Booking Holdings’ journey in China has spanned nine years, but the group is keen on being nimble, running operations in an autonomous way and also open to learning from local companies.
Digital agility is about responding to the uncertain future that results in change in the environment in which a business is being run. Organizations have to evolve to serve the customers in the best possible manner, but adjusting to change shouldn’t cost an exorbitant amount or ends up being a timely exercise.
In this context, it is interesting to assess how a global travel e-commerce business such as one of Booking Holdings’ stature, goes about refining its product offering in China.
Marsha Ma, Managing Director, China, Booking.com acknowledges that there is plenty to learn from indigenous Internet players about the digital consumer behaviour of Chinese consumers. And going by how the group is going about constant enhancement of its digital assets and traffic acquisition tactics, it is clear that Booking.com is lending a new dimension to the whole localization strategy.
Marsha Ma, Managing Director, China, Booking.com
The view isn’t myopic or blinkered. Booking.com is rightly giving special attention to the distinctive digital commerce landscape in China. So there is more to just focusing on functional attributes of its core product. Control isn’t entirely in the non-Chinese environment as more organizations openly understand that the local team in China can’t be abstained from enterprise-level product innovation.
So Booking Holdings is keen on being nimble, running operations in an autonomous way and also open to learning from local companies. This is being reflected in the fact that not only the group has strategic alliances with Ctrip, Meituan and Didi, but is now working closely with Huawei, Mafengwo, Qyer, Qunar.com, eLong, WeChat Mini-app, and several airline companies to reach more Chinese consumers with its global resources.
“After entering China market for nine years, we do witness Chinese customer behaviors are always changing, weakening the traditional ways of marketing. Therefore, we are adjusting our marketing strategies accordingly,” said Marsha.
Apart from mass advertising on key channels such as online video platforms like v.qq.com, youku.com, “we are also doing well on social networking platforms including WeChat Moments and Weibo with celebrities and influencers on Refer-A-Friend program,” she said.
“What’s more, understanding Chinese preferring entertaining and engaging contents, we also share more engaging content and information to our app and social platforms, making every effort to serve Chinese consumers better to capture their hearts.”
“Different from other markets, Chinese hold quite distinct user behaviors and travel preferences, which guide us to explore more about Chinese consumers and optimize tailored products and service to suit this market,” shared Marsha. Booking.com is keen on leveraging its understanding of what travellers from this market are looking for and an integral part of this journey is continuously collaborating with a spate of companies.
“We have invested a lot to be more locally relevant,” mentioned Marsha. “To meet Chinese consumers’ special demands on one-stop travel experience, Booking.com never stops at growing organically but discovering and actively cooperating with multi-industry leading firms such as Spring Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Huawei, China Mobile and China Merchants Bank. Such initiatives are appreciated by global team and our parent company Booking Holdings sees more potential to partner with other industry giants in China like Huawei, Meituan, Ctrip, Didi Chuxing to support the market to enhance the one-stop travel experience for Chinese consumers,” she added.
“With more Chinese consumers eager to have high-quality and personalized travel consumption, in addition to the continuous efforts in expanding business scales and enlarging inventories under the global guideline (In China, the company has over 4,228,800 listings in total with over 300,000 listings in alternative properties), we focus on our group of high-value users by upgrading customized products and services such as new loyalty program with point system, tiered loyalty programs and VIP CS hotline and more to come in the future, to meet their pursuit of premium travel and lifestyle,” said Marsha. “It is also according to Chinese unique consumption and travel peak that Booking.com dedicates to innovate more for this market, including the Golden Week Deal which offers a great discount to Chinese consumers exclusively for their enthusiasm to travel around the world during national holiday, as well as the newly launched Fliggy store to accommodate to their consumption behaviors.”
In addition to the Chinese version of Booking.com app offering more local content initiatives such as Golden Week Deal, as well as the China-only WeChat and mobile login-in, WeChat Pay, Alipay and UnionPay access, the group is also working on the Chinese version of Booking Assistant. “In global wide, we have piloted Booking Assistant, which is a chatbot, powered by machine learning technology that provides an easy-to-use service and support center within a conversational user interface that allows people to connect with properties directly. As the product continues to evolve, we will continue to train our bot and scale up the number of topics it’s able to detect and handle, as well as making it available to even more bookers in additional languages,” said Marsha.
Marsha also referred to another product, Booking Experiences. This mobile-based, in-destination product uses technology to help travellers to discover what to explore in a destination, all via their smartphone, and includes hassle-free payment, priority queuing at select attractions etc.
Making the most of collaborations
The group, looking at expanding both Booking Holdings and Booking.com, is not growing organically by investing in its own brand and business, but it is also counting on partnerships with strong local players on the ground. By pooling in resources or being aware of the trends, the plan is to form an integrated network so that customers can get the best service all over the world with the group, said Marsha.
“To be more localized in China market, the team is working with local giants in diverse industries and carrying out several simultaneous initiative to develop one-stop travel service for customers such as Booking Holdings investing in Meituan to share resources with Agoda, Booking.com cooperating with Ctrip to share access to the companies’ combined property inventories and are also in the process of testing our Booking Basic which access to the inventory on Ctrip with the lowest prices, and partnering with Didi Chuxing to offer on-demand car service through Booking.com app and in turn to support Didi users to book accommodations through Booking.com,” explained Marsha, who believes that this way the group is laying a strong foundation for years to come.
As for Ctrip, she shared, “We cooperate with Ctrip after our parent company Booking Holdings invested a significant amount in it, which has been further strengthened recently. Ctrip and Booking.com will continue to share access to the companies’ property inventory, allowing customers to select from a wider range of price competitive products globally. And we are very glad to have Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com being designated as Booking Holdings' observer to the Ctrip board of directors, helping us to understand the China market more and deeper.”
Crafting a product for China
Travel e-commerce companies are now looking beyond translation and working on plans related to dynamic creation of pages based on customer personas.
For Booking.com, a site is never about translation only. “We have our site in 43 languages, and it is always based on A/B testing and the consumer behaviors of each market that we optimize our site. For example, in China our design of portal websites should contain larger amounts of information compared to websites in Europe, which are usually simpler. And our Chinese version of Booking.com app goes further from here to have more Chinese favorite banner to recommend the discounted properties and share more engaging information,” mentioned Marsha.
Also, foreign companies are ensuring their product development teams interact with specialists from Didi, Baidu etc. to improve their product. In this context, Booking.com has a bottom-up culture, as opposed to top-down, believing in that the more backgrounds and diverse experiences it brings together, the better the company is as a collective team is looking at its business opportunities and challenges from different angles, fostering creative solutions and driving innovation on many levels.
“Therefore, we align with our headquarters in Amsterdam and benefit from the powerful support of database and technology as always, and at the same time possess a degree of flexibility of being the only market that has an independent product development team and marketing team to be more localized in China to ensure the growth in a more high-efficiency way,” shared Marsha.