Mei Zhang, founder of Wild China in Beijing, is betting that people are ready to travel beyond the Great Wall of China to find more authentic local experiences. How can China, Myanmar and Tibet get the most out of these opportunities for experiential travel?
Can you explain a bit of your background in business and travel?
I started off as a management consultant for Mckinsey & Company after attending Harvard Business School. Travel was not really in my career plan at all. But, I grew up in Yunnan, China, just north of Laos, and I always thought tourism industry back then, around the year 2000, didn’t present the beauty of the China I was familiar with.
Travel industry back then tended to pack people into 40-passenger tour buses, touring around the Great Wall, and stopping at those tourist souvenir shops that paid commission to guides. It completely destroyed the serenity and beauty of travel for me.
I asked one simple question to those people wanting a more authentic experience: how are they served? There was none. So, I decided to start WildChina.
Who is your target audience for your trips into off-the-beaten path locales?
WildChina’s target audience are savvy international travelers who want to have a more sophisticated interpretation of Chinese culture. We grew from serving these individual travelers to serving educational institutions like universities to run a more interactive travel program in China.
This year, we are launching our most important service to Chinese travelers. It’s called newugo.com, which means “avocado” in Chinese. The simplest way to explain that is it’s the Airbnb for authentic travel experiences for Chinese users.
On newugo.com, we feature a folk song singer from a Miao community, a villager who makes cheese from scratch in her home in Dali, or a chef who takes you to collect honey from the mountains. These are what we call “avocado experiences” from around China. These people sign on to our platform to take guests from the city to do their daily chores, like harvesting rice, milking the cow, etc. They are not part of the “manufactured” travel service providers, they live the way they always do. That’s the authentic experience travelers want to buy these days.
Newugo.com is only in Chinese, as there is most demand there.
What types of experiences are people requesting most often on curated tours?
Interestingly enough, the kind of authentic experiences like the ones in newugo is exactly what our WildChina guests love most about our tours. Everybody can take you to the Great Wall, but who can open window to real Chinese lives? So, our guests often enjoy doing taiqi with our master in Temple of Heaven, because that’s how Chinese go to exercise in the morning. They also enjoy going to a local market to see what people buy, or visit a family to cook a meal together, or go for a hike with a forest ranger, etc.
Can you share some examples of truly insider experiences that you’ve facilitated that help connect travelers with the local culture?
For the board of a non-profit organization visiting China, they wanted to understand conservation opportunities in China. So we arranged an elegant dinner by Erhai Lake and invited a few very well-respected local artists and conservationists to join the dinner. They had a real dialogue to understand the local cultures.
Then, we also arranged a very simple vegetarian meal inside a small village temple. They get to watch the local Bai ladies preparing the meal and understand their worship rituals.
In Beijing and Shanghai, we arrange private access to famous artists or other personalities, which are also cherished experiences.
What are travelers most surprised by when they explore these destinations for the first time?
Most people are surprised to find Chinese, or Tibetan or Burmese so open in their discussions of politics and everyday life. Particularly in China, people expected us to be rigid, or by the book, because we don’t have open access to Facebook. They are very surprised to find Chinese willing to talk about anything, and that on Chinese social media WeChat, there is a parallel universe where everything is discussed.
Can you tell me about the corporate side of your business?
We have a subsidiary called WCT Events (WildChina Travel Events). It focuses on bridging cultural gaps when people travel for business. Its main focus in corporate events of a small size and a higher-caliber clients. It’s not a general incentive house. We operate for partners of a law firm, or VC firm, or investment bank, etc. accommodating usually 30 people or at most a few hundred people. We start from brainstorming on venues, speakers, entertainment options. Usually, it takes getting out of the hotel ballroom to really feel the country.
What are some of the biggest logistical challenges you’ve faced in building your business?
The biggest logistical challenge is shortage of English-speaking guides. Now with more and more Chinese traveling overseas, many of our WildChina guides are also guiding in other countries, which creates a shortage of local guides.
Do you think emerging destinations in Asia are prepared for the influx of tourism that’s growing so rapidly?
I think Thailand is completely ready. Myanmar and Laos have a ways to go. The interest levels to explore in depth in these regions are growing very fast, which puts pressure on hoteliers and service providers to catch up. But, in the end, this is a good problem to have.
Photo credits: WikimediaCommons/ChinaTourist; ©istock.com/dutchydennis