Are you China ready?

holidayThe Chinese comprise the fastest growing inbound tourist segment in Australia. And they’re hungry for fine food, reports Kathy Graham.

Dan Hong, executive chef at Mr Wong, the popular Merivale restaurant in Sydney known for its modern Cantonese menu, doesn’t mince words. “What I’ve noticed is they like to eat. And money is no real object.”

The diners Hong is describing are visitors from China, the fastest growing inbound tourism market in Australia and largest contributor to international visitor spending. According to Tourism Australia, in the past year alone, the number of Chinese visiting Australia increased by 22 per cent to one million, while their total expenditure shot up 45 per cent to $8.3 billion. Estimates are these figures will more than double in the next 10 years.

With Chinese travellers citing good food and wine as the third most important factor when selecting a holiday destination (after safety and security and world-class nature), the potential for Australian restaurateurs to benefit from this tourist tsunami is huge. But they need to be prepared.

The fastest growing part of the outbound Chinese market are the free, independent travellers (FITs): singles, couples, families and groups of friends, all planning their own itineraries and making their own bookings rather than joining an organised tour. Currently, the number of such travellers stands at about 30 per cent versus 70 per cent for group tour travellers but as John Hart, CEO of Restaurant & Catering Australia notes, “We’re now heading towards 60 per cent FIT from China, so that’s really where the market growth is. It’s really that FIT market, those independent travellers, that we need to capture because they’re the ones who are spending the big bucks. The FITs are where the growth will be.”

At Mr Wong, where bookings by this new breed of Chinese diner have surged in recent years, Hong says locally produced and fresh ingredients are a major drawcard. “We take eating a really good steak for granted. We’re blessed with such amazing meat and seafood that most Chinese people can’t even get or if they can, it’s very expensive. With most of these Chinese tourists, it’s new money, and they want to spend; they want to impress their friends when they go out to these restaurants and that’s by ordering the most expensive lobster or steak along with a really expensive red wine.”

The Fink Group operates a stable of eight restaurants including Quay and Bennelong in Sydney. Creative director John Fink says Peter Gilmore, executive chef at both establishments, admirably delivers on the company’s stated mission to ‘offer unique dining experiences’, which is precisely what these Chinese visitors want. “Peter doesn’t stick to any one tradition but rather offers a bit of Korean, a bit of Chinese, a bit of Japanese, a bit of French and so on. It’s a mixture of different techniques and different ingredients so that the palette of the food he’s putting on the plate is very attractive to the FIT Chinese diner in particular.”

“It’s really that FIT market, those independent travellers, that we need to capture because they’re the ones who are spending the big bucks. The FITs are where the growth will be.”—John Hart, CEO, Restaurant & Catering Australia

Since the May 2014 launch by Tourism Australia of their Restaurant Australia campaign to promote Australian food and wine culture abroad, spending in the sector has grown by 21 per cent to $886 million. Yet, says John Hart, restaurants may be missing out on a share of that windfall because they’re not prepared. “Most of them don’t even realise they’re in tourism. Generally restaurateurs are busy worrying about how many bums they’ve got on seats, not their strategic marketing effort which is what they should be focused on.”

Hart’s advice to any restaurateur hoping to capture some of the Chinese FIT holiday visitor market is they need to make sure their dining experience is “China Ready”. That means their menu has been translated, they have some understanding of their guests’ cultural expectations and they offer Union Pay, the credit card of choice for Chinese tourists. “If they don’t have those three things as part of their experience, they’re certainly going to be coming up short.”

To help kick-start businesses into action and provide them with some guidance along the way, R&CA together with mainland China-based China Ready & Accredited, have co-developed the R&C CHINA READY Welcome Program, the only authoritative and tailored CHINA READY Program for the Australian restaurant and catering industry.

Members who participate undertake a short training session to help them better understand the market, receive a Chinese character sticker pack to assist in maintaining menu translation and access to a translation service, and are shown how to transact using Union Pay.

Richard Pitts, general manager of the SkyHigh Bistro & Restaurant located in Mount Dandenong, Victoria, says signing up with CHINA READY 18 months ago was the perfect introduction. “I was hoping to better understand who we should be targeting and what we should be doing.  At the time it seemed like a sensible progression. It really started the ball rolling and helped us travel in the right direction in regards to the Chinese market.”

He found the training module, in particular, to be very useful as it shed light on important cultural differences as well as provided handy tips on how to best accommodate Chinese guests.

Some typical concessions businesses may find themselves making for this market include offering Chinese tea to guests before a meal, including a banquet option on the menu since in China it’s customary to share dishes, and setting aside a table in the restaurant (if it’s not too busy) to seat those guests who arrive without a booking because back home, they’re not used to making reservations beforehand.

But being ‘China ready’ involves more than restaurateurs giving their Chinese customers what they want in terms of menu and table service. As John Hart says, “It also requires them to be in the face of the visitors – that is, when the visitors go online and search for a restaurant to dine at, they have to be able to find them. That distribution side is something they need to think about.”

For Pitts, this has meant a listing on the CHINA READY Chinese website (in Chinese), plus he’s paid for additional advertising in Chinese language newspapers. John Fink agrees it’s important not to take this market for granted.

“The FITs are not guaranteed stitched up deals. They’re people we still have to attract,” he says.

Following a dedicated period of print and online advertising, and working closely with R&CA and tourism bodies such as Destination NSW, Fink reports,  “I’m proud to say we’re doing very well out of it and now we have a word-of-mouth trail so to speak. I’d like to think it’s because we put the legwork in.”

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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