MARRAKECH, Morocco -- "I will never again book a group from China," the CEO of an upscale tour operation told me a month ago.
"A typical tour has four stages," he continued. "The first stage involves a tremendous amount of client contact as they figure out exactly what they want to do. Lots of questions and back-and-forth until they reach a decision and put down a deposit.
"Then comes a lull, with very little contact -- that's the second stage. But questions start up again as the trip nears, mostly about details: What will the weather be like? What should they bring? When will they receive vouchers? Things like that.
"And then, unless something goes amiss, you don't hear from them while they're actually traveling."
But an African safari his company recently put together for a group of Chinese millionaires proved to be anything but typical.
"It never stopped," he said. "From the day they first contacted us, they kept asking questions and making changes to the itinerary."
During the first and second stages, he dedicated a staff member to the group almost full time as questions poured in.
Then, two days into the trip, he received an urgent note that they wanted to change just about everything that remained.
"They had chosen an extended stay at a tented camp. We had explained exactly what that entailed, but once there, they decided they didn't like it and wanted to move into an upscale lodge immediately."
It wasn't easy finding space on short notice, and the operator had to send someone to Kenya to accompany them for the balance of the trip.
"It was a nightmare. And," he added, "they were terrible travelers. Noisy. Smoking. Littering. Inappropriate dress. I'm done with them."
I recounted the story to Jacqueline Cheung last week at the Pure Life Experiences conference here. Cheung, a 20-something translator-turned-product manager, had come to Marrakech to scout for suppliers who might be a good match to host the 40 groups of Chinese millionaires she sends abroad each year.
She seemed unfazed by the report. "It's typical," she said of the endless questions and enormous changes at the last moment. "But we have solutions."
A demanding group
Cheung is one of two Chinese outbound operators whom I shadowed as they shopped for products at Pure Life Experiences, a high-end showcase of experiential travel.
What I discovered, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have put it, is that rich Chinese travelers are different from other rich travelers.
Wealthy Chinese, it was agreed among the Chinese buyers, are extraordinarily demanding. Cheung's solution, she said, is to flood them with information: a steady stream of booklets and other documents along with relevant guest speakers. Before a recent trip to Israel, she engaged the former Chinese ambassador to that country to address the travelers. And on the eve of every trip, she assembles group members for a briefing and answers any final questions.
As a wholetailer, she may be in a unique position to pull a group together physically. She works for SoulUniq, a travel club in Guangzhou that is much like a gentlemen's club in London, with a physical building where members can congregate and enjoy six-course Cantonese meals prepared by a chef that SoulUniq recruited from the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.
The club, she said, "is the platform," and its primary purpose is travel.
Her search for suppliers was more than a review of their products.
"I need to find suppliers who are ready for the Chinese market," she said. "Otherwise, no matter how much support I provide, it's meaningless."
Antarctica is hugely popular among Chinese, and she stopped at the OneOcean Expeditions booth to shop for a ship to charter. In that meeting, it emerged that when Chinese travelers fan out across the world, months that are typically considered slow seasons in many destinations can heat up considerably. The Chinese New Year is typically in late January or early February, and her club members are also particularly interested in travel in May and October.
It also became clear that Antarctica's popularity is a reflection of the Chinese upper class' desire to visit places whose scenery and activities are nothing like what can be found within their own country, a tendency that informed every conversation Cheung had with suppliers.
For example, Myanmar is a hot destination with European and North American travelers, but it didn't necessarily fit the destination profile she was looking for. After talking with Win Htoon, product manager of Essence of Myanmar, she told me she was unimpressed with photos of Pagan.
"Temples," she said somewhat dismissively, though she did express interest in luxury balloon rides over the region.
I told her I had seen many temples, but that Pagan stood out; it was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever visited.
"That's not how the Chinese will look at it," she said. "They can see plenty of temples in China. The idea is not to see something beautiful but to see something you have never seen before."
She was interested in river-related activities but added that overall, the scenery was similar to, but less impressive than what could be found in China. She spent several minutes exploring with Htoon if there were ways to incorporate the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition candidate who transformed the country into a democracy, into the trip. "Can we visit her house?" Cheung asked.
"It's not possible," he said. "We can drive by it. Maybe her father's house. We can drive by the prison where she was held."
"It has to be a place where the group can stop and her story be told," Cheung said.
A short booking window
Htoon said they could do something. He then told her that in high season, she would need to book six months in advance.
She was taken aback. "That's really difficult for the Chinese market," she said, explaining that she typically books three months in advance, with changes right up to the last minute.
Her next stop was at the table of Paws Up, a luxury Montana ranch. She seemed impressed. "Is there good golfing nearby?"
"Pebble Beach, but it's not very close," replied John Romfo, vice president of sales and marketing.
Cheung said distances meant very little to her groups because "they've already come a very long way." In fact, she was looking at Montana as an optional extension for a group she was bringing to Augusta, Ga., to watch the Masters.
After the meeting, she said the mythic American West has a strong pull for Chinese travelers. I asked if she had considered Yellowstone National Park.
"No," she said. "Yellowstone is very well known. It's not that my members want to brag, but if they are in a conversation with someone obnoxious who says they've been to Yellowstone, my member can say, 'Yes, but have you been to Montana?'"
Next stop: the booth of Fjallnas, a lodge on the Swedish side of the border with Norway. She concluded it was something she and her friends might enjoy, but it was "too quiet" for her groups.
Her final stop of the day was with CGH Earth, a Kerala, India, hotel group. She asked a lot of questions about houseboat stays in the backwaters, which she found unique. She also felt that Kalari Kovilakom, an ayurvedic hotel clinic and spa, might appeal to her groups, though she had concerns about needing a translator.
The next day, I shadowed Amy Tsai of the online startup Zanadu. Tsai, also in her 20s, became Zanadu's director of business development after a short stint with an investment banking house in Hong Kong. Backed by a Chinese private equity company and with an experienced hotelier among its principals, it hopes to capture Chinese travelers who are interested in four- or five-star hotels that have an experiential aspect rather than a well-known brand.
"The language barrier is significant," she said. "The Chinese may know Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton but may not have heard of Cipriani in Venice."
Zanadu focuses on hotels and currently it offers profiles of 600 properties. The founders had initially wanted to charge hotels for the listings but found they first had to prove their worth.
While Zanadu does not offer the all-out hand-holding services of SoulUniq, its concierge division can arrange air, transfers and restaurant bookings, and the company holds offline events at banks to attract high-net-worth individuals. It sold about $10 million in bookings last year, and is on track to double that for 2013, Tsai said.
For foreign companies that want more marketing reach than the website offers, her backers started a sister company, Red Hummingbird.
Zanadu wants to branch out beyond hotels, and we visited Butterfield & Robinson, best-known for its biking trips through Europe's wine regions. It also offers hiking and now operates in several regions of the world.
After hearing the company's CEO, Norman Howe, describe his offerings, she seemed doubtful that they were a good fit.
Her group, she said, wanted to ride in Mercedes-Benzes, not on bicycles, to wineries. "Perhaps the younger generation," she said. "It may take some time to groom this market."
Howe noted Butterfield & Robinson was not about "punching out kilometers" or athleticism, but rather had "a gentle amount of exercise" as a component.
I asked Tsai if, generally speaking, her clients were interested in fitness. "Medical tours to Switzerland are very popular," she said, "to get shots that make you look young again. They care about fitness, but in a less athletic way."
(Listening to the exchange between Tsai and Howe, it also occurred to me that, to a 55-year-old Chinese citizen who had spent his or her young adulthood with no alternative to biking everywhere, riding on vacation might have limited appeal.)
Howe predicted that Chinese preferences would likely evolve over time and that, should the Chinese begin to book bicycle trips, theirs would probably have to be altered somewhat. Ten percent of his customers are now Brazilian, he said, and he found that he had to tailor itineraries for them that, among other things, take into account Brazilians' "elastic" sense of time.
Tsai's final assessment: "It's very interesting, and I'd love to see how this develops, but I honestly don't see Chinese millionaires riding bikes."
When I had first related what a tour operator had told me about the demanding Chinese millionaires to SoulUniq's Cheung, she said his experience was typical, but she also said that the stereotype of Chinese travelers as noisy litterbugs would change over time. Her company, she said, addressed the problem head-on.
"I understand that there are restaurants in Europe that, when a Chinese group sits down, they put down cards in front of them, written in Chinese, asking them to keep their voices down," Tsai said. "That is offensive. First of all, not every Chinese traveler is like that. I would like to change the image. And we talk about cultural sensitivity in our pre-departure meetings."
Cheung said that although Chinese preferences and behavior will undoubtedly evolve, Westerners should keep in mind that, as with so many aspects of Chinese society, the concept of "face" is behind travel decisions. A Chinese citizen doesn't exactly make travel decisions alone; he or she is always mindful of how society will view the decision.
By that measure, the Chinese are not so different from the rest of the world. We all like to extend the joy of our trips by sharing our experiences with others, and rare is the person who does not feel some pride in his or her travels.
I think the differences are twofold:
First, the diversity of our society leads to more diverse choices and travel behaviors; "face" has many faces in the U.S.
And second, many of us have become, over the last 30 years, experienced travelers. Although stereotypes of the loud, naive and culturally insensitive American traveler still linger, they have certainly been tempered as Americans have gained more and more experience traveling abroad.
"I will never again book a group from China," my tour operator friend had said.
"Never" is a long time. I'll ask for an update in 10 years.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.