Business is booming – The tide turns for global tourism

Tourism

Few industries were hit harder by the pandemic than tourism and aviation. However, China’s lifting of various pandemic prevention and control measures in early 2023 has led inevitably to a major rebound in bookings for flights, trips and hotels.

On February 6th 2023, the first outbound tour group departed from China after the country resumed its cross-border group travel, marking the ‘official reboot’ of China’s outbound group travel business. During and post-pandemic, the Trip.com Group, formerly known as Ctrip, has launched nearly 1,000 outbound group tour products covering 15 destination countries and regions. Its bookings have continued to gather momentum since early 2022, with Q3 2022 results showing that flight bookings in the Asia-Pacific region surged more than 400% year-on-year, while overseas hotel bookings grew by 45% compared to Q3 2019, surpassing the 2019 level for the third consecutive quarter.

How did Trip.com weather the storm of the past three years? What lessons can be learned by the wider tourism industry in China and globally? Going forward, what will leading industry players do differently to grow their overseas business in an unfavourable climate? Serena Wang (Global EMBA 2021), Director of Global Operations at Trip.com, takes us on a journey of the group’s experiences during the past three years.

Serena Wang

1. 2023 – The floodgates open

On January 20th 2023, the day before the Chinese Spring Festival holiday began, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that Chinese travel agencies and online travel companies could resume outbound group tours to 20 countries, starting from February 6th.

Immediately after the announcement, online searches for trips to Hong Kong and Macau experienced several major spikes, while views of relevant group tour products rose by 180%. Trip.com responded by launching nearly 100 outbound group tour products overnight.

We had waited for a long time for this,” Serena recollects, remembering the leaner times of recent history. “2020 was undoubtedly the tourism industry’s darkest hour. Having a breakthrough of this magnitude was the boost we all needed.”

Flight

2. International business bounces back first

With three years to prepare for the reopening of China’s international borders, Serena’s business team have spared no effort in preparing for the market’s recovery. 

She vividly remembers the chaos that hit immediately after the initial Covid-19 outbreak at the end of 2019. In just one month, tens of thousands of cancellation requests flooded in, and phone calls to customer services increased nearly twentyfold as flights were suspended, hotel reservations cancelled, and group tours aborted. This surge in customer enquiries forced all English-speaking employees from different functional departments to act as customer service reps. During this extreme scenario, many of them worked for over 13 hours a day as they dealt with a phone call workload eight times higher than normal, while the team managed an average of over one thousand cancellation requests daily.

By the end of March 2020, Trip.com had literally no international customers to service, since almost all flights had been grounded. In a matter of a few short months, the pandemic had taken a horrific toll on Trip.com’s international business. It was not until the end of 2021, when European and Asian countries began easing infection prevention and control measures, that the long-awaited upturn in overseas tourism arrived. 

Trip.com finally experienced some signs of overseas business recovery in early 2022. Its Q1 2022 financial results were encouraging; overseas hotel bookings had grown by over 200% compared to the same period in the pre-pandemic 2019. Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates in particular – Trip.com recorded higher growth rates across all of these destinations. Meanwhile, overall international flight bookings had increased by over 270% year-on-year.

3. A shift in focus – Local tours take centre stage

During the past three years of the pandemic, we never slowed down our business expansion efforts overseas,” Serena explains. Even though the pandemic dealt a major blow to the industry, it pushed her team to set their sights on previously overlooked segments, especially local tourism, for breakthrough opportunities. “Before the coronavirus outbreak, outbound tourism was at the core of our overseas business. But as the pandemic blocked cross-border travel routes, we shifted our focus to local tours.” 

Over the past three years, Trip.com’s overseas business team has developed a range of local tour products (e.g.: weekend tours and hotel packages) for consumers in Singapore and Hong Kong. These new products, designed around accommodation, dining, and entertainment experiences, were able to meet the needs of consumers during the pandemic, tapping into pent-up tourism demand.

Travel

As its local tour business boomed, Trip.com saw a significant transition in its output structure. Serena attributes this robust growth partly to local tour products, believing them to be vital to accelerating the company’s revival. 

Leaning into these more favourable winds, Trip.com’s overseas business team strengthened its cooperation with local governments, working with tourism ministries in Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. These governments offered subsidies to boost tourism, and welcomed foreign companies like Trip.com to get involved. In August 2021, the government of Singapore distributed 320 million Singapore dollars in “tourism credits” to residents to drive local spending in domestic travel via designated booking platforms.

We were among the five successful bidders,” Serena recalls. In response to the subsidy scheme, Trip.com developed a mini-site where users could claim and spend subsidies. At the same time, they vigorously promoted it across all relevant marketing channels. “Afterwards, our Singapore team continued to launch promotional campaigns for the purpose of brand and user operations. Accordingly, our market share continued to increase,” Serena explains.

By mid-2022, the hotel business in Asia had recovered to the point where bookings were almost above pre-covid levels. For Trip.com, it was time to look globally once again.

4. Next-phase recovery – Trip’s internationalisation strategy and the ballooning European market

With the world (and the global tourism industry) headed for recovery, internationalisation remained a key strategic aim for Trip.com, Serena explains: “Although our overseas business growth shifted down a gear during the first year of the pandemic, we continued to implement an internationalisation strategy. Tourism is inherently an international business and leading players must think and act globally. Therefore, it was essential that we rebuild our global supply chain with hotels and airlines.”

Trip.com took a two-pronged approach to internationalisation. While making it a strategic priority to build up the brand overseas, the company also strengthened its global presence through M&A activity. When the pandemic began, Trip.com was in the process of acquiring a European OTA (online travel agency). “Given the rapidly changing environment, we wavered between holding off on acquisition and proceeding with it. At the end of the day, we decided to forge ahead.”

Following the acquisition of the OTA in 2020, Trip.com shifted its focus to Europe. After laying a solid foundation for its business there, the company gained a foothold in the European market due to its competitive advantages in airline ticketing and customer service levels. Trip.com had previously acquired the travel search engine Skyscanner. But in terms of branding and main business, Trip.com did not make deep inroads into Europe at the time.

Later, when Europe reduced pandemic-related restrictions by introducing an electronic vaccine certificate, its airlines resumed flights and hotels reopened, reviving travel across the bloc. By the summer of 2021, tourist arrivals in Spain and Italy had almost returned to 2019 levels, and Trip.com’s business in Europe had grown by leaps and bounds. 

The growth of our airline ticketing business in Europe has been the biggest highlight of the past few years,” Serena notes with no small satisfaction. “Thanks to the Skyscanner platform and our expanding supply chain reach in Europe, our European business thrived.”

5. Innovation in a time of crisis

Serena believes that the pandemic was a mass-driver of product and service innovation. In early 2020, Trip.com lacked the staff to handle the flood of customer requests in a timely fashion. This, however, turned out to be a catalyst for its service automation efforts. Notably, the Trip.com app was supplemented with self-service attributes, allowing users to process ticket changes and refunds themselves, all via their phones.

Taking its innovation drive further, Trip.com assembled a dedicated team tasked with tracking pandemic policy responses in place around the world, reporting all changes to headquarters to inform product iteration. This wealth of up-to-date information was then shared with consumers on Trip.com’s official website and during the booking process, keeping them informed about the pandemic policies of their destination.

In addition, Trip.com developed local tour products in the form of packages for Singapore and other Asian countries. Serena claims that these innovative products were in an ongoing process of iteration. As Trip.com gained more experience in product innovation, it enhanced its capacity for supplying back-end products. “For example, Trip.com has diversified its product and service offerings by providing flexible packages and packaging. Also, this may lead to its long-term success.

Tourism

6. The world awaits the return of Chinese tourists

In 2022, Serena went on business trips to South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore. One day during her trip to Thailand, a hotel owner, her potential business partner, raised the question: “When will China remove travel restrictions? We are waiting for Chinese tourists to come back.” A natural concern, given the reliance of Asia’s hospitality industry on Chinese tourists to fill occupancy rates.

Countries around the globe can’t wait to see Chinese travellers come in,” says Serena, smiling. “Travel is an essential need. With the right strategies and products in place, the tourism industry will naturally move towards recovery. It’s essential to provide users with the packages and options they want at competitive rates, while maintaining the highest service levels possible.”

Accordingly, Trip.com has built local teams in key Asian markets, and continues to recruit widely. The company will double down on its market expansion and localisation efforts in the coming years. Trip.com has gained a firm market footing in Asia by offering competitive airline tickets and hotel options. Service-wise, it has English-speaking customer service reps who are on call round-the-clock. Localised services will come next to the likes of South Korea and Thailand.

When it comes to building and managing local teams, Serena believes that the biggest challenge is to foster a global culture and bring in local talent who understand the local market. One of the reasons Serena joined the CEIBS Global EMBA programme is because it provides access to professors and students from diverse cultural backgrounds who have a wealth of management knowledge and overseas experience for her to learn from.

7. Business is booming – The tide turns for global tourism

As 2023 progresses, the flow of traffic between China and its neighbours continues to accelerate. Consequently, Serena has become a lot busier: “We are closely monitoring the resumption of flights around the world. Based on the real-time information we obtain, we will craft competitive products and deliver them to users in the shortest possible timeframe.”

Serena, along with many of her peers, believes that a boom period in Chinese and global tourism is all but inevitable. However, this does not guarantee growth for everyone; the most successful providers will be those who commit to innovating, listening and adapting to the evolving needs of their customers in a post-pandemic world.

Editor:
Tom Murray