As the number of Chinese tourists continues to grow exponentially and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) activate more efforts in China, finding a suitable international representation firm can be a really intimidating task and it is important to know the key things to consider when reviewing and selecting a firm for your destination.
Jing Travel spoke to Jason Pacheco, President, BRIC Marketing Group, who has extensive experience in developing key selection criteria and reviewing request for proposals (RFPs) for selecting international representation firms and has conducted this process for major DMOs such as Brand USA, Visit California, and Travel Oregon.
Can you share with us your experiences in selecting international representation firms?
I had the good fortune of working with Visit California since 2002 in many capacities, but one of the most unique challenges was that I was able to work with them on was helping them hire their tourism marketing firms worldwide. Currently, I work with Visit California, Brand USA, Travel Oregon, and other DMOs in a standardized selection process.
What are the key responsibilities of international representation firms?
Representation firms play important roles for their overseas clients in terms of direct sales and marketing. Each client, of course, has their own set list of deliverables that they include in their scope of work. However, the three repetitive objectives that most of the clients I have worked with were looking for:
- An agency to be an extension of staff. Since DMOs are very limited on people resources, the representation firms serve as their “boots on the ground” in each overseas market.
- Thought leaders in the marketplace. DMOs are looking for their agencies to bring them new ideas and opportunities that they can’t derive themselves. They are looking for the best market expertise with strong connections in the marketplace.
- Representation firms to deliver ROI. DMOs depend heavily on partner contributions to their marketing programs. It is important that the representation firms are able to measure each deliverable within their scope of work in terms of ROI.
What are the first steps to consider in this process?
This process is more than just hiring an outside firm to represent the interests of DMOs and other travel industry partners. It is a long-term commitment to the marketplace in terms of staffing support and market development. The travel industry is built on strong peer-to-peer relationships, which is of great value collectively, but we also must be open to adopting new ways of thinking in terms of market approach and adoption of technology to reach our customer. Some of the first steps are:
- Create a list of key objectives and a strong scope of work that has attainable goals.
- Conduct due diligence in the market by researching and be knowledgeable of marketing firms.
- Be proactive by going to market to interview potential firms, get to know their employees that you would not see in an interview.
- Do reference checks and understand that not all firms will have the same strengths.
- Be resilient. China is its own market and will continue to grow. You have to grow with it, and with that sometimes comes growing pains.
What are the key selection criteria to consider when evaluating proposals?
This is dependent on the scope of work and needs but some of the main criteria would be:
- Overall experience of the firm
- The strength of the scope of work that they presented
- Qualifications of key personnel
- Capabilities on how they have developed and created travel marketing programs for other clients
Do you have any tips on selecting international representation firms in China?
I will give you eight steps, as that is a lucky number in China.
- Know what you want to achieve, and what your DMO and company objectives for this market are.
- Understand what your activation budget will buy you in your target markets especially when it comes to consumer advertising.
- Understand the differences in agency expertise. Agencies that specialize in travel trade will have a completely different focus than those digital social media agencies that are reaching consumers.
- Understand the cost of doing business in the China market. How many full-time employees do you need to execute the scope of work done? How much will that cost your organization in terms of administration and overhead?
- In China, it is important to work with an agency that is able to communicate their ideas both verbally and in written format.
- Understand an agency’s relationships in the China market with industry influencers (this is called “guanxi”) is as important as their product knowledge.
- Don’t underestimate the firm in China that makes you most skeptical. Realize you are hiring a Chinese firm that does business in China and so their mode of operation will not be completely Westernized.
- Ability to take a risk. Business isn’t done the same way today as it was five years ago. Look for agencies that can grow with the market and able to expand your brand both online and offline.
What are some of the key questions to ask after you’ve received the proposals?
- How can your agency deliver on the scope of work presented?
- How can your agency build the strategy for the long term?
- How can your agency grow with the client and do they have the capacity to scale?
How long should the contract be?
In China, you have to make a long-term commitment and be flexible. Think about a long-term contract (at least 3 to 5 years) but renewable from year-to-year.
Now that you’ve appointed a representation firm, what do you do?
First, establish a strong internal structure both on the client and agency side. Train the agency in your operation and not the other way around. Work collectively in a “two-way “conversation instead of in silo. Remember, to show and guide them on how you want things done instead of expecting them to know how you want things. Most importantly, work as a team. Travel trade, public relations, and consumer marketing consumer should integrate, and not be independent of each other.
How do you evaluate the success?
That is a goal that is determined by both parties. An overseas agency is only as successful as the DMO or business allows them to be in terms of deliverables. Clients sometimes have the tendency to micro-manage these agencies in the process. Best practices and a list of key objectives should be spelled out initially so that both sides are working towards the same goal.
Do you have any examples of successful partnerships between DMOs and representation firms?
It really is about the time investment and the process. DMOs are not always equipped to make decisions about firms because they may not know enough about a market, particularly China. It is always good to get a third party to vet and use their market expertise to help them in this process. Hiring a representation firm is a long-term investment that can be very beneficial or can turn the other way depending on the effort.
Any final advice in ensuring a successful relationship?
Joint respect for each other is the key to longevity and a happy working relationship. It is also important to acknowledge that the markets are changing and DMOs have to change with them. The days of representation firms offering “cookie cutter” solutions is coming to an end. As the consumer is changing their patterns of buying travel and looking for authentic experiences, DMOs and representation firms need to start to change their way of thinking about how they approach their customers. Customization of the products for the consumer through the representation channels and adaptation of new technology by those same representation channels is crucial to success.