By San Francisco Travel Association

With the end of the year, destination marketers are likely to start reviewing annual reports, ROIs, KPIs, and various other performance metrics, with the hope of proving what’s worked and understanding what hasn’t and why. One important area that is often neglected, though equally as important as any qualitative data, is that of branding. For any destination marketing organization (DMO) or cultural institution or destination looking to attract a larger slice of the Chinese outbound travel segment, it is evermore important to focus on branding, as it is any other performance-driven effort, because before booking, must come inspiration.

And when examining the profile of the Chinese traveler, it is important to keep in mind that while, yes, there are some visiting the U.S. for the first time, there is actually a large number visiting for a second or third time. This group of travelers has already seen many of the top tourist attractions, and are now looking for a more curated, local experience — and inspiring these travelers to book these more experiential adventures requires a sophisticated branding strategy.

Branding is important in convincing Chinese travelers to book trips when they’ve already visited the U.S. a few times

With this idea of inspiration in mind, the San Francisco Travel Association (SFTA) teamed up with San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA), Hilton, and their China agency Hylink Digital to implement a fall campaign that included a delicate balance of performance and branding. As such, the SFTA team seized the opportunity to link San Francisco and San Diego together under one cohesive “Best of California” theme, highlighting the distinctive qualities within each city, while demonstrating the infinite adventures possible from San Francisco to San Diego. The team leveraged performance-driven modalities, as well as awareness-building platforms to run campaigns during the same season, but also across the entire user journey. By generating awareness on both Ctrip and WeChat, users were inspired to book through engaging content, ultimately leading to increased bookings.

Phase 1 began with interlaced imagery of the two cities: the painted ladies (the iconic rows of colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses in SF) and San Diego’s La Jolla beach; the Golden Gate Bridge and Balboa Park. Through these visuals, we were able to convey a certain unity between the northern and southern destinations, presenting San Francisco as the gateway to California.

In Phase 2, SFTA sought to sustain the campaign’s momentum by emphasizing the individual messaging of each destination. For San Francisco, it was “Anticipation and beyond: never the same, always San Francisco.” This approach focuses on the diverse experiences San Francisco can offer Chinese travelers in the fall, emphasizing the message of “gateway to Northern California” in our content as an extension of the NoCal-SoCal trip messaging in Phase 1.

san francisco tourism

San Francisco’s iconic Lombard Street, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. Photo: Shutterstock

While leveraging Chinese OTAs, such as Ctrip and Fliggy, is indisputably important, focusing solely on these outlets can be a bit limiting. For the social media portion of the campaign, which ran on WeChat, our primary KPI was to drive engagement with existing followers to increase brand awareness, with user acquisition as a secondary objective. For this specific project, we were focused on engaging and retaining followers to inspire their travel, as opposed to merely posting passive content.

For this aspect, SFTA created “Draw Something,” a campaign where they encouraged followers to actively engage with their account, while raising awareness among Chinese travelers on what they can experience in San Francisco through interactive content. By providing illustrations of diverse icons and attractions in San Francisco, the campaign showcased the diversity of the city to Chinese travelers. Winners were awarded prizes such as flight tickets and various SFTA souvenirs.

SFTA’s multi-faceted campaign proved very successful. San Francisco saw a 34 percent year-over-year increase in bookings from Chinese tourists, with over 11,000 room nights, 31.6 million impressions, and 88,200 clicks. On social, their engagements increased 10x from the average rates.

Upon reviewing their efforts, one important takeaway for SFTA became very clear: when seeking the sophisticated Chinese traveler, you simply cannot default to a one-size-fits-all approach. More over, travel marketers need to step into their target audiences’ shoes to truly understand how and why they make travel decisions, and formulate campaigns around those ever-evolving consumer interests and behaviors.