U.S. tourism arrivals to Suzhou, a 2,500-year-old city on the Grand Canal near Shanghai, leapt from 80,000 to 120,000 overnight visitors between 2014 and 2016, according to Lincoln Wang, director of international marketing development for the Suzhou Tourism Bureau.
The U.S. already was the No. 1 market, he said, but seemed ripe for further, and quick, development.
The recent growth in arrivals, Wang said, resulted from a comprehensive marketing program launched in late 2014 when the tourism bureau retained the services of Chicago-based PHG Consulting, a division of Preferred Hospitality Group.
He said PHG raised Suzhou's visibility by launching an international social media presence; PHG also created a website (TraveltoSuzhou.com) customized for the trade and for consumers.
Wang said Suzhou now hosts about 15 agents and 15 media per year but stepped up its outreach to agents last month by hosting a China-U.S. Travel Trade Conference. It invited 45 U.S. retailers and operators, Wang said, and a similar number of Chinese incoming agents from Suzhou and beyond.
PHG vice president Paul Cohen told conference delegates that 90 U.S. operators now offer 250 itineraries with at least one Suzhou overnight.
He said the 250 itineraries more than double those offered in 2014, while the number of operators has tripled, starting from 32, in the same period. More than 100 itineraries, ranging from Suzhou-only plans to full-blown packages, are featured at the TraveltoSuzhou.com site.
Cohen used his appearance at the conference to update the U.S. trade on other matters and offer suggestions:
• He said the beefed-up marketing worked for Suzhou because the destination already was rich with potential, largely because it has a long history as China's cultural capital and silk center. The modern city actively preserves these traditions as well as protects the physical appearance of its ancient, moated city center.
However, Cohen said, it is not useful for dozens of operators to offer the same tours; there must be a variety of products on the shelf.
He said PHG has helped develop unique experiences. One is a flower arranging program at the city's Lingering Garden, which was the birthplace of Chinese flower arranging.
PHG also fostered a bonsai master program; agents or operators can arrange for clients to meet with a bonsai master in the city's largest bonsai garden (600 trees).
Pointing to Suzhou's reputation for fine gardens, nine of which are Unesco protected, he suggested agents ask ground operators to organize events (dinners, musical performances, tai chi sessions) in one of the gardens.
Or, for the luxury market, he said, agents could arrange — for clients booking at least a year out — to have the clients' favorite photo reproduced in silk embroidery. The Suzhou Embroidery Art Museum can fulfill the request, which would cost about $15,000 to $20,000, Cohen said.
Furthermore, conference delegates, during a two-day, premeeting fam, sampled another Suzhou-only experience, the 500-year-old Kunqu opera, in a special performance at the Kunqu Opera Museum.
Kunqu performers in a segment of a popular 400-year-old opera, “The Peony Pavilion.” Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin
• Cohen said PHG has worked with Suzhou hotels, including the independents, to get their net, as well as commissionable, rates loaded in the GDSs, the better to serve tour operators and selected retailers.
Conference speaker Reena Ma of the Suzhou Tourism Bureau said the city has 30 five-star hotels among 142 starred properties; some are luxury versions of traditional-style housing, she said. New properties — Le Meridien and a W — are joining the club this fall, with others in the pipeline.
• Finally, Cohen said the tourism bureau funds an incentive program rewarding operators for bringing overnight visitors to Suzhou. He said PHG is negotiating with Signature, Travel Leaders, Virtuoso and others to add a consortia incentive program; PHG aims to select consortia partners this month. Member agents plus some independent producers also will have the use of customized sales materials, he said.
Another conference presenter, Lori Iannuzzo, president of Can't Stop Traveling in Satellite Beach, Fla., provided feedback to China's operators based on the delegates' Suzhou fam but aimed her concluding line at U.S. agents: "It's a disservice to clients in Shanghai not to recommend that they come to Suzhou," accessible from Shanghai on the bullet train. In fact, conference delegate Mike Weingart, owner of Air Land Sea Consultants in Houston, said Suzhou should be a two-day trip.