At this time last week, London Tech Week 2019 was in full swing with a series of afternoon jetpack races above the city’s Royal Docks. The brave organization responsible for those rocket men zooming across the East London skyline was London & Partners — the Mayor of London’s official promotional company and an agency whose very raison d’être is to express London’s dynamism to international tourists. And given that Chinese visits to the UK increased by 257 percent between 2010 and 2018, it’s little wonder that London & Partners has a very China-specific strategy.
“China is an absolute priority for us,” says Harry Mirpuri, London & Partners’ Director of Research & Insight, in an exclusive interview with Jing Travel. “It has been a very positive story of growth in recent years, [as China is] our fastest growing market and very valuable in terms of experiences people have and how much they promote [London]… but also how much money Chinese tourists spend here.”
Chinese visitors may outspend their international counterparts by a factor of 3.3, averaging $2,587 per visit, but gone are the days of big bus tours and shopping-focused travel. Indeed, when it comes to culture, Britain places second in the minds of Chinese travelers with a “high association” to “museums,” “film,” and “sport,” according to the Anholt Nation Brands Index (2018).
The shift to cultural tourism is being led by a young generation of well-educated Chinese who are seeking balanced travel experiences. For example, 16 to 34-year-olds represented 46 percent of Chinese visits to the UK in 2018, and London & Partners is adapting its strategy accordingly. It is part of the newly launched London Borough of Culture, which aims to promote the lesser known aspects of the city’s rich cultural diversity and has worked closely with The Original Tour (a famous hop-on/hop-off city bus tour) to focus on catering to Chinese visitors.
Practically speaking, staying in tune with the habits of China’s millennials has led to strong partnerships with WeChat and Sina Weibo, the latter of which London & Partners signed an MOU with during May 2018. The agency assesses social media searches and postings to track trends on those platforms, before, during, and after trips. It also conducts surveys.
“Culture is one of the biggest drivers for Chinese tourists — they love the romantic stories of the past,” says Mirpuri. “Chinese visitors are interested in both museums and cultural institutions… on the one hand, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s, etc. are core cultural institutions people start with, but we are finding people are posting a real interest in design and art [on social media].”
In response, London & Partners is broadening its connectivity — both online and on the ground — in China. It’s developing a ‘Virtual City’ on Weibo, attraction-specific information tailored to the preferences of individual users, and opened new offices in Beijing and Shanghai. This dual approach not only builds relationships with potential Chinese visitors but also helps gather valuable information that can be passed on to the organization’s partners in the U.K., maximizing the experiences of Chinese tourists.
“We did a dry audit of every hotel and attraction,” says Mirpuri, where they asked, “In what way are you preparing — and in what way do you offer — tailored experiences for visitors in China? Is your signing in Chinese? Do you have [Mandarin] speakers to help you?”
While Mirpuri admits that “it’s early days” for the agency in China, there remains a need for the company and its partners to “immerse” themselves in the culture of a tourism group that’s set to exceed in 400,000 visitors in 2019. When it comes to museums and cultural institutions, providing “signage and Mandarin audio guides” has become essential. Equally vital are payment methods, with London & Partners making sure that “partners are aware of the importance of accepting Alipay and UnionPay to enable people to access them easily. London is on a journey, but there is a commitment and people are taking steps to make that happen as quickly as possible.”
London’s ability to offer comfortable and culturally attuned experiences to Chinese travelers may indeed be in its infancy, but for evidence of London & Partners’ ability to transform large-scale attractions for a Chinese audience, one need only look at London’s Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations. By partnering with the London Chinatown Association and the Greater London Authority, the agency managed to turn a small, locally-organized event into a spectacle that now attracts 300,000 people annually.
“It’s the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia,” Mirpuri says with satisfaction. “It’s a festival for Londoners to be proud of, and we make every opportunity to showcase it to the world.”
Preparations for CNY 2020 are already in the works, and, as with most everything China-related at London & Partners, the bar should be raised once again when it comes time to ring in the Year of the Rat.