Ctrip’s VTM (virtual team manager weilingdui, 微领队) service was introduced back in September of 2015, and, according to Ctrip, the service has had impressive growth in the last two and a half years. VTM provides Ctrip users with destination-specific shopping, sightseeing, and emergency information. Moreover, the service helps travelers connect with other travelers to the same destination to exchange information or to meet up and socialize, either through the Ctrip app or through groups set up via WeChat. While VTM is potentially useful for all types of travelers, the service is clearly geared towards free independent travelers (FITs).
According to Ctrip, 10 million Chinese travelers used its VTM services in 2017
In 2017, Ctrip claims that 10 million travelers used the service, around 10 percent of Ctrip independent travelers used VTM, and the service covered 150 countries.
The VTM service is an attempt by Ctrip to ensure users can hypothetically use Ctrip services for every step of their journey. The idea is that users can gather destination information, book flights, hotels, local tour transportation, and find retail and dining options, all through Ctrip.
VTM even provides its own destination-specific “daigou” (purchasing agent) shopping platform, to help travelers who intend to purchase goods abroad and resell them in China. While legally most daigous are tourists, for many it’s a full or part-time job. Prices for many foreign goods are often substantially more expensive in China because of import tariffs and taxes and daigous operate in a gray area.
Ctrip’s platform even provides information for daigou shoppers looking to buy goods overseas to resell in China
Of course, combining user-generated travel content and bookings isn’t a wholly unique concept. TripAdvisor, for example, is primarily a travel review and information site that centers around user-generated content, but the platform also offers accommodation and other types of bookings. Ctrip’s VTM, on the other hand, is substantially more curated in terms of the travel information provided. VTM also separates itself from the pack in its focus on the social nature of travel.
VTM has since its launched sported several social travel platforms. Users can use the platform to post photos of their travel in the destination with other Ctrip travelers in the area and VTM hosts chat groups for travelers to exchange information and meet up.
Ctrip also has a “Party Animal” platform within the VTM, which connects travelers with local guides to host parties and other gatherings. According to Ctrip, the platform had 260 local guides around the world that hosted some 6,000 parties with 30,000 participants in 2017.
VTM also features an SOS service to help users deal with emergencies like lost items, vehicle accidents, or medical problems. Considering that the foreign language skills of many Chinese travelers may impede them in seeking help abroad, dedicated Chinese language support could prove extremely helpful for many travelers. Ctrip claims that the service can respond to requests within 2 minutes.
Ctrip’s VTM service is designed to provide tour group services digitally to the growing number of Chinese indeppendent travelers
Services like these could go a long way in ensuring that China’s new wave of independent travelers feel more comfortable venturing out on their own and that their experience with the Ctrip platform is positive.
Arguably though, the offerings for sites can be limited. While tickets for tours are plentiful, cultural tourism offerings through the service are limited. There are exceptions of course. On Washington D.C.’s VTM page through the app, users can purchase tours that include trips to the Smithsonian and even buy electronic guides to the museum. Regardless, VTM does not appear to have a fully dedicated portal to help travelers identify potential sites in regards to cultural tourism, like museums and art galleries.
However, Ctrip has pragmatically made efforts to ensure that the service is usable via WeChat. While Ctrip is without a doubt China’s most important online travel agency (OTA), it seems unlikely that Ctrip could ever usurp WeChat’s position as China’s de facto official digital communications platform. Arguably, nothing Ctrip could provide in terms of travel socialization would ever be particularly useful if it did not synergize with WeChat.
Moreover, Tencent’s WeChat is proving that is more than capable of providing its own assortment of travel services through its digital platform. The ubiquitous nature of WeChat in Chinese social and technological life is hard to ignore, and the WeChat app is quickly becoming more than just an app but a digital ecosystem with its own “mini-programs” and services wholly available through WeChat.
WeChat also provides travel guide services, and has the advantages of synergy with WeChat and WeChat Pay, as well as the cooperation of DMOs in major destinations
WeChat Pay is the obvious example of Tencent’s digital prowess in this regard. Access to mobile payments abroad can allow users to ignore currency exchange and allows for a greater sense of security while paying for goods and services abroad.
Moreover, WeChat has made efforts to become a platform to provide destination-specific tourism information through its CityExperience mini-programs. While these programs don’t necessarily provide the booking services associated with Ctrip, they are launched in partnership with destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and allow these DMOs to provide curated content to potential travelers. However, the interactive, social aspects of Ctrip’s VTM, as well as information and assistance services, are not present in these CityExperience Mini Programs. For example, VisitBritain, Dubai Tourism, and Tourism Australia have launched mini-programs for London, Dubai, and Sydney respectively.