A peek into future travel

Travel giant Trip.com is at the forefront of China’s travel recovery, and has aligned its products according to new trends in domestic tourism. CEO Jane Sun tells Pamela Chow what global players can learn from the market’s revival

How is China’s tourism industry recovering?
China is currently recovering well, with cases of Covid-19 declining daily. While the country is still on alert, we’re already seeing many local municipalities rolling out measures to bolster recovery of the tourism industry.

We believe that the coronavirus has not dented the healthy fundamentals of China’s travel market, and travel restrictions have in fact led to the redirection of demand from outbound travel to domestic tourism, breathing new life into the domestic market.

How strong is the appetite for travel among the Chinese?
People have been eager to start travelling again, as we discovered in a survey in March, which showed that 40 per cent of respondents regularly followed travel and promotions, and 10 per cent of them bought some kind of special promotion.

Travellers are most concerned about safety, with respondents identifying safety as one of their main considerations when choosing a destination, along with the availability of discounts and other benefits.

What encouraging trends in domestic travel are you spotting?
It appears that the pandemic is driving the trend away from large tour groups domestically. Short- to medium-sized domestic tours are thriving best, with small groups already travelling within China.

Due to travel restrictions and events of the past few months, we’ve seen a heightened awareness of safety among travellers, who are opting for smaller, private and local tours.

Over the recent May Day holiday, for example, we saw a sharp increase in the demand for three- to four-day local tours with three to six participants. Local tour guides have also increased in popularity, with total reservation numbers tripling month-on-month.

Car rentals have risen in popularity, with a 10 per cent year-on-year growth during the May Day holiday, as travellers seek privacy, cleanliness and freedom in transportation.

Younger travellers accounted for more than half of the bookings for that period, emerging as the driving force in the industry recovery. We’ve responded to this by introducing youthful new ways of booking travel, such as our live broadcast series, which has achieved more than US$80 million in sales to date.

Is this interest sustainable?
In line with the resurgence in travel we’ve observed over these past few months, we expect October to be a peak month as the National Day holiday season approaches.

Through our joint Travel Trends Report with Google, we’ve also found that interest in shorthaul travel is quickly developing and that in addition to safety, flexibility is the foremost consideration in planning future travel.

What lessons from catering to the new domestic travel needs will come in handy in readying for future outbound travel?
Building on a new model that has achieved great results in a number of pilot markets, we’ve introduced a whole new way to travel (through our Travel On initiative), with a global series of in-destination livestream broadcasts offering further discounts to viewers. We’re confident that our customers (across) the world will love this new way of travelling too.

It’s also key for our industry to rebuild confidence among travellers, so that when it does become possible to travel, they’ll feel safe doing so. (Through the our Travel On initiative), we’ve brought the industry together to do just that.

What has Trip.com changed in its strategies to adapt to these new booking patterns?
We’ve (created) a Flexibooking guarantee, allowing travellers to start making plans without feeling tied down during this time of uncertainty.

To inspire and incentivise travellers, we’ve also launched an international Travel On Sale, giving customers access to discounts on flexible advance reservations.

We believe that Asia is well-placed for a travel recovery, and the measures for safety and flexibility offer customers the assurance they need to start planning for the next trip and travel on.

Many tourism players are also dangling free cancellations and flexible bookings to retain customer confidence. Is this strategy enough?
From as early as January, we’d implemented cancellation provisions for individuals directly and unavoidably affected by the outbreak. We also launched a Covid-19 Travellers’ Guide on our website to provide a one-stop information source to make planning travel safer and easier.

On the page, users have access to a suite of tools, information and news, including up-to-date immigration policies, cancellation provisions, updates on relief efforts and statistics on the state of the global pandemic.

As the world starts travelling again, customers will be looking to providers they trust.

The pandemic has also elevated the necessity of innovative digital campaigns. How successful has Trip.com been with this?
Our series of in-destination live-streams was conceived in response to this, and has been a hit with our users, creating demand, excitement and anticipation around tourism, even before travel had begun to open up.

In one of our recent in-destination livestreams, our chairman James Liang introduced a range of advanced-booking deals on local properties, netting over US$2.8 million in the hour-long session and attracting 1.15 million viewers.

Our app provides various digital solutions to assist with social distancing. In addition to our staggered online reservation system for destinations and cultural attractions, it also provides a virtual guide, which enables visitors to access guided tours of scenic attractions without the need for a physical guide.

Digital innovations will continue to play a key role as borders around the world cautiously open to international travel, and we continue to explore new ways of using these tools.

What makes livestreams work so well? What makes it so appealing to the Chinese – and consumers in general now – and how can tourism be transformed by livestream shopping?
This pandemic has left a lasting impact on consumers, and while travellers are more comfortable with a contactless experience, they still crave a sense of interaction.

With livestreaming, users get the best of both worlds. Consumers are able to communicate with the sellers with real-time feedback, and see the world from the comfort of their homes at a time when it would otherwise be impossible to do so. I think this is an important factor in the success of our new livestream sales model.

It is crucial that we remain in touch with consumers, and continue to provide solutions and products that improve every aspect of the travel experience, from the moment they open our app to book their travel, to after their return.

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