Around the country, state and local convention and visitors bureaus and destination marketing organizations are racing to get up to speed on what the booming Chinese tourism market wants. But Travel Oregon, Oregon’s official tourism agency is apparently way ahead of the game.

For years, Travel Oregon has been tracking the Chinese tourism market closely using Department of Commerce data. Based on an uptick in growth they were seeing, Travel Oregon made two key moves. First, they partnered with Shanghai-based Hung & Kit, a Chinese travel marketing firm, to market Oregon in Shanghai, and later in Beijing and Hong Kong. Second, they organized, with San Francisco’s Brick Marketing Group, a “China-Ready 101” course for Oregon communities and businesses that cater to tourists. Travel Oregon advertised the limited-space course on its website, then waited.

The demand for the in-person seminar was tremendous, “I went twice,” said David Penilton, owner of America’s Hub World Tours in Eugene, Oregon. “The half-day seminar was so well-done I picked up new information each time.”

Last year, Travel Oregon introduced two new online courses: China Ready Sales and China Ready Retail. The state website now features itineraries, information, and two videos in Mandarin.

In 2017, China was the third largest source of overseas tourism to the state with 68,000 visitors, just behind Japan. But Chinese visitors are the biggest source of overseas tourist spending, spending $241.8 million in 2017.

On a recent Chinese trade group visit to the Pendleton Oregon Round-up, the world’s third largest rodeo, the entire Chinese contingent became infatuated with cowboy culture, locals reported. They “put on cowboy hats,” said Greg Eckhart, Travel Oregon’s director of global sales, and unlike the rodeo riders they cheered on, “those hats didn’t come off anyone’s heads the entire visit.”

The visitors then immersed themselves in the experience of getting custom-made leather boots and belts, woven blankets, and hand-crafted briefcases. This new emphasis on “maker-culture,” (custom-made goods) signals a shift in Chinese consumer habits that traditionally involved a singular obsession with luxury goods. “Habits are changing from stuff to experiences,” notes Eckhart.

With some hosting experience behind them, here’s some advice from the Oregon travel experts on making Chinese guests feel welcome:

  • Identify and target the “leader” of multi-generational and group travel. More often than not, it’s the “auntie.” “There’s always a lead person you need to identify—that’s the voice,” said Penilton who attended the introductory China 101 course. “If you want to connect with the group, or get them to visit again, you need to communicate with that person.”
  • Retailers should consider the shopping habits of the Chinese consumer and plan accordingly. For example, the gift culture in China is unlike “anything we know,” said Eckhart, and a lot more generous. A Chinese visitor might tell his friend “The souvenir I bought you is an iPad.”
  • Provide densely packed and active itineraries. Last month, six BMW China employees came to Portland for a company-sponsored relay event. “They did every possible thing: they shopped, went to the mountains, the coast, even rafted,” said Karen Rich, vice president of Sales & Business Development for the VT Group, an event-planning company, in Portland, “They were everywhere. They couldn’t get enough.”
  • “Don’t be afraid to walk up and ask ‘can I help you?’ Be familiar with and updated on communication channels like the WeChat platform. “When you’d say to a Chinese visitor, ‘Let me give you my WeChat i.d. or address,’ you’d see a big smile on their face,” said Penilton, “because they knew you know how they communicate in China.”
  • Know your destination’s strengths, and what is available that isn’t routine in China.  The state, in its marketing, focuses on Oregon’s maker culture, the national parks, golf courses, ski resorts, foodie culture, wineries, breweries, and seafood.
  • China is very social media friendly: communicate unique experiences through up-to-date social media channels. Do your homework as these social media channels are constantly changing. For example, to reach millennials right now, Travel Oregon experts suggest Mafengwo, a travel-blogging platform.
  • Push for direct non-stop flights. “I wish there were direct flights to Portland,” said Penilton, who points out that in the last eight to ten years Oregon has “hit the map.” Companies are now creating tour itineraries from Seattle, the main air hub, to Oregon. “If we had direct flights to Oregon, there would be more opportunities to increase visitation.”