As Brand USA moves in, NTA shifts China focus

By Michelle Baran

NTA ChinaWhen one door closes, three more will open. At least that is the case with the National Tour Association's (NTA) Visit USA office in Shanghai, which closed at the end of 2012.

In its place, Brand USA next month will open three offices in China that will take over marketing the U.S. as a destination to the Chinese outbound travel market.

Brand USA, the public-private entity with the mission of promoting travel to the U.S., will establish the offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

It will also open an office in Taipei, Taiwan.

Once those offices in China are up and running, Brand USA hopes to create a Mandarin-language version of its website, DiscoverAmerica.com. Then the goal is to create a digital and social media campaign that will increase awareness of Brand USA both within the trade and among Chinese consumers, said Paul Cerula, chief business development officer for Brand USA.

Cerula said he believes those initiatives will be in place by 2014.

The NTA, meanwhile, will remain in the picture with its China Inbound Program, a tour operator qualification program for Chinese group leisure travel to the U.S.

It will also collaborate with Brand USA on China market initiatives, and the organizations will join forces for the U.S. Pavilion at the China Outbound Travel and Tourism Market being held in Beijing in April.

The NTA had opened its Visit USA office in Shanghai at the start of 2010, using funding from a $281,225 grant it was awarded by the Commerce Department Market Development Cooperator Program, which is geared toward generating exports.

With the NTA's matching funds, the total project budget was $967,456, and it generated more than $3.6 billion in exports, a figure several times greater than the export level generated by any other similar project, according to Nicole Lamb-Hale, assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing and services.

The NTA hasn't spent all the grant funding and has applied to have the grant extended through 2013, a request the Commerce Department has tentatively agreed to.

"NTA indicated that in an extended project period it will continue to act as a central hub to connect China travel agents with U.S. tour operators and to track Chinese visits to the United States," Lamb-Hale stated.

With the remaining funds, the NTA is hoping to focus its efforts stateside on educating and training the receptive tour operators in its China Inbound Program.

"There are low-quality tours out there, [so] how do we educate Chinese tourists [on] what to buy?" said NTA President Lisa Simon, referring to problems with inbound tour operators that give Chinese visitors a subpar experience at bargain-basement prices. Simon said she wants to work with tour operators on "how to upgrade and sell the U.S. as a destination that is not just a price-driven market."

One specific problem she mentioned was the quality of the guides traveling with Chinese groups in the U.S. So one area of investment using the extended grant funds might be a training program for receptive Chinese operators to improve the overall quality of guides, Simon said.

Additionally, at the NTA's tour operator conference, Contact, taking place in Hawaii from Aug. 15 to 17, several tour operators and travel agents from China who sell the U.S. have been invited in order to facilitate a dialogue with inbound operators and work to improve the standards, said Simon.
 

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

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