Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Bosshart, the Director of Global Accounts and the Director for Asia Pacific for Switzerland Tourism. His career began ten years ago and he spent seven of those years in China.
After that, he moved back to Switzerland where he is now based, but travels frequently to China and the rest of Asia Pacific to encourage more people to spend their next holiday in Switzerland. My interview with Simon lasted close to an hour and it was clear that he possessed a wealth of information about the Chinese market and enthusiastically shared it with me.
1. As the Director of Global Accounts and the Director For Asia Pacific, what are your responsibilities?
As the Director of Global Accounts, I represent the Swiss Tourism Board as a globally acting tourism organisation and work with other international suppliers like Miki Travel, Trivago and Contiki. As the Director for Asia Pacific, I act as the bridge between these markets and Switzerland, promoting Switzerland as a travel destination to these markets.
2. How has the tourism industry changed in Switzerland over the last 10 years?
It has changed in 3 ways. Globally, there has been a growing trend towards online business and online booking facilities. This trend moves and disrupts the travel industry. 10 years ago, it was a completely offline industry with a lot of players in between, but not anymore. It is getting easier to book a trip and it is better for consumers as more people are relying on OTAs to book their next trip. However, many intermediaries are losing out and the same goes for the Swiss. OTAs also focus heavily on Switzerland because it is an expensive country for travel. The higher Swiss companies charge consumers, the more commission OTAs get. This drives up the prices of Swiss tourism products.
Inbound markets to Switzerland has also changed a lot in the last decade. Traditionally, our 40% of guests were Swiss and the other 60% came from nearby markets like Germany, UK, France and Italy. They had specific travel patterns too. They usually stayed longer, travelling from one town to another in search for hidden gems and enjoyed outdoor activities like hiking and skiing. Recently, especially in the last 5 years, there has been a strong shift from nearby markets to newer markets overseas. We now receive a lot more American and Chinese guests. China is our 4th most important market, followed by India and South East Asia.
Currently, the Swiss remain the largest travel market, making up 43% of travellers in Switzerland. This is followed by the Germans, who make up 12-13%. Inbound markets from the UK, US and China are at a similar level and the Chinese market is expected to grow quickly. Other major source markets include France, Italy and the Netherlands.
(Note that these figures are based on hotel overnights and do not take into account overnight stays in other types of accommodations.)
Lastly, Switzerland's economic development has also played a major role in changing the local tourism industry. The Swiss Franc is extremely strong against the Euro and so makes it more expensive than ever for nearby markets to visit Switzerland. The tourism industry is an export industry, since it focuses on selling products to an international economy, bringing in new money to the local economy. However, unlike other exports, tourism businesses cannot outsource production to bring costs down. You need to pay local guides local wages and that makes production expensive.
3. What is a typical profile for a Chinese tourist in Switzerland?
The Chinese are what we call "highlight customers". They prefer going to well-known cities and visiting famous attractions. They want to see the big places and aren't as keen to discover hidden gems like the Europeans. Having said that, the Chinese are extremely curious and are willing to learn about a new destination. They are also a lot less active in terms of outdoor sports.
Swiss tour and activity operators need to figure out how to package their products to attract customers from this market. Take skiing as an example. Newer markets don't possess insider knowledge and experience to plan and book a skiing trip. Swiss tourism operators need to make this process easier and educate their new guests.
Head over to our Ultimate Guide to Reaching the Chinese Tourism Market to learn more about this booming group of consumers.
4. I read in a previous interview that you are actively promoting free independent travel (FIT)* in Switzerland. How has the Chinese market responded to his?
We are not changing the mind of travellers, but the Chinese market is so big that we can focus on such niches. The Chinese used to travel in large groups because of visa issues (it was much easier to get a group visa than individual visas), high costs and a lack of travel experience. I believe that China will switch to independent travelling a lot quicker because they actually don’t like big groups. They prefer travelling in smaller intimate groups, unlike the Japanese who prefer collective group travel. The Chinese prefer to travel with friends and family, not mass groups with 35 to 40 people.
For Switzerland, we estimate that in 2015 30-35% of Chinese travellers were FIT travellers, so it is a reality. This form of travel might be different for certain destinations. For example, Thailand is a classical Chinese mass travel destination but not every country is built this way. Other mass travel destinations include Korea and Japan, France and the United States. We can also track the percentage of individual travellers in Switzerland is getting bigger thanks to our incredibly well-connected transport system. It is also very safe to travel alone in Switzerland.
5. What are some hurdles travellers face when visiting Switzerland?
There has been some concern over the migration crisis and the terrorist attacks in Europe but these events seem to have little impact on Switzerland's tourism. These incidents are just shocking, but it does not mean that Europe is any less safe. There is also no direct danger in Switzerland since our country remain out of the political game.
Another hurdle is an economic one, like I mentioned earlier. It is expensive to travel to and around Switzerland.
There is also a visa issue with Europe. As of December last year, a biometric visa system has been introduced on a worldwide scale and every traveller has to apply for a visa at a physical visa application centre. For some travellers, it could be quite a journey to get there. If you live in a small town in China, you might have to commute for more than 10 hours just to spend 10 minutes applying for a visa. This can be a huge deterrent but it is still difficult to say how big the impact of this has been.
6. How can local Swiss tour and activity operators better sell their products to this new overseas market?
The tourism business environment is driven by SMEs who are not used to working with one another. They need to start working together, bundling their services together and distributing it on one specific channel. Let's use the example of skiing again. Most travellers will first go to a tourism office to learn about skiing and where to rent equipment. But how do they find the right equipment? Where can they find the best prices? If they manage to sort that out, they need to figure out the different types of passes - do they purchase a pass for one day, multi-day, one week? As for travellers wanting to learn how to ski, who do you get? How do you find the right instructor?
Customers end up wasting so much time find information and comparing products and prices. The process can also be incredibly intimidating. The solution must be to simplify this whole process, for instance creating a "beginner experience" package where different businesses work together. They also need to be prepared to pay a commission to their distributors. There many suppliers who are B2C driven and think that commission is a waste but you need to do this if you want to reach an overseas market.
7. Do you think there is a need for Swiss tourism companies to get online? Why or why not?
I honestly think they should work with TrekkSoft. TrekkSoft is an ideal solution in Switzerland because it focuses on SMEs. There needs to be an easy way for small business owners to go online and TrekkSoft provides that. On top of that, suppliers need to be online and they need find the right distribution channels to do that.
On a national side, there needs to be a single touch point that all international customers look at for all sorts of tours and activities. It should be as easy as possible to navigate and consolidates the research process customers have to go through to book a tour or activity.
8. So, what does a your average day look like?
There is no average day. I move around a lot and so I am rarely in Zurich. I travel almost on a monthly basis. In fact, I just came back from Australia. I spend 30 -40% on the road, whether it is internationally or around Switzerland. I love travelling and I'm lucky it's part of my job.
9. How do you deal with the jet lag?
I don’t get it. There’s a technique you can develop. You switch to a new timezone as soon as you get on the plane. I also try to eat healthy and sleeping regularly, that helps a lot.
10. Speaking of travelling, what is your favourite Swiss destination?
From working for a national tourism board, I’ve found that we’ve got so much variety and it’s all interconnected by train. From snow covered mountains to lakes, you can do it all in one day. I really love the vineyards in the Lake Geneva region and the high mountains close to Bern.
I love taking day trips around Switzerland, I’m like a tourist in my own country.
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All images used in this post were provided by Switzerland Tourism.