West VS East: local e-commerce of an international hotel brand


TravelDaily Reporter KarenTang

The report Analysis on Urban Prosperity inthe Chinese Hotel Market, jointly issued by Jones Lang LaSalle's Hotels Group and China Tourist Hotels Association in2012, shows that an international hotel brand opens properties in China on averageevery four days and that China has become one of world's fastest growing andcompetitive markets. However, when a Western hotel group encounters easternconsumers, it cannot usually introduce good products, and their value to theChinese market successfully, due to language and cultural differences, fails towin the favor of Chinese consumers. L2,a well-known digital IQ research company, pointed out inits 'L2 Think Tank Digital Hotel IQ Research 2013' that although manyinternational hotels focused on rapid expansion in the Chinese market, they hadlost good opportunities in the competition for online channels. One of the mostprominent problems is that although many international hotels provide a Chinese website pagespecific to the Chinese market, they don't offer a Chinese version of itsinternational hotel page or reservation process. 

Mr. Zhang works for anInternet company in Beijing and is a typical business traveler. As a member of many international hotel brands, Mr. Zhang alwaysmakes reservations through the hotel's official website. He explained that thereason was mainly due to hotel pictures, "Because you don't feel like it's a hotel's official website. You will naturally complete the reservation with the guide of picturesthat tell a story." However, he thought that there were a few problems in many internationalhotel groups' Chinese websites. For instance, there's only an introduction to the hotel itself withinadequate information about its surrounding areas, without informationspecific to a particular interest group. There's a lack of interaction withusers and no content from social networking sites or online customer services.Besides, when making a reservation for someproducts, the page will automatically jump to its English version and thedesign of many websites is very confusing.

TANG User Experience Design Consulting (hereinafter TANG Consulting ) CEO Jason Huang said that many factors contributed tothe difficulty that international hotel groups'Chinese websites encountered inuser experience. The most fundamental reason was that the plan and design ofmany international hotel groups'Chinese websites were dominated by theirheadquarters in the USA or Europe or theirforeign design teams, causing a high cost and low efficiency in communicationdue to language and time differences. Moreover, these foreign teams usuallytake domestic OTA websites as the focus of research to understand the usehabits of domestic users and use a similar layout or method. Secondly,international hotel groups have a high requirement for the standardization ofthe brand's visual identity. When developing a Chinese website specific to theChinese market, they will nearly copy the English website's plan and use thesame visual and color elements when translating it into Chinese. The result isthat Chinese users will easily come across non-fluent, awkward expressions whenreading the website, and a majority of western faces when looking at hotelpictures or videos. However, the most serious issue is non-local marketing andreservation. These issues make it difficult for Chinese tourists to becompletely integrated in the "storyscenarios" when visiting or booking hotel products.Therefore, Jason Huang thought that most hotel brands' Chinese websites were at most a Chinese translation, and neglected the most crucial factor - awebsite experience design process with Chinese users at its core. He added that "The differences in users from different regions arenot only limited to language, but their interests in content, use habits,decision-making, and visual & emotional preferences. Meanwhile, unliketraditional e-commerce websites, the brand stories and content quality oftourism-related websites play a very important role in user experience."

In 2011, InterContinentalHotels Group (IHG), the world's largestinternational hotel management group, began to consider developing a brand portal that met Chineseconsumers'  needs to improve its online market share in China. James Xu, IHG's Greater China Website and Interactive Marketing Product Manager, saidthat the goal of the hotel brand was "Glocal". He further explained that "With thepassing of time and further optimization of functions, we hope that our newChinese website can become a portal between IHG and Chinese customers, and thatthe customers can be provided with all services or proper guidance through thewebsite to boost the growth in website reservation."

However, facing the same situationas other international hotels, IHG has many brands such as InterContinentalHotels & Resorts, Indigo, Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts, Holiday Innand Holiday Inn Express. As each of the brands targets different consumergroups and needs, how to enable Chinese consumers to easily search, browse,inquire about prices and make reservations on the websites of mid to topfive-star brands became an urgent task for IHG.

TANG Consulting began tohelp IHG plan and design its new Chinese portal and mobile services two yearsago. Regarding how IHG could develop an e-service that better suited Chinese users'needs, Jason Huang made the following five suggestions on the overall website design, planning and implementation.

• Customer Centric E-Servicedesign and R&D process

Jason Huang said thatinternational hotel groups should return to the most basic user needs, carryout detailed user research and evaluation on their customer groups to exploretheir needs, preferences and expectations about hotel brands and products,thoroughly understand the role of their existing channels in the travelers' ecosystem and thecooperation between different channels to develop online and offline cross-channelservice experiences that suited the target consumer segment. He took IHG as anexample and said, "t has many brands and most of them target high-end consumers such asmedium and senior managers of domestic and foreign enterprises and governmentalofficials, who are attracted by the brand's foreign origin and long history.With a good education , an international vision and being proficient inEnglish, these people have higher requirements for the website’scontent and visual beauty.So, international hotel brands shouldn't neglect the consumers' true needs in the pursuit for localization. Hotels should thoroughly understand theneeds of local users through field observations, actual interviews, usabilitytesting, and analysis of bounce rates and ROI, etc."

• International standard,local thinking

International hotel groupsgenerally have unified requirements for the contents of their global andregional websites and most of the content and pictures are completed by theheadquarters and then translated to different languages. But facing the Chinese market with a hugely different culturalbackground, how should international hotels find a balance between the unity ofbrand's official websites andlocalization? Jason Huang said "International hotels shouldn't fall into the misunderstanding about localization, but have a local thinking whilemaintaining the positioning and standard of an international brand."He specifically pointed out that there was actually not a huge difference between western andeastern Internet users' habits and visual preferences for websites of aninternational hotel group's medium and highbrands. The major difference was the logical thinking in the displayed content,reservation process and use of socialmedia. Moreover, the design details of hotels of different levels should dependon the website's goal and positioning and the design of marketing activities.So, in the process of localization, international hotels should maintain theunified international standard in terms of the overall brand vision, instead ofusing a Chinese pinyin domain without understanding the target group's needs,or excessively using the so-called Chinese colors on the website, such as redto win the favor of Chinese consumers.

But, he stressed that, regardingwebsite contents, priority should be given to displaying, in a simple way, the information of most concern and use to Chineseusers. For example, high-end users valued a hotel's facility services, while the young group value cost performance. Meanwhile,international hotels always neglected some necessary elements for Chineseconsumers, such as decoration date, room size, whether free Wifi is available orwhether breakfast is provided or not. Besides, the design and interactionmethod of the input box needs to be sufficiently localized, which meant thathotels should try to use the words in the existing knowledge structure of localusers. He said, “One of the most importantchallenges for international hotels is to find the balance between internationalizationand localization.

• Cross-channel integrationand adequate combination with social media

Taking IHG for example,TANG Consulting offered it Cross Channel eServices, which meant that IHG couldrealize the integration of digital channels such as web, mobile web, apps,WeChat, Weibo, email , SMS, and the interaction between their users.Furthermore, Jason Huang thought that the Chinese market had a unique socialmedia ecology, so international hotel groups needed to actively use importantsocial media channels such as WeChat and Weibo. He further stressed, "Social media on the websiteshouldn't just be a tool for sharing, but be used to comprehensively integrate products and services through many channels. Beforedeciding how to carry out social media functions, the hotels should thoroughlyunderstand, from a strategic point of view, how consumers interact with thebrand through the social media and various channels such as apps and mobilephones."

• Hotel brand story andtarget group’s visual preferences

International hotel branding is one of thekey factors in creating a good Chinese user experience through its officialwebsite. Jason Huang said that international hotel groups should be good atattracting Chinese consumers by using its brand story with a long history,words, pictures or videos in a story-telling way. Many elements such as thelayout, color, font and size of website pages are different due to thedifference in Western and Eastern cultures, and different colors symbolizedifferent meanings. However, unlike the e-commerce websites of tangibleproducts, thefactor on a hotel's website that most directly influences the user's perceptionis pictures, becausehotels sell intangible products. Pictures that can deliver emotions are animportant factor in changing users from a 'looker' to a 'booker'. Internationalhotels should attract leisure tourists by better using its geographicaladvantages such as photos of seaside scenery to highlight the atmosphere of aresort hotel.

• All-in-one productreservation process

Jason Huang said that inhis cooperation with hotels, he found that reservation and payment were themost important factors that caused Chinese consumers to give up using an international hotel's official website, partly because many such websitesprovided no guidance in the reservationpage, and partly because the reservation page would usually jump to the Englishversion due to the use of a central reservation system, thus losing manypotential customers. The Chinese users who are familiar with the domestic OTA'sreservation processes will easily get lost before a complicated Westernreservation process. Meanwhile, international hotels usually only provide theoption of foreign credit card payment, but Chinese consumers tend to use localpayment options such as cash at the reception or Alipay and Unionpay.

As China's domestic consumption growsdramatically, many international hotel groups have accelerated their expansionin China. With local consumers gradually becoming the primary customers, manyinternational brands are competing to introduce Chinese-style services.However, when we examine international hotel brands, we usually pay muchattention to their products, services, marketing methods and the hotel's designstyle but paylittle attention to the user experience of its Chinese website targeting theChinese market. How should an international hotel find a proper consultingcompany to jointly develop its Chinese website? James from IHG shared hisexperience, "Thehotels need to find a partner that is very familiar with the Chinese market andthe habits of Chinese customers, offers practical suggestions and designs andhas the experience and capabilities of cooperating with international groupsand enterprises and some understanding about hotel groups, even the hotelindustry."Jason Huang said that international hotelsand website design consulting companies needed adequate communication, mutualrecognition and respect during the cooperation and should spend some timegetting along with each other. However, whether an international hotel groupgrants full authority to the local design team, whether all the hotel staff,from website operators to senior management, have a consensus and the senior management's recognition ofthe implementation team and its decision-making capabilities are the keyfactors influencing the website's ultimate success. He emphasized that "Consumers'needs change with time. The website and itscontent arestatic, but its services and user scenario contexts are dynamic and alive. Ausable Chinese official website doesn't equal an easy-to-use one, which doesn'tequal a convenient one. Only through internal and external localization can theusers be given the most smooth website use experience, thus creating maximumvalue."

Editor's note

It seems that internationalhotel groups have taken a small step on the local e-commerce journey, but thereis still a long way to go. They are facing challenges such as how to catch up with the change in Chinese consumers' localneeds, the internal processes of integrating many channels, and whether thehotel group will change their thinking and grant more authority. The PhoCusWright Conference to be held this November has a theme of 'Cult ofContext', which emphasizes newtravel experiences under a context. Meeting Chinese travelers  individual needsis the secret that international hotel groups targeting the Chinese marketneed to succeed. Chinese travelers are nolonger tolerant of mediocre websites and services that seemingly stress theChinese style.

Under a complete Chinesecontext, the new IHG portal, developed in two years, appears more appealing to Chinese users. We’ve summarized the following 9highlights.

• Simplified domains andintegrated resources to develop the portal for all sub-brands.

• Simplified page design,highlighting three key points including rapid reservation, marketing activities & special offers and the logo of IHG’ssub-brands.

• Local pictures on the hotel website, usingeastern faces and pictures of tourist attractions in the city where the hotelis located. 

• Reservation center hotlineis prominent in the top left of the home page and the customer service hotlineis presented on each page.

• Offers intelligentselection for a city, an input box supporting an alphabetical list and a listof popular cities familiar to Chinese users.

• Alipay service is provided, but Unionpay andother local bank payment options are yet to be provided. Reservation doesn'trequire a credit card guarantee or membership. The users can directly makereservations and make cash payment at the hotel.

• IHG’s new cloud serversystem boosts the website response and loading time.

• The reservation process is simplifieddramatically and a purchase guidance chart is provided at the top of thereservation page. It only takes three steps to make a reservation.

• The previous lengthy introduction to roomsizes and categories are described in a way more familiar to Chinese consumers. 

Comment | Messages

leo | 2014.05.15 10:51


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