Russell Flannery, senior editor and the Shanghai bureau chief of Forbes, recently spoke with China online travel leader Ctrip International CEO Jane Sun about the growing influence of younger travelers and the celebrities they follow, a group frequently dubbed "key opinion leaders" or KOLs in China. Sun, a member of Forbes Asia's new list of 25 rising businesswomen in Asia, also discussed the role of virtual reality in promoting travel destinations and the outlook for China’s big economy hotel chains.
Q. What impact are travelers born after 1990 having on the travel industry?
A. Their travel habits are quite different. The older generation prefers to travel in a group, particularly when they go abroad, because their English probably is not as good as the younger generation's. Also, when you go abroad, being together provides a certain safety.
But the young generation is very sophisticated. Their English is very good. They’ve travelled with their parents since they were young, so going abroad isn’t a challenge for them. We need to offer frequent independent traveler packages to them – it’s much more flexible than a group tour.
Q. China now has millions of relatively small, start-up digital media (called zimeiti). How is their growth affecting the travel industry?
A. Zimeiti have become very popular -- people get more up-to-date information about where others are traveling. So zimeiti and media have become very popular in terms of directing traffic and providing information to our consumers.
Q. How are KOLs and young stars affecting advertising in China?
A.Our strategy is to have KOLs that represent different perspectives. Today, 50% of our customers are business travelers, so we need KOLs (tied to) business travelers to say, “Ok, why do I use Ctrip? Because it's reliable, it has good services, and excellent coverage.” We also need the young generation on the leisure segment, and their points are very different from these KOLs. One KOL we have is Pan Shiyi, Soho’s chairman, but we also have movie stars from the 90s generation. There are very different perspectives to attract different customers.
Q. “Ready Player One” has been a hit movie in the U.S. and China, and virtual travel plays a big part, especially in the book. What’s ahead for VR in promoting the travel industry?
A.If you make the destination very attractive in the virtual world, in my mind, more people will go and visit these areas. So we're positive on that. We’re exploring how to present that. Is VR the best choice? Is the AR the best choice? Or is live streaming the best choice? We test (these) on our website and we monitor that.
Q. When Ctrip got started, economy hotels were a popular growth industry in China. Now, we're talking about growth among younger people that as you say have different tastes than elders. How does that affect your investment strategy for hotels?
A. We started Home Inns and we also invested in China Lodging. The chain hotels have evolved. They're moving more upward because GDP per capita is increasing. Because we’re an investor for these chain hotels, we obviously will grow with them as well.
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