While Virginia Beach, Virginia is a well known beach destination on the Atlantic Coast and throughout mid-Atlantic states, we wondered why Ron Kuhlman, vice president of tourism marketing and sales for the Virginia Beach CVB has showing up for the past several years at NAJ’s Active America China Summit to promote a destination that is not a gateway destination—it is 215 miles from the closest major gateway airport, Washington Dulles (IAD)—and how he is managing to attract Chinese visitors to Virginia Beach. We spoke with Kuhlman not long after the Active America China summit last month in Las Vegas. Following is an excerpted version of our conversation.
INBOUND: You’ve been with the Virginia Beach CVB for nearly 25 years. To what extent has the balance of your marketing changed between domestic and international—that is, what percentage of your overall market is international now? And what was it 25 years ago?
Kuhlman: The international market in Virginia Beach includes both our Canadian market and our overseas market. Our research indicated that almost six percent of our 5.9 million annual overnight visitors are international. The bulk of them are visitors from Canada which is our largest international market. It’s difficult to know what percentage of our market was international 25 years ago as our methodology for tracking international has changed to include overseas visitors. Also, 25 years ago our international marketing efforts were targeted at our Canadian market. We have had a contracted office in Montreal for nearly 30 years and Canada continues to be our number one international market. Until recently our overseas marketing consisted of exhibiting at WTM and ITB.
INBOUND: What are your top overseas markets?
Kuhlman: Our top overseas markets are the UK, Germany, Italy, and France. If our growth from China continues, the market from China will break into this list by 2017.
INBOUND: As, a non-gateway destination, you have different challenges, of course, than a New York, Miami, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Is there anything special you have to do to get your visitors go “beyond the gateways”?
Kuhlman: To market globally, we rely on our partnership with the Capital Region USA (CRUSA) which is the international marketing consortium of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Destination, D.C., the State of Maryland, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. We feature the international air service going into Dulles International Airport and seek opportunities to partner with tour operators using the Washington gateway and extending their itineraries to include Virginia Beach as a relaxing stopover at an authentic and unique American seaside resort.
INBOUND: When you started at Virginia Beach, there was no such thing as the Chinese market. And now, you’re actively pursuing it. When did this start, and what kind of progress have you made? Any visitor numbers? Do you have any in-country representation? Chinese-speaking staff?
Kuhlman: My first exposure to the market came when I attended the China-U.S. Tourism Leadership Summit four years ago in Hawaii. It was there that the chairman of the China National Tourism Administration and the China Tourism Academy leadership projected Chinese visitation numbers in the millions of visitors to the U.S. … Fast forward to the Sixth Annual China-U.S. Tourism Leadership Summit held this year in China that I had the opportunity to work with Haybina Hao in the NTA Office in Lexington and with the NTA Shanghai office. Their expertise and willingness to assist me on my first trip to China were invaluable. NTA set up two days of sales calls on Chinese operators who were featuring Capital Region USA as a region combined in their East Coast itineraries.
The following year, 2013, Capital Region USA conducted its first sales mission to China with calls in Beijing and Shanghai. In the meantime I attended Active America China 2012 and got a first-hand look at the scope of the Chinese Tour Operator network and the potential for Virginia Beach in China. I have attended Active America China each year since including Las Vegas last month. In the not too distant future, we will want to have representation on our own in China … by the beginning of 2017.
INBOUND: Are there any special challenges that the Chinese market presents that you don’t encounter with other markets?
Kuhlman: One special challenge is the Chinese language barrier. We have been successful in recruiting Chinese speaking residents who want to become step-on guides to assist when needed. We also have the services of a Chinese travel strategist at our ad agency who has been invaluable to us with her knowledge of the industry and her bi-lingual language skills. She manages our Weibo pages and this year, she accompanied me to Active America China this year as my interpreter. Our hotel partners are working hard to become more China ready and through our International Marketing Committee we are making headway in this area.
INBOUND: About the role of operators: Do you connect directly with Chinese operators? Or do you work through U.S.-based receptive? Or both?
Kuhlman: We approach the market both ways. We connect directly with the Chinese operators and we also work with Chinese receptive operators. We are always looking to the Chinese RTO community to partner with us in this market where it makes sense for the RTO to work with us given we are in the growth mold. Unlike our RTOs who handle Europe we have yet to reach critical mass for Chinese business.
INBOUND: Any idea of a percentage breakdown on group vs. FIT for international travelers?
Kuhlman: That’s a question we don’t have on our intercept surveys but at this point based on our hotel feedback the vast majority of our overseas visitors are individuals, couples and families.