Toshihiro Gamo  / Flickr

Tourism boards are building WeChat microsites to market to Chinese travelers. Pictured is a Chinese couple visiting Yamashita Park in Japan. Toshihiro Gamo / Flickr

Skift Take: Many tourism boards now have entire teams dedicated to China and WeChat. It's a very complex task for foreigners to get the content right, but it appears as though WeChat parent Tencent is trying to make the platform more accessible for tourism boards.

— Dan Peltier

Tourism boards in popular gateway cities throughout the United States and Europe have seen thousands of Chinese tourists pass through their streets, hotels, and attractions in recent years.

This year, many of those organizations got smarter about how to market to the more than 145 million outbound Chinese tourists who traveled internationally.

Tencent, a Chinese Internet and telecommunications conglomerate that owns WeChat, doubled down on its work with U.S. and European tourism organizations this year. In September, Tencent announced a suite of advertising tools for U.S. tourism boards to reach Chinese travelers on WeChat, the largest messaging and digital commerce mobile app in China.

With the new tools are designed to make it easier for tourism boards to put content on WeChat and build microsites to help reach WeChat’s nearly one billion users.

Many Chinese merchants already use WeChat microsites to reach consumers, said Poshu Yeung, vice president of international business at Tencent. “We feel like there’s a huge potential for the U.S.” he said. “We’ve been doing beta testing very closely with partners during the past six months.”

Many major U.S. and European cities had already upped their investment in WeChat this year even before Tencent’s new ad products debuted.

Helsinki Marketing, the city’s tourism board, for example, will launch a WeChat microsite in early 2018 and also signed a partnership with Tencent in September to be a test city for the company’s new WeChat tourism products. These include an augmented reality application, panoramic maps, and data-sharing.

Helsinki’s WeChat content will be similar to the content on the organization’s redesigned My Helskinki site, said Laura Aalto, CEO of Helsinki Marketing. “We’ll be working very much with our local tech industry,” she said.

Aalto said the growing number of Chinese tourists traveling abroad without a tour group was a factor in getting more serious about WeChat.

“Chinese travelers start to do their planning and booking online when their English is better and that’s when they start to think about going abroad alone,” said Aalto. “They’re very digital and forward-looking. We’re not seeing many individual Chinese travelers in Helsinki right now but we’re aware of it and know it’s coming.”

Helsinki isn’t a market leader in European tourism like London or Paris, said Aalto, and that gives the city more freedom to experiment with platforms like WeChat. “Destination marketers haven’t been at the forefront of digital evolution, so to speak. There’s not much happening that’s been DMO-driven,” said Aalto. “I think we need to always challenge ourselves because the digital revolution has changed this industry more than anyone can understand.”

But market leader or not, it’s important for a tourism organization to get the support of the national government for the market it’s trying to reach. “You always have to remember the political side in China when working with the Chinese market as well and that opens up a lot more doors in China,” said Aalto. “And then really to have people with Chinese backgrounds in your own organization. Not only people who can speak the language but also people who have the cultural understanding, too.”

WeChat Gets user-friendly for brands

Across the pond, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have also been working on growing their WeChat presence.

San Francisco Travel, the tourism board for a city that’s one of the largest gateways for Chinese travelers to the U.S., had observed how WeChat traditionally made it difficult for tourism boards to work with. But WeChat has recently improved its destination products.

“About a year ago, WeChat was all about subscription accounts,” said Tyler Gosnell, director of global brand strategy at San Francisco Travel. “You could push stories but couldn’t build a microsite with that account.”

But that’s changing.

“Even a year ago WeChat wasn’t responding to our specific needs,” he said. “LA and New York have subscription accounts but when you move from a subscription to a service account you lose followers. In the last six months, it’s clear that most brands should move towards service accounts if they want to build a microsite.”

Gosnell said the organization’s WeChat goal is to acquire as many followers as possible before they the group focuses on into transactions and return on investment. “Really a big part of the challenge for us with WeChat is how do we develop experiences in an all-in-one super app?” he said.

San Francisco Travel is also using its WeChat microsite to promote destinations beyond the city, such as wine country. “San Francisco is China-ready because we’ve been doing it for decades,” said Gosnell. “Agencies have trained wine country on how to be China- ready. But the local coffee shop might not be China ready, for example, or understand the Chinese consumer behavior.”

Small businesses haven’t receiving training to manage Chinese consumer needs, said Gosnell. “We’re recommending smaller businesses and destinations to leverage our WeChat channel for now because it’s really expensive for them to do it on their own,” he said. “You have to build the site from scratch; it’s not like a Facebook page. And getting the right tone is key – you can provide direction but if you can’t read Chinese or know what’s being said you won’t know if it translates properly.”

More than 154 million Chinese travelers are projected to travel outside China in 2018, a 6.3 percent increase compared with 2017, and 86 million of those trips will be to destinations beyond Greater China and Asia, a 10 percent increase over this year, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.

If there was any better time to get acclimated to WeChat and start pushing out content on the platform, that time has certainly come.