Interview with Thomas Cook China GM Alessandro Dassi
From the moment the door opened, I felt honored to be meeting Thomas Cook China’s new General Manager, Mr. Alessandro Dassi. Throughout our discussion, he struck me by his passion and poise. Needless to say I was really surprised when I heard that he too is a sports fan! Born and raised in Italy, Mr. Alessandro Dassi lived in the UK for 15 years before moving to Shanghai in October 2015 together with his family. He actually started working with China long before that as Thomas Cook developed a strategic partnership with Fosun. There is much to learn from him and his experience as leader of such an iconic travel brand.
We have big ambitions for Thomas Cook in China, and we have the full commitment of Fosun and the company to make Thomas Cook a significant travel market brand for China. We are in for the long term we want to be a large, powerful and well-known brand. We have looked at China for many years. It’s already the largest and fastest-growing travel market in the world. Actually, it has been the largest travel market in the world for three years in a row. So a company like Thomas Cook cannot ignore the growth in China, particularly around tourism. It was not until we connected to Fosun that we had the resources to enter this market and bring our brand and experience to the country. We believe Fosun is an excellent partner and that it will help us to develop this business. Fosun’s resources and its deep understanding of the local market combined with Thomas Cook’s heritage, brand and expertise creates a powerful platform – we will be a significant player in this travel industry.
I’m a sports fan. I like playing sports and watching sports. But that is not the reason for our focus on sports travel. We believe sports travel will become a significant aspect of the travel market in China. We believe it’s an important growth area. China already has millions of millions of sports fans dedicated to Chinese and international sports. For example, Manchester United, a partner of ours, has more than one hundred million fans in China. It’s the biggest single market for their fans. We believe this represents huge potential for sports travel in China. We have decades of experience in this area. In fact, in the UK we have a company called Thomas Cook Sports which has facilitated fan travel and team travel for many years. The company has long-standing relationships with all the major clubs in Europe, and with organizations like Formula 1, tennis, etc. We will be tapping to this growing market by leveraging our know-how, expertise and relationships in the UK. This was the idea behind the launch of our sports travel offering in China.
When it comes to sports travel, we believe that we’ve already gained a very strong reputation in just a few months. We have unique products, including exclusive partnerships with some of the major clubs in football. For Manchester United we have an exclusive relationship for fan travel. We are the official travel partner of the club for many years in Europe and the UK. In January we expanded that exclusive partnership to China. The core product we have, match break, combines accommodations with a ticket for live matches for all domestic games of Manchester United. We are the only travel company that can offer that product in China. It’s absolutely unique and we have that level of partnership with many other clubs. It’s not something that any other players in China can really replicate because it is something that we have built by working with the club for the 20 years. We are honored to be associated with their brand, and they understand that when it comes to travel, we are the experts. They trust our brand, our reputation and our services. That’s critically important to the club, and that’s why we’ve been so successful in the sports travel in Europe across the years.
Our product package is very attractive. But we need to capture the demand. We know that there’s willingness across China for people to experience live events like football and other sports. But they may not know how to do that: how do you buy the tickets, what are the complications with visas, flights etc.? It’s not that simple for Chinese customers to simply go and watch their favorite football team in Europe. The idea is that we can make it as convenient as possible by creating personalized packages to include all the different components of travel, from visa to flight. When a Chinese customer goes to see Manchester United in the UK, they go all the way to the UK, which is a lot of travel. They not only want to watch a game, also to do some sight-seeing, and we can help with that. We can organize restaurants and activities within the destination. The idea is to personalize the package as much as possible to make it convenient for the Chinese customers to see the game. We want to spread the word about what we can do and about the product that we have launched. Social media is the platform with which we want to focus on. We believe social media has huge potential reach customers in China. We’ve launched one campaign with Manchester United to recruit fans across China and to send a very special very VIP itinerary to watch the Manchester United against Chelsea in the UK. We have identified the fans. The club is fully onboard. They have supported the trip, organized football legends and ex-players to take the group around. There will be a special visit to the football museum, to the Manchester United shop as well as sight-seeing. And, of course, they will have a VIP package experience in the stadium to watch the game. We will film all that experience and post content to promote our service and capabilities in the sports travel.
At the same time we are organizing an event in Shanghai, in which will we invite fans to watch the game in Shanghai so that they can interact with other fans in stadium. So there will be two events, one in Manchester to watch the game live, an one to watch the game in Shanghai. This is a way for fans to interact, and it’s a way for us to promote our brands and services.
We’re also creating a club online and offline for fans. When it comes to sports travel, we want to be the best brand hands down. We want to be a pioneer, to bring new products to our customers. And when it comes to sports travel, and in particular football, we are at the forefront. We are launching new products, multi-sports, car racing, F1, tennis, the Grand Slam tournament, such asAusralian Open Tennis Championship and French Open Tennis Championship. We have other sports in the pipeline that we would like to bring to the public in China.
First one, Manchester United is probably the biggest club in terms of the fans in China. It has a huge amount of brand appeal and recognition. It’s a great brand, very international. The second reason is that we have been partnering with Manchester United for over a decade. We work with the club, and we have an exclusive relationship. It’s an obvious choice for us to announce our presence in China, to launch our sports travel offering to do it in partnership with such an iconic club.
The feedback we have from the customers is extremely positive. They found our services very convenient and smooth. The collection of the ticket, going to the stadium, going watch the game, where the seats are … the feedback has all been terrific. We’ve been providing this type of service for many years and we know how to accommodate our customers whether they are European or Chinese. The core product is time-tested, especially in destinations where we have many resources. We know we can provide high-quality service to the customers.
Our objective over the next few months and for next season is to boost awareness of Thomas Cook as the leading player in the field of sports travel, in particular when it comes to football packages. We are concentrating on marketing and promotion, using social media channels, increasing the number of wechat followers, weibo followers. We are pursuing many efforts over the coming month, both offline and online, to achieve the objective of increasing our profile in China.
We are seeking to expand our portfolio of sports, including the world cup in Russia. We have done many world cups in the UK so we know how to do that very well. And we are considering which sports are more suitable for China than for Europe. The NBA is a focus for us. We are working on that and we want to develop that more. The NBA has a huge following in China, and we think it has huge potential. There are no tour packages in the market, and we can play a big role and have a big advantage.
I think there are many areas for collaboration, and that Fosun Group brings significant benefits to Thomas Cook China. We hope that Thomas Cook China can offer benefits to Fosun and its other portfolio companies.
The most obvious synergy includes tourism, where we are already collaborating with Club Med. We also look forward to Atlantis’ opening, and we believe we can play an important role for Atlantis in China and also through other source markets in Europe. We’ve already started cooperating with Folli Follie and Cirque du Solie, where we bundle some of the events and tickets to watch the show within our products. When Fosun portfolio companies visit China for meetings and conferences, we can manage all travel services and logistics.
These are the opportunities we’ve already explored and the benefits have already been realized. But there is also huge potential of other opportunities across the Fosun Group which we are not yet tapping into. That is an area we will explore over the coming months.
Fosun has a deep knowledge and understanding of the local roots in China, and also a wide network of resources through relationships and partnerships. We are constantly seeking to leverage those assets and the capabilities. There’s definitely more that we can do on both the Thomas Cook side and on the Fosun side. But we already are doing a lot in partnership with Fosun. For example, many distribution channels that we are using today are the third-party distributors. Thanks to the introduction and the relationships that Fosun has brought to the table for us. Those are the door-opening opportunities, which we wouldn’t be able to secure without partner like Fosun.
We’ve talked about this with the senior management team of Fosun, and we have talked about it with our board. There’s definitely more that we can do in the area of brand awareness and the general profile of Thomas Cook. Not everyone in the organization, on the employee side and the corporate side, knows about the services and capabilities of Thomas Cook China. We have a very strong infrastructure; we have the right platform; and we have all the capabilities to provide one-stop services. When it comes to travel, we can do everything in house -- visa, flights, destination, tours, package, hotel booking and many other services. We can provide everyone with a full suite of services so that they don’t have to buy from different suppliers. We need to spread the word more within the Fosun family so that they all know about our capabilities and what we can offer.
The Chinese market, in particular the outbound travel market, is very large and fast growing. We expect the market to grow at about 20 Percent for the next 10 years. There are factors like the rise of middle class, the relaxation of visa policies, the increase in the number of employee holidays that will contribute to the growth of outbound tourism from China.
At the same time, the market is very competitive, very fragmented. On one side, there are state-owned travel agencies with very large store networks; on the other side there are OTA (Online Travel Agencies), which have a huge customer base, such as C-trip, which has 65% of the online market in total. We have competition from everywhere. Sometimes companies in China, especially the outbound market, are incentivized to gain market share, which means that pricing pressure is very high. So we need to differentiate our product: we cannot provide the same products as our competitors. We don’t want to end up in this price fight. We need to do something different. By leveraging the resources that we have we can design innovative and unique packages that will attract customers in China. All our packages are designed with this in mind -- to be different and unique. Sports travel is a great example of that, but we also have many different themed itineraries, which provide the customer with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the destination, and a deeper experience with the local culture.
We don’t want to compete in the mass group tour segment of the market. We are trying to capture a trend that we can see in China as the travel behavior of consumer changes. There’s more demand today for quality travel separate from a price war. There’s more demand for travelling in a way that enables you to better understand a country. Culture and arts is increasingly a focus rather than touring multiple different countries. The behavior is changing, there’s different trend, and this creates opportunities for a company like Thomas Cook to make a big impact in the Chinese market.
Our brand resonates very well. It has about 175 years of history, and it has been the pioneer of travel. Mr. Thomas Cook is the creator of leisure holidays. That heritage and legacy has a huge appeal and potential in China. The biggest difference between our markets in Europe and China is customer behavior. We have to tweak the product to appeal more to the Chinese consumers.
With outbound products our UK customers are mostly interested in sun and beach holidays, typically a two-week visit to a resort in Southern Europe, in Spain or Greece. It’s about good food, good weather and relaxing under the sun.
On the other hand, when the Chinese consumers go to Europe, it’s not a sun and beach holiday. They’re more interested in sight-seeing, culture, arts. Some of the resorts we have in Europe must be combined with another element to make a product suitable and attractive for the Chinese customers. The typical sun and beach holiday for the European travelers is not enough for the Chinese consumers. We have adapted our products and resources to suit Chinese customers’ preference and behavior.
The vast majority of our employees are locally hired. We are also recruiting some foreign expats here, but we only have two people who relocated for Thomas Cook Group. The idea is to build a local company here. Localization is the key to the success to the company in the future. We will never bring staff over from Europe to China. What we want is to attract and train talent in the market. In the future we believe that we need to fully localize the business; the future management will be ultimately Chinese management.
I had to convince everyone to move to China, which was quite challenging. But we have been here now for a year and half and we are fully settled. I have two girls, one six and one four. They both go to international school in Pudong. The school is excellent and they love it. My wife is now fully settled into life in China. It took a while for us to get our feet on the ground because there are huge culture differences between China and Europe. The language also is always a barrier. But Shanghai is a very international city and Chinese cities in general are very welcoming to foreigners. We found a very nice environment. We have lots of friends and good community. At the moment I can say everything is going well.
To work in China and to develop the business of tourism in China is a great opportunity in my career and from the professional perspective. We have roots in London, where we lived for 15 years. My two girls were born in London and went to school in London. Changes are always difficult for all families. But I think everyone in the family appreciates the opportunity to live in the country that has huge prospects in terms of influence and economic opportunities. For example, the opportunity for my children to learn Mandarin is powerful. It is a valuable skill to have, especially when we think about the value and the growth of China over the next 10 or 20 years.
I traveled to China before I moved here. I knew Shanghai and I knew that taking my wife to Shanghai to have a look around and see what it is like would benefit the decision-making process. The perception of China is different when you are outside China. When you come to Shanghai, you see the city, how well-organized the city is, how modern it is. This changes people’s perception. It was very important to come and see the city, to experience it. That made my family want to move here.
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