Airlines Taking Creative Approaches To Cater To Chinese Market

Number of Travelers Increasing More Rapidly In China And Other Emerging Economies; Carriers Taking Localized Approaches To Woo Passengers

The number of Chinese air travelers has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Graphic © Brand Channel

The number of Chinese air travelers has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Graphic © Brand Channel

Although the air travel industry has reported grim figures over the last year — with Asia-Pacific airlines taking the biggest hit overall — industry insiders report continued growth in the Chinese market, particularly from business travelers. To reach this lucrative group, airlines have taken unique approaches to branding and service in the Mainland, with carriers like Finnair and Emirates, along with domestic carriers, reaching out to Chinese travelers through culturally-relevant approaches.

Brand Channel recently posted a feature that looked into what successful airlines are doing correctly in the Chinese market (and the reasons why others are failing to make a connection with Chinese consumers). As the article points out, outreach can range from simple changes like ensuring crewmembers can speak Mandarin, English, and regional dialects to more dedicated personal services that Chinese consumers may find more important than their non-Chinese counterparts. With more Chinese passengers flying domestically as well as overseas, this type of article is essential reading for airlines — or any other companies — which are looking for proven techniques for attracting Chinese customers.

During the past three years, Chinese business travelers rose from being essentially non-existent to fourth on a top-ten list of flight markets compiled by airline brand Air France-KLM. At a time when passenger numbers are falling worldwide, the Chinese market for business travel has taken a relatively soft hit, says online travel market publication Travel Daily executive editor, Eva He.

With China’s economic slowdown expected to reverse tack and regain momentum near the end of 2010, knowing how to cater to Chinese travelers is key, says Mark Arxhoek, Air France-KLM’s regional commercial director for Greater China. This new class of travelers often has different demands than Western business travelers.

Onboard comfort, outstanding human relationships, services and facilities are the focus for Chinese business travelers, he says. They want carrier brands that deliver “a strong feeling of comfort and a memorable travel experience.”

Chinese business travelers are often wooed by highly personalized services that denote status. Local brand China Southern, for example, has introduced the High-End Customer Service System, where the airline records information such as seat, food or magazine preference so its premium customers don’t need to wait in line to check in, He says.

Derek Huang, a 36-year-old television producer who routinely flies between China and California, says that though price is a factor, he also considers in-flight services when choosing a specific airline brand.

“Air China consistently provides better food and beverage services [than other airline brands],” Huang says. He contrasts Air China’s services with American carrier Northwest Airlines, whose in-flight staff hand out small servings of instant noodles as meals. But Huang is more likely to open his wallet for brands that pay attention to details, like Emirates Airlines, which paints starry night skies on the inside of its cabins.

Chinese passengers also value Mandarin-speaking staff that can help fill out customs forms, provide information, or help with hotel reservations and transportation. Given China’s size and linguistic diversity, sometimes Mandarin is not enough. Finnair ensures there are at least two cabin crewmembers on each flight originating out of China who are familiar with the departure region’s local dialect in addition to Mandarin.

Helsinki Vantaa Airport, Finnair’s main hub, was the first airline brand in Europe to introduce Chinese signs and Mandarin-speaking staff to greet passengers arriving from China. Last October, Air France-KLM followed suit, introducing the Focus on China project, a major initiative aimed at tailoring in-flight services and training cabin crews and airport staff to better meet the expectations of Chinese consumers.

The article goes on to give the definitive word about the competitive airline business in China, which is to say that the only carriers who will succeed in this lucrative but difficult market are those that learn the lessons of failed carriers and adjust their branding and marketing approach suitably. For established carriers, though, their greatest asset may be their experience:

Perhaps only seasoned airline brands can survive such a complex industry during such a complex time in a country as complex as China. Regardless, the challenges for both domestic and international airline brands in China also present undeniable opportunities—and airline brands must learn to connect with Chinese customers before Chinese customers will connect with flights.

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