China remains one of the world’s most intriguing destinations – and one that Americans increasingly want to explore. To get an idea of the wide range of experiences this destination has to offer, we spoke with Nancy Kim and Guy Rubin, the husband-and-wife team who are managing partners of Imperial Tours, a high-end China tour operator based in Beijing but with an office in San Francisco. The company offers individually designed FIT and small group programs featuring unique experiences and destinations in China.
What do you believe higher-end American travelers are looking for in a trip to China today?
There’s a greater stress on authenticity than ever before. There’s an urge to break down the barriers to understanding what China means both in its present context and its probable effects on all of us 10 or 20 years down the line. We’ve noticed that in recent weeks and months the news media have also taken up the theme of how China will affect our future. It’s been a topic that has fired travelers for at least a year.
What are some of the unique experiences that Imperial Tours delivers for its guests?
We have a great variety of unique experiences. For those seeking authenticity, we have a democracy activist who left China after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 who conducts a personal tour of Tiananmen Square and helps our guests contemplate what the role of Chinese government was at the time and where it might be going forwards. A very different way of discovering history is offered by our jazz tour of Shanghai, which takes place in the evening and takes you through the jazz bars and dance halls of the 1930s to end at a contemporary jazz venue. Our guide is a historian of the period and so jazz becomes a vehicle for looking at the dynamic society of those times, which is eerily reminiscent in some ways of today’s Shanghai. Apart from those, we have some classic family experiences, such as playing table tennis against the Olympic Champion or, at a lower price, against the coach who trained her when she was a high school student. For well-connected travelers, last year we were able to arrange access to the beautiful downtown mansion of a Shanghai socialite.
What is your customer demographic – and has it changed since you launched the company?
We have always focused on providing services to the high-end of the market. Our guests are well-educated and successful travelers in the 40-75 age range. Apart from many celebrities, business leaders and royalty, we are increasingly honored to work with a number of well-known institutions, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art of San Diego, Babson College, and the Victoria and Albert Museum of London on more specialized itineraries. In 2009, we launched China Escapades, a lower-priced FIT product, which does not include the western, Chinese speaking concierge for which we are known, (in addition to the guide and driver). This has proved successful and has made our FIT services accessible to a wider audience. That said, China Escapades is itself still a high quality product and our demographic has not changed substantially as a result of this launch.
What is the range of tour programs that you offer in terms of the number of customers on the trip and length of the program?
Our FIT business is all about customizing itineraries around the personality and interests of the traveling party. We are not about fitting clients into a mold and so we have no defining range or number for clients for FIT experiences. We will do a one person, three-week FIT and we will do a 120-person incentive for 10 days. Our criteria are that the travel experience be of a high quality, since this is the segment we know and understand and have been serving for over a decade. We also run scheduled group tours. These have a low maximum of 16 persons on a group and run from 10 to 13 nights, the shortest tour visiting what we term the “essential destinations” of Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Shanghai.
That’s a shame, given the striking venues those countries offer to incentive groups, Roach says. Per the common wisdom among planners, the most successful incentive programs give participants an experience they can’t easily get on their own, and a major way to achieve that is to stage a special event at a venue that is not accessible without certain “connections.”
What are some of the most popular but unusual destinations in China for your customers, and why?
Travelers of an academic bent very much enjoy Dunhuang. Located at the beginning of the Silk Road, this destination’s principle attraction are the Mogao Caves, which are 492 frescoed caves recording Central Asian history from the 4th to 14th centuries, as well as the inspiration for much Chinese figurative painting. This is a world-class site in an oasis town in the middle of the world’s second largest desert. Its popularity relies on the quality of its art, the originality and exoticism of its art and a sense of authenticity that is derived from traveling to an out of the way destination lacking the polish of the major urban centers.
What destinations in China do you think will become major tourist draws in the future that maybe the rest of the world doesn't know about?
The world is familiar with Lhasa primarily as a city associated with political disputes, but it’s also an amazing cultural capital. Now that the beautiful St. Regis has opened on the roof of the world, Lhasa has suddenly become a highly desirable exotic destination for the cultural adventurer. Since 1997 when we visited for the first time, we have long been fascinated with Lhasa and the Tibetan region and have made nearly 20 trips here. We find the scenery captivating and the local culture intoxicatingly colorful.
How easy is it to get around China today in terms of modes of transport?
One of the greatest successes of China’s transport industry has been the safety record of Chinese airlines over the last 15 or so years. The airline network has had to deal with fast-paced expansion and its subsequent demands. Little thought is given to the pressure this must have placed on the developing nation. We take it for granted, and yet in this area the Chinese aviation administration deserves the highest praise and respect. Although the road network has been well expanded, few travelers are going to drive the long distances required to follow a typical itinerary. Until recently, railway lines and carriage stock have lagged in investment. Over the last two to three years, the tables have been turned and investment in rail has increased exponentially. Recently, high-speed rail links connecting many popular destinations have sprouted all over the country. The Beijing-Shanghai link, for example, has reduced travel time from to five from 12 hours so that the train will be able to compete with air service.
How easy is it to operate a private tour operator today in China?
Imperial Tours was founded in 1999, and since that time we have always felt welcome in China. Given that our business is structured on the premise of our bringing foreign currency into China, this is not surprising. What has been more challenging is changing the mores of the travel industry to operate according to our standards and expectations. For example, we operate no shopping tours, meaning our guests are not taken to commission-paying stores or restaurants. When we started operations this was unheard of and we encountered great resistance in implementing such novel practices. Even though 10 or so years later, the industry is more open to such concepts, the Chinese travel industry still tends strongly towards a pattern suitable for high-volume mass operators rather than niche high quality operators. Joining Virtuoso as an on-site in 2002 was a great boon followed by our accession to Signature’s network as a preferred supplier in 2006.
What do you see as your biggest challenges in promoting China in the U.S.?
What is marvelous about the U.S. as a free and permeable society is how open it is to outside cultures. The general tenor of opinion towards China is increasingly positive and this trend chimes well with the forecasts we are regularly shown predicting explosive growth in the inbound China market. Against this backdrop of increased interest, our greatest challenge is in raising the level of knowledge about China around the world. While most people will think of the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors and Yangzi River with reference to China, few would quickly associate the Himalayan Mountains, the tropical South China Sea islands or one of the world’s largest deserts. There are also destinations with stunning landscapes in southern China or bafflingly advanced bronze technology on the central plains created at the time the pyramids were being built. Imperial Tours’ China Expert program, a four-part training course that we run for North America agents in November every year, aims to address this issue and open agents’ eyes to out-of-the-ordinary activities available to families, couples and travelers across China’s various luxury destinations. To register for this training, travel agents are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Imperial Tours, visit www.imperialtours.net.