As I have described previously, Oxford University Museums runs an annual innovation fund to which staff can apply for seed funding to support collaborative projects across the collections, and R&D activities that allowing us to test new ways of working and engaging audiences. For the 2106-17 round a small group of us have been workin on a project to look at how we can be more ‘China Ready’, both in terms of attracting more Chinese tourists to visit our venues, and provide better services for our existing (and hopefully new) Chinese visitors.
Why Chinese Tourists?
Chinese tourists are one (of many) important markets for us for a variety of reasons. Chinese tourists form an increasing segment of the UK international tourist market, growing from 100,000 annual tourists in 2009, to 270,000 in 2016, a number we are told to expect to continue to increase . Oxfordshire is the fourth most visited area in the country, behind London, Edinburgh and Manchester. Oxford itself is a regular stop on the trail for organised Chinese tour groups en route to the must see venues of Blenheim Palace (known in China as Churchill’s Mansion) and Bicester Village – 3 out of 4 Chinese tourists visit Bicester Village during their visit to the UK. However, we don’t engage the majority of organised tour groups, with most simply passing outside our buildings as part of a short walking tour of the city. Apparently we are not alone in this, I recently read an article about how the Getty can’t get featured in LA itineraries (makes me feel a bit better about our shared challenge).
As well as these organised groups, an increasing number of FITs (Free Individual Travellers), who make their own arrangements and itineraries, are coming to the UK. There are also those who come to visit the almost 1,000 Chinese students studying at Oxford (up from 100 in the 1990s). Evidence for our engagement with this group is anecdotal as our audience research, conducted almost exclusively in English, means that most of the data on these visitors falls through the cracks. This lack of data matches up with our lack of services for this audience, as we currently offer no signage or interpretation in Chinese.
We are keen to look at how we engage this audience, both as part of our mission to broaden and diversify our audiences and break down barriers, but also as a potential source of commercial income to ensure the future sustainability of the museums – Chinese visitors have a higher spend per head than most other international tourists.
As well as meeting our own goals, there is increasing pressure across the cultural sector to embrace being ‘China Ready’: Visit England runs a programme called the GREAT China Welcome; Bernard Donoghue from the Assoctaion of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA – of which we are a member) has said that venues must be ‘China Ready’ , and the National Museums Directors Council (NMDC – of which we are also members) has been giving advice to members on the basis of research led by British Council and Arts Council England .
What does it mean to be ‘China Ready’?
There is quite a lot of advice out there of what it means to be ‘China Ready’, some of which we are meeting, some of which we could reasonably pursue as a venue, and some of which is just beyond our grasp at this time. The guidance set out by Visit England and other organisations includes:
- Have a product or a service that is of genuine interest to potential Chinese visitors and meets their distinct cultural needs and expectations
- Well I hope we meet this one as we hold both iconic British and international collections, as well as significant Chinese collections
- Firsthand experience of welcoming Chinese visitors within the past two years
- Not really sure what this one means, we have Chinese visitors, does that count?
- Mandarin or Cantonese speaking staff
- While we certainly have both Mandarin and Cantonese speaking staff, most are curators or other specialist staff, few work in front of house roles where they would encounter Chinese visitors
- Translated websites, apps or literature – I’m sure I heard somewhere that more Mandarin audioguides are taken at the British Museum than guides in any other language, including English
- Websites in particular present a real challenge, while the technology exists to allow us to switch a page between languages, it means having that content, which is regularly updated, individually tagged for translation, something that is just beyond our resource and capacity at the moment
- Visitor information or signage in Mandarin or Cantonese
- Visitor-facing staff who have undergone training about Chinese culture and etiquette
- While we train our staff to be aware of a variety of cultural differences and be adaptable to the needs of different audiences, we have not provided specific training in regards to Chinese visitors
- Facilities for customers to pay using China UnionPay
- Something that is on the University’s radar, but is not yet available to us
- Promotion of Weibo, the most popular social media channel in China
- We don’t have a channel, and would struggle to find the resource to maintain one, but the central university and other departments do, so there is an opportunity for us to share content via their channels
Attracting Chinese Tourists
On our mission to be China Ready we had two questions: (1) how to attract more Chinese visitors, and (2) how to better serve them during their visit.
Regarding this first problem we commissioned a group of students from the University’s Student Consultancy programme to do conduct desk research, and also undertake some interviews with Chinese tourists in the city and their guides. Their findings were not unexpected, but still a good place to start:
- Tourists on group tours have very little freedom to do anything that is not on their group itinerary so to attract those kinds of groups it is important to build relationships with the tour organisers
- Awareness of our offer among Chinese tourists was low: most had not heard of the museums and did not consider the must see sites as part of their visit to the Oxfordshire area (unlike Blenheim Palace and Bicester Village), so there is a significant awareness raising challenge for us
- Where we are raising awareness we might not have been hitting the right note, with most visitors to the city interested in the historic university and iconic film sets, both themes that our offer speaks to strongly, but not something we put up front and centre in our marketing materials
On the basis of this research we knew that our next step was to better understand the group tour market. To unpick this we spoke to generous colleagues from Blenheim Palace and Waddesdon Manor who are far more experienced in this area and were happy to share their expertise. We also arranged for a site visit from a representative from China Holidays, a major broker for organised trips to the UK. We took the representative around all our sites – her thoughts and insights were incredibly valuable .
- In terms of investing in appropriate Chinese language content for groups she said that visiting groups always bring their own Chinese speaking guide with them and except in the case of special curator tours, for example, which the guide will translate directly, rather than receive specific Chinese language content provided by the site, guides prefer to look at our general information and develop their own script as they find that sites often don’t pick content that will be of interest to Chinese visitors, and make mistakes in terms of assumed knowledge.
- In terms of selecting appropriate content to feature she strongly recommended linking highlights to famous individuals, and focusing on the unique things that can’t be seen anywhere else: she got quite excited when visiting the Ashmolean seeing Stradivarius’ Messiah, something she could tell her groups they could only see here. She also recommended for us in particular making clear our link with the university and student life, for example she was excited about the prospect of taking groups into the Radcliffe Camera, as both an iconic building, and a study centre at the heart of student life.
- In terms of being realistic about group visits, she highlighted that realistically we could only expect groups to spend up to 20 minutes at any of our sites, which is just enough time to see our key highlights.
- In terms of our best strategy for getting into the market, she suggested that the unique spaces within our venues would appeal for corporate events organised by Chinese businesses, and gave us some ideas on how we could promote ourselves to that market.
This final piece of advice was of particular interest, as from our conversations with Blenheim and Waddesdon it was clear that managing big group bookings takes resource, and it is not something we are set up to do: as free venues we don’t have to do a lot of booking management, so we don’t already have teams and resource in place to manage that kind of thing. Also, groups can have as many as 50 people, numbers that our smaller venues would really struggle to accommodate at all. Venue hire is, however, something we do on a regular basis and so is something we can expand.
So in terms of attracting Chinese tour groups this left us with two key actions:
- Developing our venue hire marketing for the Chinese market, our first step has been putting material in Hello Britain, a key publications for Chinese tour and event organisers
- Potentially increasing resource to manage group bookings in the two busiest periods for Chinese tourists: Chinese New Year and the ‘Golden Week’ in early October.
Engaging Chinese Visitors
While we feel like we are limited in what we can do with the Chinese group tour market, we have been encouraged to expect more independent Chinese visitors (FITs) who are often on their second or third trip to the UK and looking to do something different, and will spend more time.
Our first priority is to better understand how many of these types of visitors we get, and what they might need. We have developed two strategies for this:
- We have recruited a large number of volunteers to do shifts at the entrance of our museums asking as many visitors as possible for either their postcode or country of origin (very useful data I will talk about in another post) – we will only get very limited information but we will get a better feel for our foreign visitors who are currently excluded from our English based evaluation (hopefully the question is easy enough to get across).
- We offer free public Wi-Fi, and we know that a lot of Chinese visitors both use the Wi-Fi and tick the box to join our mailing list. A large portion of our Chinese visitors are easily identifiable on the list by distinctive email domains such as @qq. We are developing a Chinese language email survey (multiple choice only) to find out a little bit more about the Chinese visitors that are visiting us and just increase our knowledge.
FITs also feel like a group we have an opportunity to market to. Fortunately we have just developed a new joint marketing campaign (http://mindgrowing.org/) and we are using some of our funds to have that material translated into Chinese and distributed at a few key locations (such as Bicester Village) just as an experiment to see how it goes.
Alongside this research and modest marketing, we are looking at how we can improve our offer for onsite visitors, for whom we currently have no onsite signage or interpretation. To this end we have put together brief highlight audio tours for each of the sites featuring 10-15 objects (or about 20 minutes of content), which we are actually having translated into multiple languages (not just Mandarin). We will offer this content free on our mobile website alongside our existing English audio guides and have signage in the museums welcoming international visitors and informing them of the available content. We aren’t sure what the uptake for this will be, but if we see that there is a significant uptake, it is something we can think about expanding.
We thought about a lot of other things we thought we could do, but didn’t have the budget in a small grant:
- A promotional video aimed at Chinese audiences, like National Museums Wales has done with success, which we could promote on channels like Weibo, a channel we don’t have the capacity to maintain ourselves, but the university has several accounts with significant following that could share the content on our behalf. We still think that this is a good idea, and if we see results from any of the other activity this is something we could return to.
- We got a lot of advice around offering Chinese style food, but were also told that Chinese visitors want to try traditional English food (just like other tourists want to try traditional Chinese food in China). We decided against this, but did take on board the recommendation to provide hot water, something each of our cafe venues are investigating individually .
We are told to expect this number to increase even more quickly as the visa application process for Chinese tourists becomes more straight forward: there is a new deal where Chinese tourists can apply for the UK and EU Schengen area passports at the same time with the same documents, rather than separately, which resulted in many toursist choosing between the UK and the EU. Of course what impact Brexit will have on this arrangement is currently unknowable – just one of the many small ways that Brexit leads to uncertainty in our day to day lives.
Accoring to Donoghue ‘that means looking at signage, language provision, catering, working with knowledgeable group handlers and tour operators and taking the credit and debit cards which Chinese visitors use and prefer.’
Katie Childs from the National Museum Directors Council (NMDC) on the basis of a recent British Council project (supported by NMDC and Arts Council England) that suggests that there a low cost ways that we can make our venues more attractive to international tourists: ‘These include making changes to the cafe menu to serve hot water and non-sandwich options, including the proximity of the museum to London or regional airports in terms of time in marketing materials, or working with international tour operators to be included in their schedules.’
She also informed us that she had just come back from a stay in a luxury hotel that she was testing for her clients and that this was a regular part of her job – I had just got back from speaking at a conference in Edinburgh where I was put up in an Ibis!!
I personally think (on the basis of no evidence) that the advice around Chinese food is best for hotels, where you want something familiar for breakfast, or even dinner after a long day, but probably not for venues like ours.