A website launched this month in China seeks to put a clear Orange County brand on efforts to tap into what’s expected to be a growing number of tourists from the burgeoning Asian nation to California for years to come.
The site was developed by the Irvine-based destination marketing group Orange County Visitors Association through Ctrip.com International Ltd. in Shanghai. Ctrip is the “largest online travel company in China,” with $1.3 billion in 2014 revenue, according to its head of Global Business Development, Xu “Lucy” Beijun, via email.
Beijun said Ctrip works with 740,000 hotels and 300 airlines at 5,000 destinations in 200 countries.
The travel site has 250 million registered members, Beijun said.
Its U.S.-traded shares have risen five-fold in three years to a recent market value of about $9 billion.
Ctrip functions like online travel agencies, such as Expedia or Booking.com, providing a way to book flights, hotel rooms and travel packages. It also offers reviews and social media chatter on its website, like TripAdvisor, Beijun said.
“We have 3,428 U.S.-related tour products for sale” on the site, she said, citing a lineup that includes hotels, flights, bus and train tickets, car rentals, local attractions and shopping destinations.
Orange County businesses that will be highlighted on a Ctrip page include Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, retail mecca South Coast Plaza, about two dozen hotels, and destination marketing organizations Anaheim/OC Visitor & Convention Bureau and Newport Beach & Co.
“Disneyland is joining forces with OCVA,” said Nicky Tang, Asia Pacific Sales Director for Disneyland Resort. “We’re one of the major sponsors of the site.”
She said the resort would offer summer and shoulder-season packages with local hotels beyond Disney-owned properties and to other OC attractions involved in the new website.
The goal is a “focused OC presence,” as Tang called it—an emphasis on a separate identity for Orange County as a tourist destination in China.
Beijun said Ctrip, which has worked with Hawaii and Chicago, among other U.S. markets, wants to “build OC’s brand awareness … deliver the OC message … and develop OC’s tour products.”
Orange County has some building blocks to work with in China, which already accounts for significant numbers of homebuyers in upscale areas such as Newport Coast. Irvine also has drawn large numbers of homebuyers, many of whom are aware of the city because of the strong reputation of its school district.
100 Million Travelers
China’s tourist market holds the potential to dwarf the number of emigrants or investors it sends here.
Separate data from the Orange County Visitor Association and Ctrip indicate that about 100 million people traveled from China to various parts of the world last year, 2.2 million of them coming to the U.S. and 820,000 of those visiting California—a statewide increase of 20% over 2013.
OC’s take was 45,000, according to the Anaheim/OC Visitor & Convention Bureau.
OCVA data show Chinese travelers spend an average of $1,300 per person.
Ctrip’s Beijun said the company handled the outbound travel of 20 million Chinese last year—20% of the total.
OCVA Chief Executive Ed Fuller said 200 million Chinese travelers could venture worldwide by 2021—twice last year’s numbers, with an even greater percentage increase projected for the U.S.
“We’re expecting 7.5 million Chinese visitors in the U.S. by 2021,” Fuller said.
That would put at least 150,000 Chinese travelers here if local growth matches the national projection.
“But there are not as many (OC) hotels involved with Ctrip as we’d like,” he said.
Prior to the partnership bringing Orange County to the fore on Ctrip, Fuller said, hotels here got on the site via third-party travel websites, and their placement defaulted to a business travel section of the Chinese travel site.
He said the new effort focuses attention on the county and puts hospitality properties and other attractions in the right context.
“It’s a dedicated site for us, and we’re in leisure and tourism” instead of business, he said.
Reports on the coming growth of “inbound travel” from China to the U.S. have also noted the need to prepare for differences in culture, language, and expectations about travel itself, and OCVA has produced training materials to help businesses with that, Fuller said.
Ctrip is a recognized brand at the national level when it comes to efforts to market the U.S. as a tourist destination.
“They’re pretty huge in China, [and] we’ve dealt with them before,” said a spokesperson for Brand USA, a tax-funded public-private partnership that promotes the U.S. as a travel destination and is helping pay for the Ctrip work. “We collaborate with each destination to provide a co-op campaign.”
OCVA’s Fuller said the group is putting about $115,000 into the project, which he valued at $460,000.
The project was one of the elements discussed at the group’s annual tourism conference last week at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
About 365 local tourism professionals from cities, hotels, and companies attended the show, up 15% over about 315 attendees last year, OCVA said.
Fuller said the group’s investment in the new website runs through this year and that he hopes it will merit a 16-month extension.
“This is to kind of test it out,” he said. “It’s our first year and our first step.”