Quebec companies turning to B.C. for help courting China

Quebec isn’t traditionally known for its deep economic relationship with Chinese consumers, but la belle province is in the midst of a huge upswing in interest in China - and many establishments are looking at Vancouver’s multicultural experience as a guiding light.

Officials from a Vancouver cross-cultural marketing firm said its fledgling tourism-business certification program drew higher-than-expected participation during a promotional swing through Eastern Canada in May, with hotels, restaurants, attractions and retail shops all vying to increase their attractiveness to an emerging Chinese clientele.

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“I thought we’d maybe get 30 people, and we got more than 150 in Quebec City at a session,” said Lise Alain, president of LAT Multilingual, on Quebec’s interest in the company’s Golden Dragon Certification Program, which acts as both a “China-ready” training course and a social-media marketing service for Canadian firms. “It was standing-room only. We were so surprised, but local businesses there are obviously ready for a program like this, so it’s the right time.”

The interest level in China seen by LAT coincides with a recent report by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Ottawa, who found Quebecers “have views of China and the prospect of deeper relations more positive than in the rest of Canada.”

The survey, conducted by Qualtrics, showed that 48% of Quebec respondents had favourable views of China. Countrywide, that proportion is 36 per cent.

The support for a free-trade agreement with China is also higher in Quebec compared with Canada as a whole – 72 per cent to 69 per cent, the report found.

“Contrary to media speculation that Quebecers would be more anxious than other Canadians about China’s rising presence and influence, in several key areas Quebec residents were in fact more optimistic about opportunities and less concerned about the risks,” said the report, which was penned by three researchers led by UBC Institute of Asian Research Prof. Paul Evans. “Quebec respondents who completed the survey in French are even more positive about China than those who completed the survey in English, though sample sizes are too small to draw any firm conclusions.”

The challenge – and where Vancouver’s Asian-cultural expertise comes into the equation – is Quebec’s familiarity with China’s cultural and social norms, which are key to drawing Chinese business, said Alain, who is originally from Quebec.

Montreal added a pair of direct flights to China in recent years – a daily Air Canada (TSX:AC) service to Shanghai, launched February 2017, and a six-days-weekly Air China flight to Beijing, which started in September 2015 – that brought 170,000 Chinese tourists to Quebec last year, with spending of close to $200 million.

But even with the increase from 138,000 visitors in 2016, Quebec’s total for 2017 was about half B.C.’s number of Chinese visitors (334,994) during that same year. Alain attributes that largely to Metro Vancouver’s higher number of Chinese-speaking residents (385,355 in the 2016 census, or 15.6 per cent of the total population) versus Quebecois cities’ relatively lower figures (Greater Montreal, for example, counts 71,485 Chinese speakers - 1.7 per cent of the total population).

The lack of familiarity with Chinese culture is even more acute in Quebec City, Alain said.

“Here in Quebec City, it’s not like Montreal,” she said. “There haven’t been very many people from elsewhere, and it’s traditionally a very Caucasian city…. But people are very excited about the culture, and they are learning about things as they go.”

That’s why, Alain said, the Golden Dragon Certification Program has great potential in Quebec. LAT is working with groups like Tourisme Montreal and Quebec’s hotel associations in offering cultural understanding courses through the program, and plans to list certified businesses on a website that will be aimed at China’s domestic web traffic, and market them on individual pages on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat.

“It’s about breaking a lot of the cultural misunderstanding that’s in place,” Alain said, noting Quebecers are often unaware of the unlucky Chinese connotation of the number 4 and the preference for warm drinking water.

“In Montreal and Quebec, it’s way more different because there’s more work to be done, but there’s really high interest right now whereas Vancouver is more relaxed because we understand Chinese tourists more. There’s some truth to the fact that we are a more Chinese city… and Quebec needs more know-how.”

Beyond general cultural training, LAT is also working on ways to present more payment options for visiting Chinese consumers. The company is a partner to MotionPay Technology Inc., which in April announced a partnership with the Richmond Chamber of Commerce to allow member businesses more access to Chinese mobile payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay.

That’s an area where B.C. shares Quebec’s inexperience, Alain said, adding that familiarization efforts are underway on both fronts.

Canadian officials say they are confident the number of Chinese visitors will rise again this year, given that Beijing has designated 2018 as the Canada China Year of Tourism and has given Canadian destinations extra promotion on Chinese media outlets.

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