On any given day, sometimes with as little as 20 minutes warning, a bus will pull up to the Beverly Center and let out dozens of Chinese tourists eager to drop thousands of dollars on luxury clothing, electronics and accessories.
It’s a common sight for Susan Vance, marketing and sponsorship director for the L.A. mall, and getting much more so. Last year, about 300 buses stopped there. They are already approaching half that so far this year, the result of a boom in Chinese tourism and of a concerted effort by the Beverly Center to cash in on that growth.
“This program has been so beneficial,” Vance said. “If we missed (this trend), we would have done a disservice to our stores.”
The Beverly Center isn’t alone as other shopping centers, such as Citadel Outlets in Commerce, and even cities, such as West Hollywood, are making a push to bring in more Chinese tourists and tour groups.
Doing so isn’t easy or cheap. For malls and shopping districts, it requires hiring Mandarin-speaking customer service representatives, offering special incentives to tour guides, sending representatives to China and staying in the loop on Chinese social media platforms.
But malls see their money and effort as well spent, especially as the number of Chinese tourists in Los Angeles has boomed. Those tourists continue to be big spenders and new rules make it more likely tourists will regularly return to their favorite spots, said Haybina Hao, director of international development for National Tour Association in Lexington, Ky., a trade association that is authorized by the Chinese government to maintain a list of U.S.-based tour operators approved to handle Chinese tour groups.
Last year, the United States and China announced an agreement making it easier to get tourist visas, and Hao said that change is driving more Chinese tourists to Los Angeles and other destinations.
“It’s going to really encourage them to come back,” Hao said. “Normally, for the first trip they go west to east in two weeks and do a quick sketch to see the country. When they become a repeat visitor, they’re likely to choose more destinations and stay longer.”
And most, if not all, travel itineraries include plenty of time for shopping. It’s an attractive set-up for malls, as the average Chinese tourist will spend about $6,000 on a U.S. visit, not including travel costs, Hao said.
Last year, 686,000 Chinese visitors came to Los Angeles, up more than five-fold from 2013, when L.A. saw 116,000, according to the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.
Vance said the Beverly Center anticipated that surge and started planning in 2013.
“We saw it coming, and it was either you get on board now or you’re not going to be China ready,” she said.
At the time, tourists from Australia were the mall’s No. 1 visitor. Now, tourists from China rank first by a wide margin, Vance said.
The Beverly Center’s program has several components. During busy shopping periods, such as the recent lunar new year season, the mall has as many as four in-house consultants – called Chinese Luxury Advisors – who handle everything from translating written materials such as mall directories to managing the Beverly Center’s account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. They also communicate with tour operators – often through Chinese messaging service WeChat – to find out when a busload of tourists will arrive. (Operators often give little notice.)
The mall also hired several Mandarin-speaking guest services agents, who often serve as the first point of contact for Chinese tourists coming off a tour bus.
Mall retailers also have made efforts to be prepared for Chinese visitors.
Courtney Saavedra, director of marketing and public relations for retailer Kitson, said it hired a Mandarin-speaking sales associate at its Beverly Center boutique several months ago to meet the demand.
The Beverly Center also takes things a step further with an exclusive partnership with USC and UCLA to target Chinese students. The mall offers free shuttle services for back-to-school shopping events and, more recently, partnered with Pasadena’s East West Bank to host a job-readiness and networking event at the mall.
Vance declined to say how much the mall has invested into its program or how much Chinese tourists spend, but the program has proved successful.
“It’s something we look at weekly, if not daily, and we see where the spending is going,” she said. “And as we kept doing that, we realized investment in the program was well worth it.”
Bringing in buses takes more than customer service reps and mall directories in Mandarin. Malls have to actively work with tour operators based in China, convincing those businesses to add a visit to their shopping centers to its customers’ itineraries.
Last year, the Beverly Center sent its first representatives to China for the China International Travel Mart, where they schmoozed with tour organizers.
Cynthia Schmitt, director of international tourism and sales at Citadel Outlets, said she’s been making similar trips to China since she started working for that mall two years ago.
“We forge relationships with these tour operators and heavy hitters who are bringing the tourists,” Schmitt said. “They’re the ones who build the itineraries, and we say, ‘You have to include shopping and we want to be part of that itinerary.’”
Her pitch seems to be working: On a busy day, the outlet mall can receive as many as 65 buses of Chinese tourists, with groups as small as 10 people or as large as 65, she said.
But surprisingly, given the huge numbers involved, no money changes hands between the shopping malls and tour operators. The National Tour Association’s Hao credits a new Chinese law that suggests taking money can be considered bribery.
“From a business standpoint, those tour operators bring in a large number of consumers, but it’s a sensitive matter for the Chinese side,” she said. “In American culture, it’s nothing strange, but it’s very politically sensitive within the Chinese context.”
Of course, there are still ways to offer incentives, Hao said.
Citadel, for instance, offers tour guides access to a VIP lounge with complimentary Internet access and snacks. The idea is that if tour guides can put their feet up and grab a drink, they’re less likely to hurry groups along to the next stop.
“We don’t want them to rush the guests at all, so it’s really kind of a nice added bonus for them,” Schmitt said.
Malls aren’t the only ones with plans to bring in more Chinese shoppers.
Bradley Burlingame, chief executive of Visit West Hollywood, said that city doesn’t have a plan in place yet but it is working to develop a program to bring in more Chinese tourists.
“One thing we need to gear up for is not just marketing to the Chinese consumer, but making sure when they come we’re prepared,” Burlingame said. “Whether it’s language, service or cultural experiences, we want to make the Chinese traveler more comfortable and we want them to come back.”
While buses haven’t arrived in droves to the streets of West Hollywood, retailers have seen an uptick in the number of Chinese tourists, he said, many of them with lots of money to spend.
“A lot of retailers that I’ve talked to already are seeing that Chinese visitor come here,” he said. “But the real opportunity and the exciting part is now there’s going to be continuing growth in the Chinese market coming here.”