Leona Reed, associate vice president, global marketing at Visit California, spent much of the past summer living and working in China. For Reed, promoting California has been her only mission, her only job, since before she graduated from the University of California at Sacramento in 2001 with a B.A. degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies. Working as an intern before that, she started out at Visit California (it was known then as the California Travel and Tourism Commission) as communications coordinator and was promoted several times over the years, becoming associate vice president of global marketing in 2015. A multilingual professional, she speaks English, French and Russian. Following are excerpts of her interview/discussion with Jake Steinman, CEO of the NAJ Group, which publishes the INBOUND Report.
JS: What prompted you to move to China for the summer with your family?
LR: I have been working with the China market for a decade for Visit California, and I am still learning every day—so I was motivated by a desire to deepen my knowledge and elevate my strategic insights. Spending a concentrated amount of time on the ground in China created the time and space to develop a more nuanced understanding of the market as well as the local resources we have in place. The two-month immersion was a win-win for me personally and professionally. I was able to spend the summer with my family, and we shared a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure together while I got to have a full-time presence with our China team and expand my understanding of the culture. I spent the bulk of the time with our team on the ground, traveling to Visit California’s six regional offices. We did a lot of strategic planning, and I had many meetings with key industry leaders.
JS: Where did you live and what was a “typical” day like?
LR: We were primarily based in Shanghai in residential rentals. Throughout the eight-week period, we lived in a total of three houses and six hotels! When I went to work during the weekdays, my family had its own adventures. We’d have dinner together at night and walk around our Shanghai neighborhood—I loved seeing the locals dance in the park every night. On the weekends, we traveled and explored. We went to Disneyland in Shanghai, we spent time with panda bears in Chengdu and we visited Yangmingshan National Park in rural Taiwan—to name just a few of our trip highlights. We really enjoyed the cuisine everywhere—we took cooking classes, ate a lot of street food and visited the amazing markets. My kids loved all of the sweets, of course!
JS: What were the business objectives?
LR: I went to China with three key goals:
- To onboard Visit California’s new team members and meet with all of our agencies and resources on the ground to streamline our processes and facilitate closer integration.
- To develop Visit California’s two-year strategic plan and determine what the overarching goals needed to be to advance our growth after hitting the 10-year milestone in the market.
- To enhance Visit California’s content channel eco-system and define the core themes.
JS: What were the top five things you learned, both personally and from a business perspective?
LR: The five key insights I came home with were:The average attention span is very short because Chinese are bombarded with messages all day long, and they are constantly on the go and connected.
- The average attention span is very short because Chinese are bombarded with messages all day long, and they are constantly on the go and connected.
- Living an active, healthy lifestyle and consuming wholesome cuisine is important to the Chinese consumer, especially millennials.
- China is becoming an on-demand, cashless culture. WeChat Pay and Alipay literally make the Chinese consumers’ world go ‘round.
- Trust is everything. There is a real fear of fakeness, and credibility is hugely important. It makes word-of-mouth through friends and family doubly important.
- Kids’ education is a top priority. Chinese parents want their kids to get ahead at all costs. It’s all about elevating the next generation, and the pressure on kids’ education is unreal.
Personally, I was deeply touched by the generosity of the Chinese families we spent time with while living in Shanghai. We were welcomed into their homes and treated like family.
JS: Business from China is down this year, in part due to politics, in part due to currency. But one common refrain is that there are twice as many visa rejections as the previous year. Is there anything the industry can do to help operators train their customers during these interviews?
LR: The Visit California team is monitoring the situation carefully, and we are working closely with the U.S. Embassy in China to navigate this challenge. California’s travel industry is committed to delivering a welcoming message and letting Chinese travelers know how much we value their business.
JS: What do you see the main challenges for USA destinations internationally this year?
LR: The strong U.S. dollar compared to many international currencies is going to be a challenge for us this year. We’re also facing competition from compelling international destinations closer to China that don’t require as much travel time, which can be a deterrent—especially at a time when U.S. visas are harder to secure.
JS: How is Visit California helping cities that have been impacted by flood and fires to regain business?
LR: So many communities across the state have faced incredible challenges this year. We have a sophisticated system in place to support the industry when fires or other crises occur. It’s designed to keep information flowing and help affected communities amplify their message. Once the disasters are contained, our team works closely with the affected destinations to spread an “open for business” message and welcome visitors back. We use trade, PR and media channels to deliver factual, up-to-date information and shine the spotlight on affected destinations through our website and social media channels. Last fiscal year, Visit California invested more than $2 million in marketing to support areas affected by crisis. This included everything from large-scale activations and paid campaigns, to media and trade FAM tours. Digital influencers were also used to spread the “open for business” message in real time to a large audience.
JS: Did you meet with the major tour operators while you were there?
LR: I met with all of the operators in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Taipei.
JS: Was it your sense from them that they were aware of the tension with between the government and the U.S.?
LR: I was there in the summer, and there wasn’t that much of a level of concern. In June came the warning from the government to Chinese travelers coming to the U.S. concerning their safety. It’s escalated since then. We heard of the concern back in the United States from e-mails and through other channels of communication. But, for the most part, when we had meetings, it was business as usual. When the warning from the government came, it was as if it was part of the narrative they were presenting. Tour operators are more concerned about the volume of travelers going to the U.S. Consumers were a little (less) concerned.
JS: Did you witness or sense any censorship?
LR: There are two kinds of censorship. One is when something is completely blocked out. The other involves the way information is presented or spoken about.
Reed and Steinman then had a lengthy dialogue, in which they touched upon a number of points.
—They agreed that potential travelers to China could use some preparation for their visa application interview, as many don’t know how to fill out the forms and are actually frightened when they are interviewed. They need coaching. Jake and Leona exchanged some ideas on incorporating a visa interview preparation element for NAJ’s Active America China Summit.
—The concept of what comprises a group has changed. FITS are now small family groups and affinity groups of 4 to 8 to 10 people. If this is the new normal, maybe there’s a way to market to these travelers via WeChat and many other social and digital channels.
—China has become, in effect, a mature market. Ways have to be developed to market to the repeat visitor to the U.S. Leona said that, although much focus has been given to California’s consumer-facing programs, the travel trade is vital to its efforts. Right now, Visit California is talking with Alipay to work on a platform that would drive such visitors back to California based on their travel history.
—There is a need to go beyond the three big tier one cities (Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou) and develop the markets in Tier 2 and 3 cities—although there are fewer passport-holding Chinese there for now.
—For receptive tour operators, California’s number one priority is “education, education and education.” Wherever the state can tie an educational component into its schedule of activities involving education about the product, they will do so. They are making a special effort to organizing such components at events, and they are creating events to do the same. The state is promoting use of its “training tool” app, which will make education and training programs digitally accessible.