With around 300 million registered users, Ctrip has accumulated a high volume of data and insights which can be used by global destinations looking to market their appeal to Ctrip’s audience.
Ctrip set up its destination marketing unit in early 2013 to serve destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and tourist attractions in China and overseas through its diversified marketing solutions.
Jenna Qian, Ctrip’s general manager of destination marketing, said:
“The company is not only growing its own technologies for destination marketing, but also exploring cross-platform strategies by partnering with internet giants including WeChat and Google.
Compared with mass media websites such as the New York Times or the People’s Daily which draw a general audience, vertical platforms such as the OTA giants Ctrip, Priceline Group and Expedia Inc attract an audience that demonstrate a clearer intent to purchase travel services. But through user profiling techniques, the mass media and vertical platforms can still offer synergies.
Ctrip has extended its marketing reach from its own website, app and portfolio buisnesses Qunar and eLong. It now works with external online platforms such as Weibo and WeChat and is also tapping into its own offline presence. With such diverse channels, the company claims a unique advantage in its ability to develop truly multi-channel marketing solutions for global destinations.
“We have formed in-depth cooperation with major internet platforms such as Weibo, Tencent and Google, integrating Ctrip’s big data with cross-platform user traffic to conduct targeted advertising.”
Ctrip provides destinations with precise advertising placement on WeChat’s “Moments” channel, similar to Facebook’s timeline. For example, the company targets Ctrip users that have looked for travel deals of an identified destination or have searched for relevant offerings in the past month, and delivers the destination’s advertisement to the targeted group on WeChat to improve the conversion rate.
It has rolled out this targeted marketing service for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, Tourism Ireland among others, receiving more than 500,000 impressions (the number of times the ads were on screen) in 10 days for one campaign, according to Qian. The campaign performance was measured by not just specific quantitative metrics such as exposure, impressions, conversion and reservations, but also qualitative concepts such as brand enhancement and project implementation.
In addition to precise targeting tactics, Qian said that Ctrip also makes use of “alternative destinations” to boost online conversion. The company tags the users that show willingness to visit Southeast Asia during winter time as potential customers that might be interested in booking trips to Australia, for instance.
Ctrip’s brick-and-mortar presence can also help strengthen brand awareness for global destinations. it is aiming to have a network of more than 6,500 offline stores in China through its Traveling Bestone brand.
“This enables Ctrip to integrate its online and offline resources…It’s still a long runway for the online travel sector. Other than top-tier cities, people in lower-tier markets also present great potential for travel consumption in the future.”
Marketing aided by products and data
Destination marketing is not a one-off undertaking but a long-term endeavor to attract tourists throughout the entire process encompassing travel inspiration, itinerary planning and product combination. It can be used to acquire new customers and retain existing ones.
In terms of products, Ctrip works with DMOs in identifying a destination’s local characteristics and curating diversified and personalized offerings which appeal to a segment of Chinese tourists. Ctrip is currently working with the tourism office of Guizhou to promote the southwestern Chinese province’s “mountain travel”.
“Many of China’s fledgling destinations, if compared with the mature tourist cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, have greater room for product development breakthroughs…We want to help them design tour offerings that are more appealing to the millennial travelers.”
Travel destinations in relatively remote areas may not have adequate transport services such as flights, trains and local transport, adding hurdles to the growth of their tourist arrivals. Ctrip leverages its local resources by linking up multimodal transport solutions, and combining transport with hotel accommodation and attraction tickets, to help the destinations attract more visitors.
The company also provides the Guiyang tourism board with its big data API, which visualizes Ctrip’s real-time orders by domestic and international destinations and displaying top 10 destinations and attractions in specific area.
The big data visualization can help DMOs learn more about the demographics of their source markets, so that they can improve service and predict the status of hotel reservations and attraction bookings during major holiday peaks such as the Golden Week national holiday.
Two-way street for Ctrip and destinations
The very essence of an agency is to “provide a particular service on behalf of another business, person, or group”. Qian said that what Ctrip is trying to do on destination marketing is to make effective matching between travelers from the demand side and destinations from the supply side, thus improving market efficiency.
As a full-service travel booking platform it can work with DMOs to not only increase their brand awareness but also grow its own booking revenues.
The power of travel inspiration rarely ends when people start to browse booking websites. Some 54% of the users visiting Expedia sites are undecided as to where they want to go, presenting the OTA a huge opportunity for influencing destination choices. A similar opportunity is also emerging for Ctrip.
In a survey commissioned by Expedia Media Solutions this year sampling more than 8,000 online travel consumers worldwide, the Chinese respondents are particularly open to destination inspiration, with 75% of them expressed the need for help in deciding where to travel to.
Reflections on destinations
Despite great potential in the destination business, Ctrip also faces unpredictable external risks in the sector.
Destination marketing is rarely a matter of just commercial activities. As the convention and visitor bureaus are usually associated with or funded by local governments, the affair of promoting certain countries or cities as travel destinations is, more often than not, mixed with geopolitical environment that business entities are unable to influence.
Regional security concerns are also factors that might jeopardize visitor arrivals and tourism receipts of certain destinations, making their marketing efforts less effective.
While its current approach on destination marketing is dominated by branding services for its DMO clients, Ctrip is still exploring a greater balance between brand exposure and actual conversion. The company may seek to further optimize its marketing capabilities in the days to come.
As search titan Google starts to display its own offerings and e-commerce giant Amazon expands its media channels for paid search results, the hybrid model of advertising and selling looks increasingly like a worldwide megatrend.