The Chinese are coming - on vacation
Selling Oregon is a fast moving target.
At least when it comes to China, a mega market that seems to make a quantum leap of development every three years.
Take the case of Thor's Well near Yachats.
"It's a reverse spouting horn. Someone on WeChat in China took a beautiful photo of it and it spread," said Greg Eckhart of Travel Oregon.
Suddenly, Chinese people were very interested in an obscure coastal feature — a hole that fills up with seawater. It's dangerous to stand next to and very hard to photograph, but China started loving it like a bacon maple doughnut.
It put Oregon on the map.
"We're very interested in those things because it drives demand for people to read about," Billie Moser, Travel Portland's vice president of international tourism, told the Business Tribune. She was sitting in a side room at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, which was home this week of the Active America China conference. Travel Portland does audits of social media to see how Oregon is being talked about around the world. "And we pay contractors to do social media, to know what's going on, what resonates, adds Moser."
The Active America China conference changes cities every year. It brings together "buyers" or tour operators from China with "sellers" from the U.S. and Canada — visitor associations touting their state, natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, and even airports like Dallas-Fort Worth keen to get some of the traffic from China to the east coast and Latin America. (For comparison, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has three direct flights from China a day. Portland doesn't have any, and probably won't unless executives start asking for them.)
Buyers be here
Getting the conference for a year was a coup for the locals, particularly Travel Portland and Travel Oregon. As hosts they entertained the 63 buyers who came from China, touring them around the state before and after the event. There were 50 interpreters on hand to help visitors understand what they were being sold.
There are plenty of middlemen. The "receptive operators" are Chinese-speaking firms based on the west coast who buy hotel rooms, tours, bus and plane seats, and resell them to tour operators and travel agencies in China.
"Visual images are becoming more important in China for marketing travel because almost everything is done on mobile devices," Jeffrey Hammerly told the Business Tribune. Hammerly is Travel Portland's Senior International Tourism and Communications Manager. He's seen the market change hugely just in the last three years. "They do everything on their phones, including mundane things like buy a cup of coffee. We just heard this morning that transactions are up to 80 percent done on mobile now in China."
Doughnuts and Flowers
He said there's been an explosion of bike sharing in China during the last few months, fuelled by the ability to pay for and check out a bike by mobile device.
The visitors had bus trips to Pittock Mansion, Saturday Market, lunch at Wong's King on Division, World of Speed, the tulip fields and Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden. (Washington County took them to Washington Square Mall and Ponzi Vineyards.) "We host them and we are obviously trying to impress them," said Billie Moser. "We are, number one, a driver of demand, we want people to want to come here. Then we are a facilitator," bringing tour operators and attractions together. "But if nobody wants to come here we have nothing to facilitate."
As Moser's colleagues take tour operators around, they are constantly showing them how attractions could be worked into a package tour. Everything is timed to the minute.
The conference is a mix of educational workshops and rapid-fire relationship building. Americans are hungry to learn about the middle class Chinese consumer.
On Monday, Moser had just sat in on a talk about mobile payments. The Chinese prefer it, but America is playing catch up.
"We heard about mobile payments and the millennial traveler, and what the good old days three years ago were like." Apparently, young Chinese travellers have been influenced by the 250,000 Chinese students who graduate from U.S. colleges every year and who return to the motherland full of stories. Younger travellers want to shop, yes, but they also want an authentic American experience, and that usually means connecting with nature. Seafood is also huge, which is good for Oregon.
Another trend is the Chinese are spending less time in large groups led by a tour guide. "Three years ago it was all groups, with a flag, you know," says Jake Steinman, the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based NAJ (North American Journeys) which put on the show. "Thousands of these groups, and they'd go shopping."
WeChat changed all that.
"Suddenly the social media platforms were sharing things, and these pictures appear in your feed, and now you want to go. They have translation on their phone, payment on their phone, the (U.S.) restaurants put their menu on the phone with pictures and caption. That's considered China-friendly."
Steinman called Travel Oregon and Portland "the most accommodating of any travel organization," because they promote the local amenities and train people how to be more China-friendly. "Hotels offering free wi-fi and slippers: inexpensive ways to please the Chinese, because they know it will be picked up on social media."
The older Chinese traveler with money is being joined by the more adventurous millennial Chinese, interested in renting a car and a guide. These are called Hi-Guides, a sort of Uber for tour guides: Mandarin-speaking American-based guides. Everyone is rating one another and using secure payment.
Soft adventure in a safe space
It's adventure, but only up to a point. "Portland is perceived as a safe, urban destination," Steinman says, in comparison to other American cities.
Under Obama, U.S.-China tourist visas, which allow for 90-day stays, extended their lives from two years to 10. That has increased the numbers coming here, as well as the general rise in income for Chinese and its growing middle class.
For Chinese people, travel is also about betterment. Gaining firsthand knowledge of the world is something to add to the resume, and Chinese parents are very proud to have a child at a U.S. college, Eckhart said.
The U.S. Travel Association has its own show that targets the rest of the world, but this show, which used to be focused on Japan, has been about China for the last nine years.
Clearly, Oregon tourism is banking on Asia. Japan is Portland's number one overseas destination, but China is the rest of Oregon's.
The social media contractors made a scavenger hunt game on WeChat for the buyers to play as they tour here. WeChat now has 750 million people on it. It's China's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and payment system all rolled into one. Search is not very good, so people use QR codes to exchange contact information.
Backpacks of vitamins
"They are really into soft adventure, which is going on a day hike without a backpack, says Steinman"
And they love vitamin stores like GNC. "They stock up because they don't trust the stuff back home. And they're also shopping for mid-market goods, like Nike, not just luxury goods."
Steinman met a man from Key West who had no idea why he was suddenly getting business from Chinese tourists. He runs a fish distribution company and a fish restaurant, and has demonstration days on how fish are cleaned and cooked.
"He's getting it from these (Chinese) social media platforms, because someone went down there and said 'There is nowhere like this in the world.'"
Jeff Laventall is the owner of CNify which helps U.S. brands get established in China. He was working the conference with his partner Alex Lim, who speaks Mandarin. Lim is founder of Explore Oregon, which uses a group of writers, bloggers and videographers to write in Chinese about Oregon's attractions.
The work gets pumped out in the simplified Mandarin that is common on WeChat, which Lim compares to Facebook Messenger.
"WeChat is China's version of Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Pinterest and Tinder all in one," says Laventall. (Some of those are blocked in China anyway.) "People use it for almost everything, especially travel, to book and pay."
At 750 million users, it's bigger than Europe.
Lim treats the WeChat channel more like putting out a magazine, with layout and photography challenges and five to seven minute read articles. It's all about catching the eye and triggering the imagination, enough to make someone want to get on a plane.
"We're reacting to how the market is evolving, and contributing to that evolution," says Laventall. "We're trying to find models for the rest of the U.S., but Oregon has a lot to offer."