Airports roll out the red carpet for high-spending Chinese and Russian travellers

Rising disposable income in emerging economies such as the BRICs and the N-11s has allowed the rapidly growing middle classes in these countries to start travelling by air. According to IATA estimates, the number of air travellers worldwide will grow from 2.98 billion in 2012 to 3.91 bn in 2017, with China alone accounting for more around 30 percent of this growth. Although air travel in China is still mainly on domestic and regional routes, an increasing number of leisure and business travellers are flying overseas.

With Chinese outbound tourism recording more than 20 percent annual growth in recent years and overseas spending by Chinese tourists exceeding USD 110 billion in 2013, airlines, airports, hotels, department stores, luxury boutiques and tourism destinations around the world are rolling out the red carpet to make Chinese travellers feel more at home.

“In today’s global consumption arena, department stores, airlines, hotels, theme parks and museums, if not entire cities, around the world are going out of their way to shower Chinese customers with tailored services and perks, and in general, lavish them with attention and respect.”
- Reinier Evers,

Says Reinier Evers, founder of trend agency, “China is the new emperor, and outpaced companies, flailing nations and even broke monetary unions are looking to the Chinese to bail them out. No wonder red carpets are being rolled out wherever Chinese politicians and CEOs currently set foot. In today’s global consumption arena we see a similar picture: department stores, airlines, hotels, theme parks and museums, if not entire cities, around the world are going out of their way to shower Chinese customers with tailored services and perks, and in general, lavish them with attention and respect.”

Another group of travellers with significant purchasing power are Russians, who for instance now account for a quarter of duty free sales at Barcelona’s El Prat Airport, well ahead of second-placed UK with 10 percent.

According to tax refund specialist Global Blue, together Chinese and Russian travellers accounted for more than 40 percent of Global Blue’s tax free shopping transactions, with Chinese travellers spending 20 percent more year-on-year on tax free shopping in 2013, and Russians 13 percent more than a year earlier.

Russian travellers are described as “super shoppers” by Global Blue, clocking up more transactions than any other nation in 2013, representing 24% of Global Blue’s total transactions (but with lower average spend than Chinese).

Foreign language-speaking staff
A major issue though is the language barrier that many passengers face when shopping at an airport, so many airports now employ retail staff that speaks a non-Western language and provide courses in for instance Chinese culture to airport retail staff.

For example, retail staff at Tokyo Narita Airport wear colourful “I Can Speak a Foreign Language” badges which allow travellers to tell at a glance if a clerk can speak a language other than Japanese or English. There are 13 types of badges in total. Ten of them are for staff who can speak either Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Malay, while three badges have been custom-made for those who can speak multiple foreign languages: Chinese and Korean; Chinese, Korean and Russian; and interestingly, Spanish, French and Swedish.

Frankfurt Airport´s Personal Shoppers wear bright orange jackets and practively approach Chinese and Russian travellers to assist them in making purchasing decisions.

Personal Shoppers
Research from Frankfurt Airport has also learned that although many airports employ Mandarin or Russian sales people today, having a knowledgeable personal shopping pro-actively approaching them and assist in a more educated and quicker purchase is very much appreciated. This insights has led Frankfurt to become the first airport to introduce a personal shopper service for Chinese passengers at the end of 2012, followed by a similar service for Russian passengers in October 2013.

For instance, Chinese personal shopper staff speak fluent Mandarin and are familiar with the culture and preferences of Chinese passengers. The assistants, who wear bright orange jackets, provide Chinese travellers with information about orientation and facilities at Frankfurt Airport, assist them in making purchasing decisions (such as translating inquiries about products) and help in obtaining refunds on value-added tax (VAT). On request, the airport’s personal shoppers also escort Chinese passengers through the security check and onward to their departure gate. No advance registration is required to use the service and passengers who would like a personal shopper just need to call a telephone number for assistance.

Another consequence of the language barrier is that for many Asian travellers, getting around western airports can be difficult. Research by Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has learned that even the ‘universal’ icons on airport signage that indicate exit, baggage reclaim or toilets still lead to confusion among passengers.

In Europe, airports such as Helsinki Vantaa and Copenhagen Kastrup have added Chinese and Japanese language to their wayfinding signs, while signage at Vantaa and Prague Airport are also in Korean.

Mobile apps
Taking a digital approach, the likes of Schiphol, Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Copenhagen airports have also develop Chinese versions of their mobile apps, allowing Chinese passengers to use the app to find information in Mandarin about flights, maps, public transport, baggage and medical services, as well as special tax-free shopping deals.

The most innovative feature of these apps is the use of optical character recognition technology which lets passengers to translate the airport signs directly into Mandarin via the camera of their smartphone (demos here and here). For example, Paris CDG’s mobile app can translate 750 signs.

Most recent trend briefings