China Ready – a case study

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China Ready for Tourism, what does it really mean? with Deanna Varga from Australian National Maritime Museum

Welcome to Tourism Upgrade the podcast unpacking marketing trends from travel, tourism and marketing leaders. I’m your host HollyG and today we welcome Deanna Varga, Assistant Director of Commercial and Visitor Services at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Today on the podcast we will be discussing what does China Ready mean for tourism operators.

China Ready for Tourism Deanna Varga

Holly G: Look forward to talking China Ready but first can you give us a little brief overview of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Deanna V: We’re located in Darling Harbour right opposite Sydney Aquarium or it’s called Sea Life now and just under Pyrmont Bay. We are a Federal Government Cultural Institution, the only institution outside of Canberra that is federally government funded. And my role is to really try and generate the self-generated funding but we attract over half a million visitors per year. And the purpose of the museum is really about Australia’s relationship to water. So, it’s all things maritime from the Navy to Indigenous to play for kids.

Holly G: So, you identified the need to grow visitation from different markets at some point and you decided to target international and specifically China. Why would those markets identified as good ones to target for you?

Deanna V: Well firstly, when I started at the Museum which is coming up to three years ago, international visitation was 19%. And given Darling Harbour is the No. 2 I think, it rates between No. 2 and No. 3 attraction for international visitors, I thought that was quite low. And given the attractions around Darling Harbour have quite a high international visitation; I thought we had an untapped market there. Secondly, with the construction of the ICC Sydney and also the pulling down of the Monorail linked to the ICC Sydney, we really needed to look at ways to drive visitation that was not going to be impacted by construction. And one of those markets is international tourism. So, that’s international tourism broadly then, why China? Well, China was growing and it’s growing as we all know significantly for Australia and looking at our numbers the Chinese market are also quite low. But, we knew that we had a product that the Chinese were interested in, particularly the HMB Endeavour which is an exact replica of Captain Cook’s vessel and that was the starting point really.

Holly G: So, we know that the China market is huge and I’ve spoken about this in podcast in the past and there are lots of different segments. So, I’m always a little bit reluctant to just say the China market. Was there a segment within the China market that you were specifically aiming to attract?

Deanna V: Well, firstly, because I have a business events background and we weren’t doing anything in the incentive space and I knew the potential of the incentive market. And I had seen that attractions like Luna Park, Sea Life and obviously Bridge Climb, were securing these larger incentives and I didn’t understand why we weren’t. One of the reasons was we didn’t have the skill set in the museum at the time. So, the incentive market was the first market. The second market was the FIT, but the FIT is a flow-on effect or a nice to have as a flow-on effect but really the group’s market, because again going back to your first question of how do we or why did we have this strategy, groups are actually a kind of security in terms of we know when they’re coming and how many are coming.

Holly G: Yeah, sure. And have you found through your experience in general business events it’s great to go for that business events market’s first and then FIT comes from that, like it’s a good sort of base?

Deanna V: Actually it was the other way around. We needed to find out whether we had a product that was of interest to the Chinese market. So, when we started it, it was really a bit more gut feel then and it was a question, why don’t we have a lot? Why are we only 19% international visitation? That doesn’t make sense. Just given some basic parameters of we’re waterfront, we’re an attraction, we’re iconic, and we’ve got some incredible things you can’t do anywhere else in the world, so all of those reasons. So, the first step was to actually identify if we were a product that the Chinese in particular or which markets internationally would be interested in us.

China Ready Tourism Upgrade

Holly G: Yeah, sure. So, I guess yeah how did you do that or what happened then?

Deanna V: So, I did some exploration with some market contacts, some industry contacts just to test the waters with some inbound operators as well to test the water on their gut feel of do we have a product that’s of interest.

Holly G: Yes, so looking at those within the industry who are working in this market.

Deanna V: Yes! And when I got enough Yes’s, obviously that’s the answer I wanted, we then went to tender, us being government we need to go out for public offer. So, we went out to a broad range of companies who do representation and invited them to come and represent us. And so, we engaged someone or a company that had strong experience in the Asian market not just China.

Holly G: Yeah, great. So, I guess taking a step back before you can start marketing into China. Was there certain step that you have to do in terms of the product and the service with your staff and on the ground there to get it ready for China?

Deanna V: 100%! So, there’s a whole range of things we’ve implemented over a 2 year time frame. One of them is, we have a very large volunteer pool. So, over 430 volunteers in our Sydney attraction. And what we did was proactively, because we knew that in order for our product to have value it needed interpretation in Chinese. So, we did a proactive campaign with Union Pay to try and target Chinese speaking people who live here and we attracted over 20 Chinese speaking volunteers both Mandarin and Cantonese.

Our front of house services are by an outsourced provider, so we then worked with them to make sure that we had people at the front counter who could speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. On an average week we have one person at any one time but that’s still a little bit in its infancy and we’re looking to grow that with them.

The third part was our retail. So, food and beverage is also outsourced and they actually have two staff who speak more than just Chinese and Mandarin, multiple dialects of Chinese. And then with retail we also recruited proactively to have a Chinese speaker. And now we’re at the point where we have a Chinese speaker on site every day. And as part of the Assistant Retail Manager role which we just recruited and appointed, a key requirement was that they spoke and could write Chinese.

The Chinese speaking guides have been key in enhancing the visitor experience by being able to identify in broad terms, the ways in which we should be presenting our museum and its stories.

Holly G: Yeah, right. So, it is really that shift on lots of levels. So, did you have Union Pay before and what sort of the connection there or importance there?

Deanna V: Well actually, we we’re in the process of changing our bank. And at the time Commonwealth Bank was the only bank that had a partnership with Union Pay. It certainly wasn’t a reason for a partnership with Commonwealth Bank but it made it very attractive. So, through our relationship with Commonwealth Bank, they opened up the door with us with Union Pay. And I had been to a TTF forum where I heard and I forgot his name, the head of Westfield, spoke about just putting up a Union Pay sign and the opportunity that Union Pay has. And through my own professional development, I’ve heard this again and again. So, that was a critical part in the early stages of putting up signs of Union Pay because it means to Chinese people who; actually it’s broader than China, they recognize that we are effectively Union Pay friendly.

Holly G: And it’s almost like a welcome symbol, isn’t it?

Deanna V: Correct! Shopping is really important to the Chinese and particularly the China is. And we can unpack that to say it’s important to all Asians which it is, so people from Hong Kong or Singapore but particularly the Chinese.

Holly G: Okay. Is their insight into that, into why shopping is so important for that market?

Deanna V: Look, I don’t know, I mean I certainly couldn’t comment, I’m not an expert. I’ve certainly got a lot of anecdotal feedback and certainly from our experience with holding a, we held Nuskin China, actually it was Nuskin China, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong, they’re four countries essentially.

Holly G: Some massive incentive.

Deanna V: Massive incentive! Almost 4,000 delegates for us, it was across 5 days. And they spent an absolute fortune in a very short time frame. And they spend a fortune; 1 – because we researched what we’re going to be the products that they would buy. We we’re right on some, wrong on others. But some of the key things were Australian made that there was a good souvenir factor. Some we’re buying very high-end, others were buying high volume but low end. So, it was a really interesting learning experience for us.

Holly G: Yeah! And I guess with those things you know, when you’re starting with this market you observe and you learn and then you change things up for next time.

Deanna V: Well, our retail manager actually went and did some very thorough research, actually the retail team. We asked other cultural institutions, what are the Chinese buying. We then looked at; actually he and his team went to Duty free stores around Darling Harbour and in Sydney and said what are the Chinese buying. And so we did a very concerted effort to make sure that the product was right. And when the delegates we’re on site we created a pop-up shop just for them.

Holly G: So, if other tourism operators are thinking about going into or trying to attract the China market. I guess from your experience what are some of the key learning’s or requirements to be China ready?

Deanna V: Do your research, do your research firstly, there are some very reputable companies like China Ready headed by John King, that I would and in fact we haven’t actually partnered with them. But if you’ve got no experience or insight I would certainly go down that path because I guess I worked at Tourism Australia and Business Events Sydney, I had some level of insight and I had connections to help me. So, I think the starting point is doing your research.

Holly G: Yeah and I guess that’s involves talking to those in the industry that are doing it already and who have a lot of experience in that space.

Deanna V: And Destination New South Wales has been incredibly supportive both in-market managers as well as here in Sydney. And I guess for us, I continually asked is this going to work, what do you need from us, how do I make this better for next time.

Holly G: And being open to that feedback..?

Deanna V: That’s true. I think one of the biggest challenges for us was that we didn’t have a China ready product. And when we opened Action Stations in November 2015, it was a last-minute move to interpret that whole building into Chinese and that was part of our strategy. And why I say it was last minute, it was because it wasn’t part of the initial plan. You know, that was an 18-month project and it wasn’t part of the scope. But because our strategy had moved to really focus on China, by the time we opened it, it was fully interpreted. Now, the next stage is, there is a film and there’s two films as part of that experience. Now, they don’t have subtitles, as our learning from the Nu Skin group and other Chinese visitors, we now need to put those subtitles on the screen.

Holly G: Yeah! So, it’s those little things consistently. So, the products are ready, we’ve got interpretation, staff are trained up or there’s Chinese speaking staff and a lot of other things that you’ve mentioned. I guess you’ve decided to go with a representation agency rather than hiring internally. How does that work and how do you track the value of a representation agency.

Deanne V: It’s a very good question. We did, we have actually recruited internally. We do have one staff member; she’s 60% tourism, 40% marketing. The decision to go with a representation agency was again because of that expertise. So, we had to with the changes in Darling Harbour, we had to make some very significant changes very quickly. So, how do we track the success? One is, one of the key KPI’s – so we say KPI’s for the agency and they are on a two-year contract but a one plus one. If they didn’t perform in year one we would go out to the market again. Some of the key KPI’s that we set work, because we knew it’s the agency’s responsibility is to bring them to us. The agency’s responsibility is not to sell them tickets.

So, that’s a very clear distinction, it’s our responsibility to convert them and when I say them it’s the inbound agents or the wholesalers, the people who are going to sell the product. And so, what we needed the agency to do was give us opportunities to make that happen. And that’s the same with how we’ve used Tourism Australia or in the NSW, they need to bring the agents to us but then once they’re on our precinct it’s our responsibility. And that’s where the difference between the agency and a tourism person. So, the agency brings the agents to us, we run the formal program on site and the tourism person runs the program on site and not always sometimes the agency does it for us because we are resource short. And then it’s up to us to give them a product that they will convert to sales. So, one of the measures was how many qualified buyers did they bring on site. And now we can see that over two years our Chinese market has grown significantly and is now sitting at No.3.

Holly G: Were there any digital or social media activities used to target these markets?

Deanne V: It’s really interesting when we were on a sales mission in Shanghai, one of the briefing notes to the industry was – before you even exchanged business cards, scan then WeChat code. So, one of the comments across the three days was – all of you Aussie, you’re so into WeChat – but I still use that today and I was actually on WeChat a few years ago but not very active now I keep it a little bit more in tune with it. For the launch of Action Stations we actually did a .cn website and so we translated a good portion of the Action Stations which is kind of a microsite for the museum or for the new attraction. And it has a .cn link or its own independent and that was probably a case step for us and I still use that when I’m trying to communicate with the Chinese market in particular. We haven’t moved forward yet further on some of the broader opportunities with WeChat and with Weibo or Baidu within the Chinese market but it’s certainly on out radar as to where does that strategy go to next.

Holly G: Yeah! I guess that leads into the next question which is what is the future looking like for these markets, for the museum?

Deanna V: Yeah, that looks really interesting and one of the comments again from Tourism Australia and he actually made to me he said, “You know, your .cn website is really good Deanna but when you go to pay or buy a ticket you go back to the English side. You’ve got to rectify that.” And of course, that is logical but we didn’t think of it. So, there are lots of steps that we need to take where we’ll be speaking to people like Tourism Australia helped us make sure that our strategy is right. So, the next stage for us is, we need to continue recruiting Mandarin and Cantonese speakers. We are looking at a daily tour or starting with once a week to try. And get tourism language, certainly cultural awareness training. So, I mentioned we’ve got 400 volunteers, they’re an integral part of our English-speaking experience but what is the Chinese speaking experience or whatever language it might be. So, that’s critical, working with our outsourced providers, so that’s security, its front of house, it’s our catering partners to make sure that they’ve got people who are; if they’re not speaking a different language or Chinese or another language that they have a cultural awareness of what is required and sometimes it is as simple as a smile.

Holly G: I guess the whole organization, every level has to be on board to commit to being China ready, and would you agree with that?

Deanna V: Absolutely! And one of the things we are looking at doing is we’ve made a commitment as a museum, that moving forward all of our exhibitions will be in dual language. We’re also looking at how we make that Indigenous as well but certainly a dual language. The other challenge is how we make that not less friendly if you like to the non-Chinese speaking so that’s a really important challenge that we need to unpack.

Holly G: You know, by making these steps you’re saying that China has longevity, that this market is an important market now and will continue and it’s important.

Deanna V: Absolutely! And also for the Australian National Maritime Museum, the China Maritime story is also an important one. And so, there are lots of stories you know, immigration is a really important part of what we do. So, there’s the Chinese immigration story which is one part. There’s China’s connection to us from a migration level. And also, we are the second largest in water fleet in the world in terms of maritime museums. And my personal objective is to get a Chinese junk at the Museum because that would make quite a big statement and very interesting from an interpretation perspective.

Holly G: Great! So yeah, lots of things to keep pushing forward on. So, any final tips or comments in relation to being China ready and those maybe to do considering going down this path.

Deanna V: Look, I think it’s a really exciting market and it’s really good opportunity for museums. There are a couple of standouts like Sovereign Hill that have a really good program. MONA does some work in the space. In fact I haven’t been to Sovereign Hill but I’ve learned so much just about what they do and how they do this. So, I think the main tip is look at the space you’re operating in, see what’s happening there because that’s what I did from a museum perspective is there wasn’t actually a lot, hopefully I don’t offend any of the Sydney museums but there wasn’t a lot of proactive programs happening in the museum space in terms of being China ready. So I think, know your market and then do your research and when they come on site smile.


know your market, do your research and when they come on site smile
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Holly G: If people have any questions what would be the best way to connect with you?

Deanna V: I’m on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn; they’re really probably the easiest. There’s an Action Stations Museum website for the action stations build, it’s actionstations.sydney.cn for the Chinese version or the Maritime Museum website, anmm.gov.au

Now it’s time for our thousand dollar bonus question!

Holly G: If you only had a thousand dollar marketing budget, what would you spend it on?

Deanna V: Digital. I’m not sure what but definitely digital. Maybe something that could go viral, so you get the digital world to speak for you.

Holly G: Okay! And what about if you just had a hundred dollars?

Deanna V: I’d take 10 agents to the local Chinese and entertain them. 10 agents who have inbound business.

Holly G: Oh, that’s a good one! You could probably do that for a hundred bucks.

Deanna V: You could.

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