Air NZ's China plans taking flight

By Alexander Speirs

Our national carrier is working hard to get us noticed in China, writes Alexander Speirs

Air New Zealand's Asia general manager Sandeep Bahl says the airline is performing well in the China space. Photo / File
Air New Zealand's Asia general manager Sandeep Bahl says the airline is performing well in the China space. Photo / File

With the Chinese release of The Hobbit and the Prime Minister's official visit, New Zealand is firmly in the spotlight in China.

For the man tasked with leading Air New Zealand through the next phase of development in China, Asia general manager Sandeep Bahl, this represents an opportunity to generate further promotion for the airline and for New Zealand as a tourist destination.

"We rolled out the Hobbit premiere jointly with Warner Brothers, China Film and Tourism New Zealand in Beijing. Following the movie launch, we started our marketing campaign with Tourism New Zealand to promote travel to Middle-earth."

With the introduction of daily flights from Shanghai, building capabilities within Asia is predicated upon the ability to turn Shanghai into an effective transit hub for Air New Zealand.

"The main goal is to make a strong gateway through to China via Shanghai, but to do that we need to be confident of selling out the flight everyday, not relying on seasonal demands."

Generating sustained demand for the service is one of the biggest challenges towards succeeding in China, with a strong focus on marketing by Air New Zealand.

"The key China campaigns we have launched include Romance, Golf and The Hobbit," says Bahl. All are part of a three-year joint strategy developed with Tourism New Zealand to grow awareness of New Zealand as a premium destination and deliver high-value visitors.

The Romance campaign kicked off with the wedding of Chinese celebrity Yao Chen in Queenstown who travelled here on Air New Zealand, helping to associate the airline with premium travel and drive an affluent new consumer group.

The exposure that accompanied Chen's wedding was felt most in social media channels - an area in which Air New Zealand has thrived in recent years. Chen's 42 million followers on Weibo trump the Twitter numbers of Barack Obama, Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey.

The ability to play golf year-round is an advantage New Zealand enjoyed that held major drawing power for international visitors.

Golf players are just one of a number of special interest groups a dedicated team are managing, with ski groups wanting to take advantage of New Zealand's counter-seasonality also being targeted.

The growth in Chinese passenger numbers requires an equal push from operators back in New Zealand to ensure their facilities accommodate Chinese visitors, with our hoteliers in particular being proactive on this front.

"Trust and personal recommendations are extremely valuable in Chinese culture. The real value is getting people over to New Zealand, coming back and selling it to their family and friends."

Based on current metrics, Air New Zealand is performing well in the China space.

"With our capacity increase in Shanghai, we are developing an overall market growth for New Zealand. During the recent seven-day period of the Chinese New Year holidays, Air New Zealand carried more than 1000 Chinese holiday travellers."

Bahl credits much of this success to his team on the ground in China and the organisational culture within Air New Zealand.

"My goal is that everybody that works here is in New Zealand at least once per year. That understanding further motivates the staff."

Prior to the introduction of the daily service between Shanghai and Auckland this year, a transit hub strategy was not feasible due to irregularities and breaks in travel.

"We want Shanghai to serve a network of cities in China in the same way Auckland does for New Zealand."

Similar strategies have been successfully implemented by the airline in both Hong Kong and Tokyo within the region already.

With a base in Shanghai, Air New Zealand's three strategic hubs will give it a significant Asian presence for its international network.

The ability to deliver an extensive network in China was bolstered by adding codeshare flights in conjunction with Air China in 2012. The partnership was significant. Air New Zealand retained the ability to deliver codeshare services to the Chinese capital right up to the cancellation of the direct Beijing route.

This route was introduced after the bilateral free trade agreement with China was signed, which permitted one flight per day for each country.

"Under the new bilateral [agreement] signed last year, both country's carriers now have access to three daily flights."

Though there is not sufficient demand to run 21 flights per week to China, the door is open for the re-introduction of the Beijing route or further bolstering flights to Shanghai as the market grows.

The benefit of a daily service between Shanghai and Auckland extends beyond the primary commercial passenger business.

"Cargo capacity to China has risen by about 50 per cent," says Bahl.

He expects the Chinese market for premium products to move in a similar direction to Japan where strong demand for fresh produce spells joint opportunity for domestic suppliers and Air New Zealand.

"They want their fish caught and on the plane that night, ready for serving and on the plate in Japan within 24 hours."

"I think we're sitting very well in the cargo space in terms of potential opportunities."

- NZ Herald

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