US firms in cultural pitch for Chinese tourist dollars

Two women eat Lobster outdoors Chinese tourists Tina Lee (L) and Anna Ng eat Maine lobsters at the Portland Lobster Company

Chinese tourists spend big money in the United States. In Boston, companies are trying to figure out how to draw them in.

It's no surprise that Chinese visitors come to New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC. Those are their top three American destinations. Then there's the next tier - places like Boston.

Chinese visitors come here primarily to see top universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Then they leave.

Local businesses would like them to stay a bit longer though. There's a simple reason.

Jolin Zhou, of the Boston-based Chinese tour operator Sunshine Travel, told a story of a Chinese man who was recently visiting Boston with his teenage son on a college scouting trip.

Zhou says: "One day he asked my co-worker, 'Can you recommend a meal, a good restaurant and bring me there? The best restaurant in Boston, no matter how expensive.' My co-worker brought him to a restaurant; they spent $1,000 for two of them for dinner."

Zhou told this story to about 75 businesspeople working in the hospitality industry at the statehouse in Boston.

They were gathered for a tourism workshop, hosted by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which aims to attract Chinese visitors.

Massachusetts is following the lead of states such as California, which has developed a China Ready programme.

They offer a learning kit to teach Californian businesses how to better serve Chinese tourists and understand their culture.

Chinese tourism in America

  • From 2010-11, Chinese visitors to the US increased by 36%
  • Visitors from China spent $5.7bn (£3.5bn) within the US in 2011
  • The top five entry points for Chinese visitors to the US are New York, Newark, San Francisco, Chicago and Blaine, Washington state (on the Canadian border).

Source: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

China has a middle class of some 300 million people, and more and more of them are travelling internationally.

Travellers from China rank ninth in terms of foreign visitors to the US, but they're the fastest-growing group by far.

And they're the third-biggest spenders when they travel internationally, behind only the Germans and Americans.

At the Massachusetts State House, people like Evan Saunders were offering local businesses advice on how to tap into those Chinese wallets.

Saunders is the chief executive of Attract China, a start-up that helps American businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, to get noticed online in China.

One of Saunders' clients is the popular Boston restaurant, Legal Sea Foods.

Saunders said the word legal, when associated with a restaurant, can be confusing for Chinese people.

They market-tested the name, and people in China thought "legal" meant: "maybe a government-associated company, that is involved in making sure people go to jail if they're not serving the right things," he says.

Not exactly the image you want for your seafood restaurant.

Saunders is trying to correct that by branding Legal Sea Foods in China as "America's best sea food destination". He's also making his client visible on the Chinese version of Google.

Haybina Hao, who is originally from China and now works with the National Tour Association in the state of Kentucky, says it's often the little things that resonate with foreign visitors.

For example, Chinese people like soy milk in the morning, and they don't like it served cold.

"So use a microwave, if possible. You can use glass, you can use a little mug to wake them up," says Hao. "They will be so happy for their hot milk."

Women pose with Michael Jackson wax figure Chinese tourists pose with a wax figure of Michael Jackson in Los Angeles

And Hao added, hotel owners should put disposable slippers in the rooms. "That really makes them feel great, just like home."

Of course, everybody likes to feel catered to when they travel, no matter where they're from.

Americans have long expected the option of US-style food when they travel abroad, and assume that almost everybody will speak at least some English.

David Ritchie, who directs sales and marketing for the Omni Parker House hotel in Boston, came to the statehouse to learn how to attract more Chinese travellers.

He says he already knew about the slippers, but "I didn't realise how important milk and different little things that probably would make a difference to people when they're staying."

Still, Ritchie said he can't do too much more to cater to a specific group of visitors. For example, a few speakers suggested making Chinese food available at hotels. Ritchie balked at that.

"We invented the Boston cream pie, so we are the American iconic culinary institution," Ritchie says. "I think we're staying with our concept. I think it works."

That's the right strategy, says Donna Quadri, a professor of hospitality and tourism at NYU. She said touches like slippers for Asian travellers or tea for British visitors are nice, but you don't want to be something you're not.

"Travellers really want the authentic experience," she says. "When my cousins from Italy come to New York, you know that they want? They want steak and potatoes, right?

"They want an American hamburger from a neighbourhood tavern. They want things that are quintessentially American."

Quadri says it's a mistake to make sweeping generalisations about what people are looking for when they travel. But she said one thing everyone appreciates is hotel staff or guides who speak your language.

Jackie Ennis, of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, emphasises that point: "If 700 Chinese visitors show up on your doorstep for a museum tour, and you don't have a Mandarin-speaking guide, it could be a little awkward."

But that's something that each hotel or restaurant has to do on its own.

Many people at the statehouse in Boston said they're exploring things such as Chinese menus or interpreters, but they aren't quite ready to commit.

They'd better get moving. The US Department of Commerce projects the number of Chinese visitors coming to America to nearly double within three years.

For more on this story, visit PRI's The World.

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