For international businesses trying to move into China, the parameters have long been set: They need to think mobile-first, app-focused, and prioritize WeChat Pay and Alipay over credit cards and cash. But what happens when it’s the other way around? What do Chinese companies breaking into the West need to know?
In February of 2018, Amy Wei, the CEO of International Train Ticketing at Ctrip Group, launched TrainPal: a mobile app that offers international train ticket booking services in the United Kingdom. Then, in February of 2019, TrainPal’s ticket sales erupted, growing over 152 times month-on-month. Now the app is expanding across Europe and Asia.
TrainPal quickly made its mark on consumers by offering ‘Split Fares’: a unique algorithm that immediately calculates whether users can save money on train tickets by splitting the fare in two and then issuing two separate tickets. According to the Ctrip Group, 70 percent of consumers receive cheaper tickets for the same journey when using this method. But support from the Chinese travel giant has also helped. As a longtime leader in China’s online travel marketplace, Ctrip’s development of TrainPal marks the next strategic move to expand the company’s reach across international tourism.
This week, Jing Daily caught up with Wei in London where she provided insight into what it takes to build a company from a team of four, how to build trust among customers in a foreign market, and more.
Tell us about the launch of TrainPal — Is it true you began as a team of four?
Yes, there are technically now ten of us working at TrainPal, but for the first year, we were only four. I really think the product speaks for itself, and we were lucky to be able to leverage the existing structure of Ctrip Group in the U.K. For example, we use existing customer service teams in the U.K. and across Europe, which means our customers can receive 24/7 care.
This really demonstrates the amazing power of being part of a big company, and how much the company wanted to support this new venture. Ctrip gave us the freedom, time, and flexibility to really upgrade and focus on one specific aspect of the travel industry. Every decision we make can be fully controlled internally and is designed just for train users. It’s also why we are able to offer our consumers such cheap prices on rail tickets — we only have a very small team to pay, and very low overheads, because we are fully supported by the Ctrip Group.
Did you face any cultural differences you had to overcome as a Chinese company targeting Western consumers?
Actually, when we first started, we did face some problems in this area. For so long in China, we have been conditioned to have an ‘app-first’ mentality. Everything is fast, everything is on mobile, and many consumers in China have never even used a desktop laptop and moved straight to mobile Internet. So for new companies launching in China, they often receive the advice that there is no point creating a desktop site.
I remember at the beginning, we went into the market with the same Chinese mentality of mobile-first and didn’t create a desktop website. But we quickly received an email from our U.K. train partner telling us that we simply had to provide a desktop site for the people who still use computers — the ‘old-fashioned way’ in China — to book travel. In Europe and the U.S., more than 50 percent of users are still using desktop sites, for booking travel, shopping, and purchasing on Amazon.com, so we had to provide this.
This was a steep learning curve for us and made us realize that we had to reverse our mentality and way of thinking in lots of ways. If we were going to be successful in Europe as a Chinese company, we actually needed to slow down a bit! It’s been a really interesting learning journey.
How did you market TrainPal to these consumers?
I firmly believe that a good product will be its own marketing. Without a good, solid product that has a unique selling point, marketing will always fail. In the U.K., for example, we were greatly helped by being featured on the Apple Store and on the homepage of Apple shortly after our release. We were also featured on a popular television show advertising new innovative technology products. For both of these things, we were chosen because of the unique product we could provide and by providing something that actually worked.
We also reached out to influencers to help us market on popular Western social media channels like YouTube. For this, it’s important to know your audience, to know where they consume content, and to follow them accordingly.
What’s your advice for brands looking to build up trust in a foreign market?
It’s crucial for the consumer to trust you. For Chinese companies launching in the West, we often have to overcome the problem of consumers being suspicious of what we are offering: Is it too good to be true? Can a Chinese company really be trusted with personal data? I mean, just look at what has happened with Huawei in the United States! For us, we believe that we have the systems in place to prove ourselves to consumers. We are very transparent with our PCI Certificate, our Privacy license, and the way we follow GDPR regulations.
Although, we recognize that while we are still growing, this might not be enough. We don’t want consumers to be put off. For example, the PCI certificate proves that we abide by the set of payment card security standards in place across Visa, MasterCard, Discover Financial Services, JCB International and American Express. However, we can’t be arrogant and assume that this alone will work to gain the trust of all consumers. That’s why we also offer Apple Pay and PayPal – so that if customers still have concerns, they can always use a payment method that they know and trust. This also makes the payment journey as smooth as possible for users – it is just like the reverse of offering Alipay and WeChat Pay to China.
You have plans to collaborate with more rail partners across Europe and Asia. What’s next for TrainPal?
For us, it was very natural to start in the UK, where our experiment has been very successful! Now, we will continue to expand it across many other European and Asian countries to see what kind of country-specific benefit we can bring to consumers. For example, we are currently the only app in the world that allows people to book train tickets online for South Korean Rail. We also partner with JR [Japan Rail] in Japan, and want to encourage more people to travel around Japan by train next year for the Olympic games.
Many DMOs are creating mobile travel itineraries for tourists, is this something TrainPal will include in the future?
On Ctrip and Trip.com we already have the kind of guides that help people navigate their travel and offer itineraries and special offers. The beautiful part about the mobile app is it can use GPS sensors to locate where the user is and offer itineraries and relevant information accordingly. For TrainPal, we have looked into this and are beginning internal discussions. It would be nice to have some kind of train-specific itineraries in the future. For us, it’s all about experimenting — seeing what works and what doesn’t.