Business, Finance & Economics

Massachusetts Looks East to Lure Chinese Tourists

It's no surprise that Chinese visitors come to New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Those are their top three American destinations. Then there's the next tier — places like Boston. Chinese visitors come here primarily to see Harvard and MIT. Then they leave.

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Local businesses would like them to stay a bit longer. There's a simple reason. Jolin Zhou with the Boston-based Chinese tour operator Sunshine Travel told a story of a Chinese man who was recently visiting Boston with his teenage son on a college scouting trip.

"One day he asked my co-worker: 'Can you recommend a meal, a good restaurant, and bring me there? The best restaurant in Boston, no matter how expensive.' My co-worker brought him to a restaurant. They spent $1000 for two of them for dinner."

Zhou told this story to about 75 businesspeople working in the hospitality industry at the State House in Boston. They were gathered for a tourism workshop, hosted by The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, geared at attracting Chinese visitors.

The state of Massachusetts is following the lead of states like California, which has developed a "China Ready" program. They offer a learning kit to teach California businesses how to be better serve Chinese tourists and understand Chinese culture.

China has a middle class of some 300 million people, and more and more of them are travelling internationally. Travelers from China rank ninth in terms of foreign visitors to the United States, but they're the fastest growing group by far. And they're the third biggest spenders when they travel internationally, only behind the Germans and the Americans.

At the Massachusetts State House, people like Evan Saunders were offering local businesses advice on how to tap into those Chinese wallets. Saunders is the CEO of "Attract China," a start-up that helps American businesses, like hotels and restaurants, get noticed online in China.

One of Saunders' clients is the popular Boston restaurant, Legal Sea Foods.

Saunders said the word 'legal,' when associated with a restaurant, can be confusing for Chinese people. He said they market tested it and people in China thought legal meant, "maybe a government-associated company, that is involved in making sure people go to jail if they're not serving the right things."

Not exactly the image you want for your seafood restaurant.

Saunders is trying to correct that by branding Legal Sea Foods in China as "America's Best Sea Food Destination." He's also making his client visible on the Chinese version of Google, where they're more likely to be seen.

Haybina Hao, who is originally from China and now works with the National Tour Association in Kentucky, said it's often the little things that resonate with foreign visitors. For example, Chinese people like soy milk in the morning, and they don't like it served cold.

"So use a microwave, if possible. You can use glass, you can use a little mug to wake them up," Hao told the people at the seminar in Boston. "They will be so happy for their hot milk."

And Hao added, put disposable slippers in hotel rooms. "That really makes them feel great, just like home."

Of course, everybody likes to feel catered to when they travel, no matter where they're from. Americans have long expected the option of American-style food when we travel abroad, and that most everybody will speak at least some English.

David Ritchie, who directs sales and marketing for the Omni Parker House hotel in Boston, came to the State House to learn how to attract more Chinese travelers. He said he already knew about the slippers. However, he says "I didn't realize how important milk and different little things (are) that probably would make a difference to people when they're staying."

But Ritchie said he can't do too much more to cater to a specific group of visitors. For example, a few speakers suggested making Chinese food available at hotels. Ritchie balked at that.

"We invented the Boston crème pie, so we are the American iconic culinary institution," Ritchie said. "I think we're staying with our concept, I think it works."

That's the right strategy, said Donna Quadri, a professor of hospitality and tourism at NYU. She said touches like slippers for Asian travelers or tea for British visitors are nice, but you don't want to be something you're not.

"Travelers really want the authentic experience. When my cousins from Italy come to New York, you know what they want? They want steak and potatoes, right? They want an American hamburger from a neighborhood tavern. They want things that are quintessentially American," said Quadri.

Quadri said it's a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about what international visitors are looking for when they travel. But she said one thing everyone appreciates is hotel staff or guides who speak your language.

Jackie Ennis with the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism emphasized that point. "If 700 Chinese visitors show up on your doorstep for a museum tour, and you don't have a Mandarin speaking guide, it could be a little awkward."

But that's something that each hotel or restaurant has to do on its own. Many people I met at the State House in Boston said they're exploring things like Chinese menus or interpreters, but they aren't quite ready to commit.

They'd better get moving. The US Department of Commerce projects the number of Chinese visitors coming to the US to nearly double within three years.