Shopping, once the main driver of Chinese tourism and international consumption, is beginning to take a back seat to culture and cultural experiences as the Chinese tourist market matures. No longer is the most important reason to go abroad a good deal on an Italian handbag or a Swiss watch. Instead, Chinese consumers are increasingly viewing travel as a means to enjoy cultural experiences, broaden one’s horizons, and for lifestyle fulfillment. Consequently, business opportunities in the Chinese market are abound for businesses on top of this growing trend.
Unfortunately, however, cultural organizations and institutions have been slower to react to this rapidly expanding market than was the case in the retail industry in the earlier days of global Chinese travel. Retailers and brands were quick to hire Chinese-speaking staff, do sophisticated digital marketing campaigns in China, and to partner up with Chinese companies whose strategies were aligned with one’s own. In retail, the success stories are bountiful. In the business of culture, success stories remain scarce.
Museums and other cultural organizations have been slow to react to huge opportunities in the Chinese market
But even so, the success stories that do exist properly demonstrate the enormous benefits that are ready to be reaped by cultural enterprises with the right strategies.
The British Museum, a cultural institution like few others, could have leaned back and simply enjoyed growing China-sourced revenue from the growing number of Chinese visitors to London. Indeed, the museum largely sells itself. Information and guides in Chinese would certainly have been sufficient in keeping it (and its souvenir store) on the radar of Chinese tour groups and independent travelers alike.
Instead, the British Museum doubled down on China. Back in 2016, the museum entered into a partnership with Chinese online giant Alibaba. Two years later, it launched an online store on Alibaba’s Chinese e-commerce platform, Tmall. While this may sound like business as usual, the British Museum and Alibaba ensured that everything was properly set up for China before launching the store. Products were reasonably priced—even for China—and not mailed to consumers from Europe or elsewhere to exorbitant shipping fees and long waits. It was the British Museum store, but in China: interesting products, reasonable prices, fast shipping, and fully integrated into a leading online marketplace.
The British Museum’s immensely successful China strategy shows that museums can get it right in China—if they try
The results were almost too good to be true. The first assortment of souvenirs on the store was soon sold out, 150,000 Chinese shoppers had started following the Tmall store, and social media in China was ablaze with users praising the shop. Needless to say, it was a successful foray into the Chinese market, and one that is sure to boost interest for its museum and (more expensive) souvenir store in London.
And while the British Museum’s launch on Tmall is impressive, it’s not really rocket science either. Chinese museums have enjoyed huge sales online for years, adding significant revenue to the museums’ bottom lines. Indeed, China Daily reports that sales of cultural and creative products may net China’s Palace Museum as much as 1.5 billion yuan ($220 million) annually.
But looking beyond China’s very own museums and the British Museum’s recent success story, examples of international businesses successfully and effectively tapping into China’s growing market for cultural experiences and products are few and far in between.
Paris’s the Louvre, for instance, is perhaps difficult to characterize as a failure in the Chinese market—it’s one of the most-visited overseas attractions among Chinese tourists at 626,000 Chinese visits in 2017—but next to the British Museum, it does look like a case of missed opportunity. While the website is available in Chinese, clicking on the online store takes a Chinese user to an error 404 page, from where one can enter the English (or French) language storefront. Navigation is a hassle, no pertinent information is available in Chinese, and not even UnionPay cards are accepted. Add to that “European” pricing and international shipping, and it’s clear why Chinese consumers were excited about how the British Museum did things differently.
No modern China strategy means leaving money on the table
Instead, consumers looking for authentic souvenirs from the Louvre may just be better served by so-called daigou resellers who bought souvenirs at the museum, brought them back on China, and resold them at a profit to Chinese consumers in China. It’s a textbook example of a missed opportunity—and the Louvre is just one of countless examples in the cultural industry.
Other museums and cultural institutions, even major ones, are simply relying on the work of tourism boards, destination marketing organizations (DMOs), and convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) to do the heavy lifting for them in the Chinese market. And while such organizations can do a lot of good for their members, their activities are a far cry from what a cultural institution which takes the Chinese market seriously can accomplish.
Even the most popular museums among Chinese tourists fail to engage any meaningful number of Chinese consumers before and after visits
The numbers back this up. Exceptionally popular Louvre only sports some 100,000 followers on Weibo, a tiny fraction of its Chinese visitors. New York hotspot MoMA’s following comes in at an even lower 20,000 followers. Put that in comparison to the British Museum’s 150,000 followers on Tmall earned in a fraction of the time, and the difference becomes quite striking. This especially considering that the British Museum is not the most-visited museum of the bunch—the Louvre actually receives more Chinese visitors than the whole of the United Kingdom does.
An even more pertinent question perhaps is how museums and cultural institutions around the world should promote their exciting new exhibitions and experiences to the growing number of Chinese consumers very much willing to travel abroad for such events. Indeed, in the increasingly cultural metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and so on, massive cultural institutions can be challenging to find. You can be certain to find a place to experience a sneak peek of the latest Hollywood superhero movie, but a sneak peek of an exciting new exhibition remains elusive—and this despite an ongoing boom in culturally-oriented venues, events, and shopping centers in China.
China’s cultural consumers are here, but where are the cultural institutions and organizations?
It goes without saying that China has a troubled past (and sometimes present) with culture and the arts, but Chinese developers and city officials have proven eager to cater to China’s culturally-minded younger generations with culture-infused projects, developments, and events. It may not always be as straightforward as in other countries, but there’s most certainly a space for promoting (and even exhibiting) cultural experiences in China.
Most importantly, there’s a growing market for it, and there’s still time to gain a first-mover advantage—but the clock is ticking.