Chinese tour operators see big U.S. cities and small towns during 'MegaFam'
Travel Weekly
November 28, 2016
By Michelle Baran

Brand USA last month hosted its first familiarization trip for Chinese tour operators, bringing in a group of 50.

In the past five years, the destination-marketing organization has invested substantially to woo the Chinese travel market, an effort that could either be furthered or hampered by Donald Trump's presidency.

"We should really all be embracing this," said Noel Hentschel, chairman and CEO of the Los Angeles-based inbound tour operator AmericanTours International. "We have, for the first time ever, the tourism president who comes from tourism. I was surprised that he didn't get more support from the industry."

Hentschel said it has been difficult for American companies to compete with Chinese inbound operators that don't adhere to proper safety and quality regulations for tour guiding, such as limiting motorcoach drivers' hours. She said she hoped that the Trump administration would more strongly enforce the laws, helping to make companies like hers more competitive.

"I think there's only good that's going to come from it for our relationship with China," Hentschel said.

Just days before the U.S. presidential election, Brand USA partnered with United Airlines to host what it called a China MegaFam tour from Oct. 19 to 27, bringing 50 tour operators from across China to experience destinations throughout the U.S.

The idea was not just to highlight landmark cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco but to also expose the Chinese operators to lesser-known regional destinations, such as Stony Brook, N.Y.; Mystic, Conn.; Estes Park, Colo.; and Rapid City, S.D.

Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, said of the Chinese operators, "They walked away with ideas of how to package the United States in new and different ways."

He added that they were asked to be active on social media during the fam trip to promote the destinations they visited. The hope now, Thompson said, is that having experienced the destination first-hand, the participating operators will be better able to sell the U.S. back in China.

Chinese tour operators swap U.S. travel stories at a mega-fam dinner hosted by Brand USA.Chinese tour operators swap U.S. travel stories at a mega-fam dinner hosted by Brand USA. 

Brand USA, which emerged from the establishment of the Travel Promotion Act that was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, began operating as a public-private entity to promote the U.S. in May 2011. In 2014, Congress reauthorized Brand USA's funding through 2020.

While Brand USA promotes the U.S. to numerous source markets, China presents some particularly lucrative economic opportunities, not least because Chinese travelers spend more than any other foreign travelers in the U.S.

According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, the U.S. welcomed nearly 2.6 million visitors from China in 2015, an 18% increase over 2014, and Chinese visitors spent more than $30 billion in the U.S. last year, an average of $7,164 each during a U.S. trip. That is about 30% more than other international visitors.

Brand USA did not respond to follow-up questions regarding how president-elect Trump heading to the White House might impact the organization's momentum.

But Thompson was adamant about Brand USA's ongoing and long-term commitment to the Chinese market.

"I think just the sheer size and scope makes it a major opportunity for any destination marketing organization," he said.