More CEOs and entrepreneurs are networking on tailor-made tourist trips and bringing booming business to travel companies
An increasing number of top-flight Chinese businessmen and businesswomen are choosing to network on exclusive, high-priced customized tourist trips organized by travel companies.
Most customized trips organized by Chinese travel companies do not come cheap, costing hundreds of thousands of yuan, which ensures each company's clientele is well-heeled and, more often than not, well-connected.
The chance to rub shoulders and hobnob with famous CEOs and entrepreneurs, such as Alibaba's Ma Yun and Vantone's Feng Lun (both of whom are regular tailor-made travel clients) is the biggest draw card for other customers, most of whom are senior staff at major Chinese companies, according to staff at the companies that offer such trips.
"Who you go along with is the most important thing on such tours," said Cui Xueyan, a senior trip designer at Trip TM, a tailor-made tourist trip company.
The tailor-made nature of the trips also keeps group sizes small, which means more personal time with famous businesspeople for other clients, according to Cui.
Trip TM's first 100 regular clients, most of whom are "members" of the company are all millionaires. According to Guo Ming, director of Trip TM, the company's membership fees range from 50,000 yuan to 150,000 yuan. Most members join through an institution, such as the China Europe International Business School.
"The trip is actually a mobile master of business administration (MBA) class, providing a chances for communication and learning," said Wu Lin, vice-general manager of Sun Pala, a Beijing-based tailor-made travel company.
Most of Trip TM's clients are management staff from large companies, typically ranging in age from 35 to 55, according to Tang Jie, manager of the membership department at Trip TM.
Most tailor-made travel companies have forums for people who meet on their trips to stay in contact, said Wu.
These forums are extremely popular among clientele and help facilitate networking among them, according to Wu.
The famous CEOs and entrepreneurs, who help the travel companies draw other clients, come on the trips mostly because of the incredible attention to detail that most tailor-made travel companies offer.
Cui spent a month, for example, researching and designing a recent trip for two clients to Italy and Spain.
The pair spent part of their 13-day trip in a 600-year-old castle, made spaghetti with a local chef and stayed in a former 11th century palace on the Amalfi Coast. They swam in a luxurious open-air swimming pool surrounded by dramatic medieval ruins and gazed out at the stunning blue shades of the ocean.
The 400,000 yuan-trip included an Italian guide who studied Chinese for four years at Peking University and who took the pair far off the beaten tourist trail to local markets, cafs, bars and clubs, giving them a taste of local life that they otherwise never would have seen.
Cui has been in the tourism industry for 13 years and joined Trip TM early this year.
"The difference between tailor-made travel and traditional travel is like that between bespoke tailoring and ready-to-wear clothes," Cui said.
Founded in December 2007, Trip TM, Beijing's self-described largest tailor-made travel company, has seen its business soar in the past three years, going from less than 200 regular clients to 20,000, despite the financial crisis.
More such companies are joining the apparently lucrative market every day, according to Cui. Some focus on just one field, such as diving or mountain climbing, while others are more general.
Some traditional travel agencies are also joining the competition. Huayuan International Travel Agency started to provide costumed-made service and it organized a wine-tasting group to visit Bordeaux in France two years ago, according to Sun Lichan, the marketing director of the agency.
China's first tailor-made travel agency was Guangzhou-based Panden Club, founded in 2002, which organized Chinese mainland's first group of tourists traveling to South Pole.
According to Yuan Jianxiong, general manger of the club, the increasing market for this kind of travel stems from more Chinese people wanting unique experiences. He said that those who choose this way of traveling focus more attention on exclusivity than on price. A special schedule is their first requirement.
Sun Pala, founded in 2009, offers a close meeting with the teacher of Bhutan's king in its upcoming Bhutan tour.
"Participants will have a dinner with the teacher at his home and have a face-to-face talk with him," said Wu. The trip is priced between 40,000 and 50,000 yuan, double the average price of a Bhutan trip.
Trip TM once organized an Zen tour, with participants practicing Zen meditation, reading Buddhist classics and eating simple food and vegetables at a temple hidden deep in a mountain valley.
"A trip is an experience and includes the before, during and after parts of the trip," said Su Yong after returning from a tailor-made trip to the North Pole with a small group of six people this April.
A board member of a Beijing-based hi-tech company, Su has visited both the South Pole and North Pole, and the Amazon rainforest on tailor-made trips in the past two years.
"It is a kind of escape and the best way of relaxing from the great pressure of modern life," said Su.
Trip TM has detailed records of its previous clients' habits, so that if they return they can cater to their every whim, for a surcharge of an extra 20 percent.
"We even keep records of their sleeping habit, such as what kind of pillows they like or whether they like soft beds or hard ones," said Jie.