10 Questions with… Gerald Hatherly

Abercrombie & Kent's Hong Kong based director

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A new study by research group Roy Morgan indicates that around 11.4% of Australians are intending to travel overseas in the next 12 months, up more than 4 percentage points on the same time a decade ago. That figure bodes well for Australian travel agents, with Indonesia (specifically Bali) and Japan right at the top of the list -both achieving double digit growth in their own right. Japan is white hot at the moment, overtaking China, Singapore and Thailand as a desired destination to visit.

The study also identified that China’s popularity over the past 10 years has slumped, with only 2.3% of Aussies earmarking the Chinese mainland as a desired holiday destination, down from 4.9% compared to the 12 months ending March 2008.

Gerald Hatherly

The findings echo comments recently made by a senior executive at luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent which has had a presence in China since the early 1980s.

A&K’s in-house China specialist, based in Hong Kong, Gerald Hatherly was in Australia recently to promote the region and highlight areas of potential growth. Canadian-born Hatherly is a Director for Abercrombie & Kent’s operation in China and North East Asia which also spans Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore. During his first ever visit to Sydney, he spoke exclusively with LATTE to explain the work Abercrombie & Kent is doing in China and where future opportunities lie to ramp up awareness and boost outbound numbers.

 

How is the Australian market performing in China for a luxury travel business such as Abercrombie & Kent?

When I look at the numbers to China from this market, and compare it to the volumes that are coming out of the UK and the USA, I feel there is an opportunity for more Australians to experience the destination.

There’s a lot of great companies here working in China so there’s no doubt we have competition, but if  I compare this market, to say, the United States, I think they could be stronger.

Or maybe it is across the board, and maybe Australians aren’t travelling to China in the numbers that they had in the past. And that very well could be due to the location, being in the same hemisphere as China it’s a closer trip that what it would be from Europe or North America.

 

How does Abercrombie & Kent plan to counter that issue?

Well, maybe I’m not being fair to the Australian market. The figures here could be skewed as Australian travellers tend to buy into the US program. But I think, directly out of Australia, we can improve our numbers. I believe there are travel itineraries and destinations in China that might be of more interest to them because Australians are very adventurous travellers. Maybe we need to market more here than what we are currently doing – maybe we are not doing that enough.


In your opinion, what lures travellers to China?

I think that people everywhere may be unaware of just how incredibly diverse China is, both physically as a country and in terms of landscapes due to its size. The characteristic of China that really strikes me is the demographics, the human diversity. With a population of 1.3 to 1.4 billion people there is just an incredible ethnic diversity. I believe that aspect really fails to get across to travellers.


What efforts is A&K taking to build its Australian numbers?

Now is a great time to go to China and explore regions beyond the major cities. And a lot of the work that we are doing out of our office in Hong Kong, and our regional branches, is towards opening up other parts of China to tourism. We have a strong presence on the ground and we really like to promote – for lack of a better term – more remote areas. Be it the northwest or the southwest into Yunnan Province and Tibet.

We do work with our sister offices in Southeast Asia so we can arrange these great cross-border trips from Yunnan into Vietnam or Burma to Lao. There are just so many different possibilities now in China which I think is very, very exciting.

Each year our Melbourne office organises special interest, one-off group trips along the Silk Road and into Mongolia and Tibet. I think the interest is definitely there but I’d like to see more people experiencing China.

What makes travelling through China so unique? Why is high-speed rail so important?

Well the country has invested so much, the government has invested so much, into travel infrastructure. It is so easy to access any region of China today. They have air service everywhere, they have incredible roads but more than anything else, what has really revolutionised China in the last decade and increasingly so over the last five years is the investment in high speed trains.

Between 2007 and 2017 government, the Chinese Government invested $159 billion in trains. And now with Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, they are putting in another $300 billion over the next five years!

When you think about those numbers and compare it to the likes of India where the locals are thrilled that their government is committing around $5 billion to trains… it’s staggering. China is so committed to rail. And that’s what is so exciting about the country – you can travel virtually everywhere on high speed rail. You can go from Beijing to Shanghai in under 5 hours, from Beijing to Xi’an in 4 hours, Xi’an to Chengdu in 3 hours.

To me it’s a whole new way of appreciating China because of what’s happening between the cities, not in the capitals so much. You can travel in real comfort through the country in brand-new generation bullet trains that go up to 350 km/hr. They have business and first class-style options with bed seating. They are very efficient and train stations are inside cities so you don’t have to deal with the occasional horrific airport transfers in Beijing or the traffic situation. And I just think it’s a great way to see the country too, while at the same time seeing what the government is doing in terms of the countries commitment to this infrastructure upgrade.

Along with the investment in high speed rail, there seems to be a new luxury hotel opening every 24 hours in China. Would you agree?

That’s right. Plus, now there’s a whole new generation of boutique hotels, not just in the major cities but in cities that people should see that maybe in the past didn’t have a suitable luxury offering. You have them now in second- and third-tier cities. There are great international hotels now, and also a lot of good Chinese boutique properties. As a travel destination, it is certainly maturing in many good ways.

It’s great to have the Four Seasons and these wonderful hotels but it’s also nice to see very specialised, smaller boutique hotels.

Is there a growing food-scene in China? And how about the arts?

There’s a real culinary revolution in China. There are great new restaurants opening, great food experiences available – it’s a great time to visit.  Art has also become a vehicle for social expression and we are fortunate to work with some great art experts and they can take us behind-the-scenes to meet with artists experimenting with social expression through art.

Is A&K able to package itineraries with these boutique hotels and culinary options?

Absolutely. They are in our brochure program and even more so can be arranged for private groups or individual travel. We encourage train travel throughout China and taking high speed trains where it makes sense to do so. We also like to include food tours or have a food focus because China is so regionalised in its culinary traditions. We build in art components if people are interested in that scene because there is very vibrant contemporary art scene in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Chengdu, in Guangzhou – the big cities.

What Abercrombie & Kent really want to do is introduce the human side of China too. The monuments are wonderful, with the likes of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but I think the story in China today is also about how society has been transformed and what people are doing.

We are fortunate because we have been on the ground in China since 1983 and we have grown the offices and the number of employees that we have, so we really do make every effort to work locally.

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