China the Future of Travel interviews: Zane Smith, Vation Limited

Case Study 9: Adventure Sports Tourism

Zane Smith has worked in adventure sports tourism, eco tourism and tourism marketing in New Zealand for two decades, including promotion and development of businesses in hiking and white water rafting, and specifically helping his country’s tourism prepare for the Chinese market. He is the managing director of Vation Limited – Marketing Solutions.


How did you get involved with the Chinese tourism market in New Zealand?

Where I grew up, I lived in relatively adventurous areas, and our lifestyle lends itself easily to adventure tourism. Nature is really accessible; we have rivers and mountains. I’ve been surfing and kayaking all my life and I’ve always been into extreme sports in some form or other. We grew up doing this stuff, so I became a raft guider at 17 and ended up travelling the world, exporting my skills. I had adventure tourism companies of my own: a white water rafting company in New Zealand, and I had an internet café back when they were new – it was the first internet café in our region. Early on, I got into adventure marketing. I got involved in developing tourism products in the mid-1990s. Back in those days, eco tourism was an unknown entity. My background is very environmental as well. Where I grew up is very nature-oriented, so there was a natural eco tourism theme to what I was doing anyway. I had one of the earliest eco tourism companies in New Zealand. People would always ask me about how to do things, so that’s what I do now -I’ve been building and selling tourism businesses for years. I’ve been working on both sides as an operator and as a behind-the-scenes, developmental, strategic marketer.

I’m involved in all markets that come to New Zealand, reasons being quite obvious. We have to understand all markets, niche markets as well as large burgeoning markets. In 2008, New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with China. I looked at that and said, “It’s only a matter of time.” So the Chinese market for me was the identity of an emerging marketing, one that would be critically large, and getting stuck into it involved creating networks.


What are the major selling points of New Zealand for Chinese travellers?

We’ve had a Chinese tourism flow here for about 15 years, so it’s quite established. However, our Chinese traveller was package and group tours on buses, prepaid, cheap travel out of China with a lot of shopping. In 2005-2006, our tourism industry took a major stand against that kind of tourism. It’s not what our country is built on. Our brand is wilderness, it’s natural, it’s green. Shopping was just outrageous – we didn’t like it. It was brought up at a number of New Zealand conferences. We called it a problem with Chinese tourism. We took a stand and advocated for a more organic approach to tourism based around the key products that we have. Adventure was absolutely outrageous for the Chinese market back then. There was no way they were interested in bungee jumping or white water rafting. A, they didn’t have the money, and B, it was contrary to their culture. We saw it as a low-value market compared to our general markets of North America, Scandinavia and the UK. We were getting good money, and they were well prepared to jump off of bridges and go on biking tours. So the major selling points of New Zealand nowadays for Chinese travellers have definitely changed, because the market has changed considerably. We’re seeing much a younger, more articulate, Westernised market coming out of China, and their desires are much more aligned with what we do. They want to feel what life is like through our eyes. We’ve seen a major shift to the FIT market. Way back when I was predicting the Chinese FIT market was going to be huge in New Zealand, people thought I was mad. Even 18 months ago meeting with big tourism markets, they just didn’t believe it. From early on, they were coming for the blue sky and the clean air. They come for the sheep, and the photographs of themselves with the beautiful little sheep, and then they see what the Western people are doing: “Look at those Dutch people rafting!” They’re easily swayed. There was a wall of fear for a while, but that’s easily changed. Especially the last summer season, we’ve seen Chinese get involved in the adventure sport scene.


How popular are adventure sports among Chinese tourists, compared to tourists from other countries?

It’s very new. AJ Hackett Bungee is one of bigger bungee operators. If you go to their base, when you get there, they’ve got as many as 16 cameras from different angles, so you can buy the video and images of your jump. Because Chinese like proof of their activities for prestige purposes, it’s an absolute winner. You can’t get near the photographic kiosk because it’s packed with Chinese. Photographic evidence is one of the keys. People are learning that fast.


What kind of Chinese tourist is interested in outdoor activities and adventure sports?

They travel in families, we’re talking younger generation – 40 and younger, while parents and grandparents look on and laugh and smile. They’re getting the same reaction as we get from our grandparents. Everyone really enjoys it from a spectator perspective as well as an experiential one. A lot of it is about feelings – it makes you feel good. A lot of what China is about is what makes you look good. So a by-product is they’re learning about feelings. And the parents or grandparents, they feel great too. That collectivism is being broken by having the opportunity to do these things. Now we’ve got the couples on honeymoon, rich couples, flying around on helicopters. We’ve got a lot of multi-generation family groups: the couple with the child and their parents. Often they’re internationally educated; they’ve made good money. They’re now taking their parents on holidays to thank them – it’s filial piety. We find that three-generation touring party very common.

One national park had no Chinese tourists going at all, and I prepared them for the Chinese market, and they thought I was crazy. And I said, “It’s going to come.” It’s like turning your hose on—the water will get everywhere at some point. We prepared these companies for the Chinese arrival, and then the first day, they rang me and said, “The Chinese people arrived. There was one van of them, they came to the office, and we said ‘nihao.’” The next day, there were 30 of them. Now there are thousands. It’s crazy. We’ve never seen a market like it. We’ve worked with very strong Asian markets, Japanese and Koreans. Adapting to the Chinese market has still been a big jump for a lot of people.


How do they become interested in adventure activities?

They see and they do. It’s really strong word of mouth. And it’s our brand and the way we market ourselves.


Are there many Chinese doing winter sports?

The Chinese ski team went to Switzerland, and they busted it open for the Chinese market. Canada is really onto it, really targeting the Chinese. In New Zealand, skiing and snowboarding are really big. But as far as the ski industry goes, they’re still perceiving the Chinese as being testers and not long-term clients. Our ski industry would prefer to have long-term customers, not those who just spend half a day or a day mucking around. Our learner slopes make up maybe 5%. If we were to embrace the Chinese market we’d have to change completely and open a lot of new areas. Their money is people coming for five days of skiing. Right now it’s not worth it to them. When you look at the numbers, are they skiers, or do they just ski?

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