In Shaun Rein’s new book The End of Copycat China, the Founder and Managing Director of the China Market Research Group examines the emerging consumer trends in China’s rapid market evolution, how China’s spending classes are maturing and craving for individualism and authenticity, and the opportunities that this implies for those doing business with and in China. This excerpt from Chapter 8 provides a glimpse into the mind of the Chinese towards travel.
We were at Atlantis, The Palm, in Dubai, which Chinese guidebooks tout as the world’s first seven-star hotel. We peered through the several-story-high floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the Atlantis’s private aquarium.
Impressive came to mind as I entered the main lobby and a mosaic of colors popped out from the walls. Dangling sculptures added to the majesty, and tiles forming underwater scenes lining the walls stunned with their detail and complexity.
I walked over to a friend, Sha Sha, who lounged in the lobby restaurant. I expected she would love the hotel. She liked the hotel, she said, but she looked disappointed. I asked her why the grim face. How could anyone not like such grandeur? I thought.
“There are too many Chinese here,” she answered glumly. “I only like going places where there aren’t any others, so I have something special to tell others when I go home,” she continued. “I also like to share my travel photos on WeChat, but what’s the point if everyone else has already been there?”
Replacing luxury items, the new status symbol is sharing experiences via WeChat. Before, people gained prestige by toting Gucci bags to show people around them physically, but now sharing experiences to friends via social media websites is the new way to gain prestige. Invariably when you turn on WeChat, you will see people posting shots of exotic locations they visit and delicacies they eat. Sha Sha expanded, “Obviously the hotel itself is gorgeous. I just wanted to go where no other Chinese had been.”
I met Wang Yan one evening in 2014 in the ramshackle store from which she sells Nu Skin’s personal care products. She now earned $800 a month, almost double her earnings when she sold pirated DVDs in previous years. Originally from Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, the 34-year-old Wang had jet black hair cut short and wore stylish blue jeans and a tight-fitting black T-shirt.
As she sold face cream to an elderly woman, she said, “I want to see the world, see new cultures, and do things other Chinese have never done before.” She whipped out her mobile phone and showed me photos of exotic locales she had visited.
She had been to Thailand, Cambodia, and France and now was saving up for her biggest trip yet. She was going to go either to Egypt or Mauritius; she hadn’t yet made up her mind, but she would definitely go to Africa. Considering how little she earned, I was surprised at how widely she traveled.
Rising oil prices made transportation expensive. I asked how she traveled. “I always take the cheapest transportation available, whether red-eye flights or train. I even took a bus to Myanmar,” she answered.
That made sense and explained why airlines schedule so many red-eye flights from China to Southeast Asia. Red-eyes save time and money—most workers get 5 to 10 vacation days a year in addition to 11 holidays but also save two nights’ hotel fare by sleeping on the plane. Budget travelers prefer spending on sight- seeing and buying products than on transportation.
She said she always stayed in cheap hotels most nights—“I expect to be and out and about most days so [I] look for cheap hotels.” She continued, “But every trip, either the first or the last night, I spend extra for a night in a luxury hotel to indulge.” She said on a recent trip to Myanmar, she splurged on a $400-a-night room at the Shangri-La, equivalent to 50 percent of her monthly income.
Wang Yan likes to plot out arrangements by herself. Traditionally Chinese traveled in groups, often forced to because of visa policies that prevented them from traveling alone but also because they had little experience abroad and were scared. But that is changing fast. CMR research has found Chinese under the age of 35 prefer to book their own trips, going where they want at the pace they desire.
As I spoke with Wang Yan, spending habits for middle-class Chinese and Americans diverged. Instead of staying the whole trip in a three-star hotel, such as a Holiday Inn, as many Americans might, Chinese mixed staying in five-star and one- star hotels.
(Ajai) Zechai does business development for General Hotel Management Limited (GHM), a stylish chain of hotels that include the Legian in Bali and the Chedi Dhapparu in the Maldives. Known for creating a distinctive lifestyle experience, with an emphasis on the land and local culture, the chain attracts only the most sophisticated and well-heeled tourists.
The hotel industry runs in Zechai’s blood. His father, Adrian Zechai, was the founder of the Aman Resorts chain, one of the most exclusive resort chains in the world, and serves as nonexecutive chairman of GHM.
“Cheers,” Ajai Zechai said, clinking my glass, and then we took a sip of Soju, a fiery Korean rice-based alcohol. Zechai divulged GHM’s China strategy: “We plan to open dozens of properties in China because we see the demand as more Chinese vacation at our properties in China and globally.” I asked whether Chinese like GHM’s brand position of more intimate experiences.
“Developing a strategy for China is becoming one of our main priorities,” Zechai responded, because GHM has seen a huge increase of Chinese guests over the past few years—it even had a Chinese buy one of its multimillion-dollar apartments in Europe.
“Chinese are becoming increasingly sophisticated and discerning in what they want,” Zechai explained, as I plopped a juicy, perfectly marbled piece of beef in my mouth. Nothing beats Korean barbecue, I think to myself. Zechai continued, “It is not just about bigger is better anymore but distinct experiences, which is exactly what GHM offers.”
GHM is well positioned to grab the shift toward individual and localized experiences. Standardized properties that look the same in New York as they do in Bali or Milan are becoming passé for many Chinese who want to experience local culture in more intimate settings.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia by Shaun Rein. Copyright (c) 2014 by Shaun Rein. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.