Chinese travelers to get all the information they need to plan and enjoy a Santa Monica holiday. With the guidance of a local, Santa Monica based digital advertising agency Hylink, we also recently created a verified WeChat service account and will be transitioning from a subscription account to service account to garner greater visibility and engagement.

You also worked with Ctrip?

This past winter, we initiated Santa Monica’s first-ever campaign with Ctrip, incentivizing high-end customers to book a Santa Monica hotel with exclusive offers. The campaign generated a 111% year-over-year increase in room nights and a 3:1 return on investment. We also partnered with Visit California to participate in their Club California training and on a Utour campaign to promote California itineraries. The campaign produced over 230 room nights and 50 million impressions.

What’s been the biggest draws once China’s tourists are in Santa Monica?

Chinese visitors love shopping in our destination due to the number of unique shopping locations that offer luxury products and popular global brands. Santa Monica Place, Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Seafood Market are especially popular with Chinese travelers.

Additionally, the Route 66 sign on the Santa Monica Pier is a favorite for this group of travelers. One of the first highways in the United States, Route 66 is known as the “Mother Road” and stretches for nearly 4000 kilometers from Chicago to Santa Monica. A sign commemorating the end of the road is on the Santa Monica Pier and visitors can receive a complimentary certificate of completion at our Santa Monica Visitor Information Centers.

We’ve also stocked Center locations with postcards in Mandarin aimed at welcoming Chinese visitors. These postcards have a QR code that links to our official WeChat and Weibo accounts, where travelers can learn more about the destination.

You’ve visited China. How did touring the country inform your campaign?

As we began building roads to grow Chinese visitation, nothing has been as illuminating as meeting with business leaders in China. I had the honor of traveling on the Visit California CEO Mission in May 2016 to meet with key contacts and spread the message that we warmly welcome visitors from China. These face-to-face meetings and continuing relationships led to first-hand insights that I’ve gained into the mindset of Chinese travelers, something that had a profound effect on our approach as a destination.

Our staff members have also spent significant time in the market to gain further insights. As a key takeaway, we will increase our focus on lengthening overnight stays among Chinese travelers by highlighting some of the unique, “only in Santa Monica” family and luxury experiences found here.

Have you done any marketing in your own backyard?

We partnered with UCLA’s Chinese Students and Scholar’s Association (CSSA) to organize two familiarization tours for more than 50 new students so they could experience Santa Monica and participate in an orientation event. We also sponsored the CSSA Chinese New Year Gala. Also in conjunction with Chinese New Year, we worked with Santa Monica Place, Segway LA, and Pacific Park offering exclusive discounts to organization members.

By partnering with UCLA and the CSSA, we’ve built ongoing relationships with Chinese students both in the destination and through messages via the organization’s WeChat page. Through our partnership, the students, along with their visiting friends and family, are more inclined to dine, shop or stay in our beachside city.