Berlin is still regarded as the leader of the world's largest travel fair, ITB – but only just! Although only about 10 per cent of China's 1.4 billion inhabitants have a passport, they are already the world travel champions. It's therefore possible that ITB China in Shanghai will soon outstrip the trade fair in Berlin. Yet as huge as the potential is, there are also significant challenges.
text: Anke Pedersen
The Chinese don't need Facebook, Google et al. They have all-rounders like We Chat, Alibaba and Baidu; apps they can use to chat, shop and pay, i.e. basically organise their entire day-to-day life. "I've only been living in Shanghai since September, but since January I've stopped using cash," says David Axiotis, who, as General Manager, is responsible for ITB China. "You get used to it very quickly, because it's just so convenient."
Like at lunch, for example. Workers in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen will check an app before leaving the office to see which restaurant is currently the most 'in' according to their community. One swipe and a reservation is made. And that's just the beginning. Modern Chinese people don't need a menu – what's that for? Thanks to We Chat, they know which dishes are currently on trend. And once you're in the app, you can order and pay for meals straight away. A QR code on each table in the restaurant makes this possible. "I only need a waiter to bring the food to my table," says Axiotis of his most recent experiences.
Are these just futuristic gimmicks? The opposite is true. Young Chinese people in particular regard the relative backwardness of other countries when it comes to digitalisation as positively mediaeval. "Thirty years ago, China was still a poor country," David Axiotis concedes. "But when it comes to technology, they're leading the way today. They've skipped whole generations and they don't need us any more." One example is payments. Instead of starting with debit and credit cards, the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom have "gone mobile" straight away.
However, one area where they are entirely dependent on the west and its resources is outbound tourism. While the countries that surround China, such as Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Taiwan, are currently benefiting from China's burgeoning middle class and its fondness for travel, experienced travellers are increasingly also being drawn overseas. It may be that these are "not yet the big figures," Axiotis admits. In actual fact, however, even these few per cent out of a market of over a billion people reaches a scale that means that even today "almost everyone wants a piece of the pie and is investing accordingly".
It's not for nothing that the number of visitors, buyers and exhibitors at ITB China, which premiered only in 2017, multiplied when the event took place for the second time in May 2018. And it's not for nothing that a leading manager at one of the country's biggest tour operators said for the record: "We expect and believe that ITB China will become the world's largest and most successful trade fair for tourism." Her argument was: "China has been the world's biggest source country since 2016, which means that ITB China has extraordinary potential."
It's one thing to have potential, but there are still sticking points – such as the language barrier. "It annoys Chinese people that Westerners still think they can set something up in China that's based on western standards," says Roland Elter, sales and marketing manager at the hotel chain Maritim. They actually feel superior to us. So why learn English? "What do you mean, you don't speak Chinese?!" Elter's advice to all his colleagues is to treat Chinese people with a lot of respect and esteem.
However, the Chinese population's completely different approach to mobile technologies, and, of course, cultural idiosyncrasies, also create barriers that make it difficult for the west to get closer to this market. Let's take the example of breakfast. "I'm on the road a lot and I don't exactly stay in bad hotels," ITB manager David Axiotis says. "But just getting some cheese at breakfast, bread or coffee – it's not straightforward." On the other hand, the Chinese have a similar experience with us: "They want to eat a cooked breakfast, ideally congee, a rice porridge that is cooked for a long time. In short, we all need to see things from the other person's perspective."
Maritim has already taken a major step, at least in technological terms, and set up a We Chat mini-programme with Qyer.com, one of the major travel portals with a community of around 90 million followers. It is the first hotel company outside China to do this. "We currently have around 80,000 Chinese guests a year in Germany," Elter calculates. "But with this account, we'll be banking on the power of multiplication." After all, there's nothing that the Chinese don't review – including their experiences in hotels – in a way that is generally visible to their entire community.