Technology is vital when it comes to serving Chinese visitors to New Zealand.
Tourism New Zealand general manager Rebecca Ingram hosted a panel session at the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism launch in Wellington exploring what local operators need to understand about visitor's digital needs. "They want to plan online, they want to pay online and they want to share online," she says.
Justin Watson, Christchurch Airport's chief aeronautical and commercial officer says: "Technology plays a huge role in both our business and the visitor experience, before they arrive, while they are in the country and after they leave. Digital platforms enable them to pay and help them get around. They are used for language translation and for social media sharing."
He says handheld digital devices are now an integral part of tourism.
Lisa Li, managing director of China Travel Services New Zealand says: "The average spending for a Chinese visitor to New Zealand last year was about $4100. That's a 14 per cent increase on the year before. The increase is because the rise in the number of independent travellers. Research in China shows that the average age of these independent travellers is between 25 and 34."
In other words, the most lucrative and fastest-growing part of the visitor market is young travellers, who Li calls the "Chinese millennials". She says the gap between these and their parents is huge. Millennials are the generation that enjoys most of the benefits of China's economic growth.
"Technology has a huge impact on their travel choices, from seeking information, making booking arrangements and paying. They do everything on their mobile phones."
Ingram underlined this saying there's research showing the overwhelming majority of that millennial group has not picked up a single piece of paper media in over a year.
Liverton CEO Justin de Lille agrees on the impact Chinese millennials are having. "This is the first generation that has grown up with a smartphone since the age of 10. So everything they do revolves around their phones. If you are in the tourism business and you're not driving visitor experiences through that channel you are going to miss out.
"We've seen centres where a lot more investment in this area would capture more of that market.
De Lille asks whether we are catering for the kind of experiences those travellers are looking for.
"We supply a lot of hotels with technology and we're seeing big growth in lifestyle-branded hotels.
Marriot recently opened one in Australia that's branded as Moxy.
"It's a cross between a five-star hotel and a three-star hostel. This sounds odd, but there are lots of shared facilities. It's all driven by technology. We're putting kiosks into them. So the whole experience is automated and online from when you book, to when you check-in. They have less staff, but put more money into the visitor experience."
Watson's Christchurch Airport team has been working to increase the use of the Chinese Alipay electronic payments system. "Just over two years ago we signed an agreement with Alibaba Group. We wanted to get value from the Chinese market while also ensuring Chinese visitors had a good experience in the country. Part of that was us supporting a roll-out of Alipay. "We knew only 13 per cent of Chinese visitors have credit cards. If they weren't able to transact in the way they are used to, we would be leaving money on the table and they'd have a poorer experience when they came. We're now up to 2800 merchants on that programme. Not only are Chinese able to pay, but they use them to find information."
Watson says the information is critical. There's also a restaurant booking component. Now Watson's team is looking at the alternatives to Alipay and recently signed with Fliggy, Alibaba's travel advice site.
"The world's not short of Chinese-based phone apps, to help visitors when travelling. The problem is that this country just doesn't know half of them and as an industry we're not on a lot of these apps."
Watson says our travel sector needs to understand what apps are out there and what Chinese visitors are using as they travel around.
Ingram points out the scale of the Chinese app market. "It's about the visitor expectations as well. We need to know if we met the expectations of our visitors when they came here.
"In China, there can be an app that doesn't exist one day, it launches and three months later there are 100 million people on board. Tourism New Zealand constantly thinks about how to stay on top of that and our team in China is working to keep up."