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:
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:
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 .
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:
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:
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:
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.