By Jiaqi Luo and Nick Withycombe
Skiing is one western import that has enjoyed strong government support in China. A learned leisure activity, skiing sits in the cluster of ‘high-end lifestyle’ activities along with yoga, golf, horse-riding and the appreciation of cheese. Like all of those things – and countless other industries – skiing has transformed from something that was unknown just a decade ago, into a booming industry.
Skiing benefits from its association to the patriotic glory of global sporting occasions – in this case the Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing in 2022 – and very magnificent declarations involving high population numbers and the unabashed use of metaphor: China’s bidding slogan for the Winter Olympics was to “put 300 million people on ice and snow”.
The “300 million people” (presumably all of them willing) ambition was quoted twice further in China’s five-year plan; once within “the National Fitness Program (2011-2015)” and the second as the headline project “Implementation of 300 million people on ice and snow (2018-2022)”. According to Beijing News, the national-level development of the snow and ski industries are part of a grander scheme: making Chinese people healthier.
While the market is still in its infancy, it’s set for dramatic change. Travel Daily recently explained that China’s the skiing population in 2017 accounted for only 1% of the total population, and the frequency per person was 1.08 times. The relative skiing population in Austria accounts for 36%, with a skiing frequency at 5.9 times per person. In Japan, the skiing population is 9%, with an average skiing frequency at 2.5 times per person. However, with travel, fitness and wellness all rising industries and the Chinese population continuing to grow in terms of wealth and spending power, the avalanche of Chinese skiers will soon hit the market.
A report on “The Future of Chinese Ski Tourism,” written by ski tourism professional Fabio Ries just 5 years ago, described a non-existent ski culture. Yet a report by Ctrip and the Chinese Tourism Academy reveals that in the relative blink of an eye, the number of snow tourists has reached 197 million in the 2017-2018 winter season, and the revenue about 330 billion RMB ($49 billion), respectively 16% and 22% year-on-year increases.
The above report predicts the number of Chinese snow tourists to reach 340 million during the 2021-2022 season, with growth predictably enough coming from the post-90 and post-00 generations.
Skiing is firmly in the aspirational checklist and the sport is set to become a readily-available past-time. As China’s modern generations are keen to explore the fun, selfie-friendly world of snow holidays, how are smart brands adapting to their needs?
The “Ski +” experience
While skiing itself has both the seal of official approval and is the anchor to a holiday, Chinese travellers have a long list of other needs (all of which they want to catalogue on their social media). A holiday among ice and snow means a romantic snowy backdrop, food tourism to socially renowned venues and definitely a visit to a hot spring jacuzzi. Economic Information Daily recently noted the popularity of “snow theme holidays”, as Chinese travellers don’t live on the piste, but prefer packages such as ‘snow + hot springs’, ‘snow + folk customs’ or ‘snow + culinary tours’ as some of the best-performing options.
According to Ctrip’s 2018 booking data, the most popular ski destinations for Chinese tourists are Japan, Switzerland, Iceland, Finland, and the United States. Japan, with its geographical proximity to China and a “similar but different” cultural charm for Chinese topped the popularity chart with a much higher booking rate than the second place Switzerland.
Chinese travelers have long adored Japan’s refined cuisine, meticulous service, sleek architecture, and abundant shopping opportunities. Clever resorts in Japan realise that, rather than hype up the quality of the powdery snow or angle of the mountain, they actually need to appeal to non-skiers.
Tomamu resort, a popular choice among Chinese travelers in Japan’s Hokkaido region, epitomises the definition of an Asian-friendly snow experience. Above all, it offers a rich experience for the non-skier demographic, enlarging the target group from skiers to those that just want to relax in a wintry location. The resort’s package ‘snow holiday for non-skier ladies’ allows female tourists to enjoy snow-themed spa treatments, hot spring sessions, and snow-themed dining that highlight food styled in the form of snowflakes and what have you.
Tomamu invited Bazaar China to snap popular male actors Hu Ge and Wallace Huo at their resort, winning the throbbing hearts of young Chinese women in return. The legions of fans of Chinese celebrities are eager to follow in the footsteps of their idols: on Xiaohongshu/Little Red Book, the forest-themed restaurant where the photo shoot took place trended in user-generated content.
(The snow-themed dining menu offered in a “snow holiday for non-skiers” package. Photo credit: Hoshinu Resorts official website.)
(Bazaar China once featured Actor Hu Ge and Wallace Huo in one of Tomamu’s restaurants. Photo: Bazaar China)
(Posts on Little Red Book feature the restaurant of Bazaar China’s photoshoot.)
Even further afield, the popular, more luxurious ski resorts focus on their most photogenic aspect as their marketing halo. Zermatt, Switzerland, offers international-level skiing facilities alongside ‘old world’ ski culture. Differing from Hokkaido’s mass-market appeal, Zermatt has the travel-insider sheen that’s much coveted by trend-driven Chinese millennials. Among the 1500+ posts shared on Little Red Book, keywords such as “fairytale” and “Toblerone chocolate” frequently appear, as many recognise Zermatt’s Matterhorn Mountain as the “chocolate mountain”. Deluxe western dining, photo-op pool, and the social-friendly post of a Toblerone chocolate next to the Matterhorn make a trip to Zermatt a not-to-be-missed experience for the affluent millennial group.
(Little Red Book feed on Zermatt, Switzerland.)
As well as speaking to Chinese travellers who are considering a snow holiday for the first time, customers need the same quality of communications when they are actually there. There are resorts overseas that are already strong with WeChat mini-program use, such as Banff and Lake Louise – not only does this mean that they can give Chinese guidance on the resort, nearby tourism and ski safety, but the power of WeChat social CRM means that a mini-program can integrate loyalty programs, social sharing functions and much more.
Club Med: Leading ski industry strategy in China
Club Med is one brand that’s wise to the impending ski boom, building new resorts and partnering with renowned French ski school Ecole du ski Francais (ESF) at their resorts in China.
We spoke to Sebastien Portes, General Manager Hong Kong & Taiwan and Strategic Director Mountain Asia at Club Med, to learn more about Club Med’s China strategy.
What can you tell us about how your China strategy has developed over the last several years?
While China was far from the top ten market just 5 years ago, it is now the 8th biggest in the world with 20 million visits per year. It is rising due to different factors; of course mainly government support and massive investment in the infrastructure and promotion – they are even promoting skiing in schools.
Yet while the short-term growth will boom, the question is what will happen after the 2022 Olympics. What we are doing now is to reinforce the foundations of skiing in China – ensuring quality infrastructure so that the customer will come back. We need to ensure qualitative growth.
Currently there are around 750 ski resorts in China, 95% of which are small venues, close to big cities where visitors go for 2-3 hours only. If the quality of the venue – the facilities and everything – is not good, and the ski instruction is not good, they are very unlikely to return. More than half of the ski instructors in such places don’t even have the right certification and barely any real ski experience.
Therefore, Club Med is focusing on our mission to improve this entire experience.
We have partnered with the biggest ski school in the world, the French ski school ESF, starting with ski venues in Beijing and Chongqing, where there are properties closer to urban or residential areas. We work as consultants for the existing ski schools on these small domains to raise the level of instruction and train with French teaching methods. This goes far beyond our core business but it’s what we believe will improve the first ski experience and create loyalty.
For the customer that wants to travel in China for a ski holiday – the 2-3%, more affluent segment of the population – we are developing new properties: Club Med Yabuli opened in 2011, Cub Med Beidahu opened in 2017 and we will open Club Med Thaiwoo in 2021. Our instructors are trained by ESF and the holiday experience is also more diversified – not only skiing but also sledges, snow walks, and a variety of different snow activities suitable for a 4-5 night stay.
For the real niche – existing ski lovers in China – we think their passion will be reinforced by a long-haul business. We are developing the flow from China to Europe – 20 ski resorts in French, Italian and Swiss Alps. The quality of everything is really, really top and we can develop a true ‘addiction’ to skiing. This prepares us for the future of the market as a 5+ year plan – and then on from Europe to Canada and Northern America.
How do you need to take care of Chinese guests relative to those from elsewhere? What have you found to be distinctive requirements/expectations?
There are a lot of adaptations needed. Usually in Club Med, the stays are fixed at 7 nights long. This gives them 6 full days of skiing. The whole season has been structured in this way before, but this is not suitable for a Chinese guest as they like to visit new places, go shopping in Paris or Milan and so on – and so we created special short stays for the Chinese traveler. In three of the resorts in the Alps we have 3 or 4 night stay options to give more flexibility and a ‘lighter’ program to the Chinese travellers who want city stays and so on in Europe.
Within the properties, of course we have many Chinese hotel staff in key areas – reception and so on, but also Chinese chefs to make sure that the Chinese food options – at all times of the day – are authentic. We also ensure that Chinese staff are in the kids club so that they can take care of the children in Mandarin. That’s the HR pillar.
In terms of services and amenities, we also fully customise the amenities in the rooms. Also, the resort apps are integrated within WeChat so that Chinese guests can navigate the resort information, schedule activities and so on, all in WeChat as they prefer.
What have been some of the most successful messages or communications that have hit the right target consumer?
The starting point is to use the ski schools to speak to the beginner. Then, there is a strategy for us to capture the flow of Chinese skiers at different levels. You can’t expect that the Chinese ski traveller will immediately go to the resorts in Europe with the highest quality facilities. It is more realistic that the more accessible ski properties near Chinese cities – where we have the French training school collaboration – will prompt visits within China, which will then cause visitation to the resorts nearby – South Korea and Japan. We already have two in Northern Japan and are planning to open in South Korea after a couple of years. After their Asian visit, the ski lovers will then look into Europe and Northern America.
This strategy ensures that we are providing a foundation for ski lovers and looking beyond 2022 to build a qualitative infrastructure and industry. This is crucial to do in China, as the western demographics are skiing less and less over time, so the Chinese market is key to supporting the ski industry globally.
Photo credit: wh-china.com
To discover consumer insights into the affluent Chinese traveller, find our China Insight Report here.