Jessica Shu is the Co-founder of Affinity China and is responsible for the company’s ultra high net worth segment. Affinity China in partnership with Blu Inc, publisher of China’s leading yacht magazine, recently accompanied a small group of affluent Chinese during their trip to the Cannes Boat Show and Monaco Yacht Show to attend VIP events hosted by Blu Inc. The following is a interview on Jessica’s personal insights during the trip.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your recent trip to France and Monaco? What was the itinerary like?
From Shanghai our first stop was Cannes to attend this year’s Cannes Yacht show. We stayed at The Majestic, which was the nearest place to the yacht show. We were there for 4 days to look at yachts – small yachts from 10 – 40 meters. We also dined at several Michelin starred restaurants and ate a lot of seafood.
On another day we also rented a fast European car and we went to the countryside and visited Chateau D’Esclans, which is known for making the best rose wine. While there we also dined at another 3 star Michelin restaurant called Bruno and spent another day deep sea fishing for marlins.
Over the next 4 days we were in Monaco for the yacht show and attended high profile events such as the Monacho Yacht Club event hosted by Blu Inc, the publisher of China’s leading yacht magazine. We were also there to browse yachts between 30 to 90 meters in length which was a lot bigger and a lot more impressive to our clients. During our time in Monaco we also attended a gala dinner with Prince Albert which was a nice highlight of the trip for our clients. From Monaco we flew by private jet from Nice to Paris for a few days of shopping and fine dining at more Michelin restaurants.
The main purpose of the trip for our clients was to look at yachts this time, and also to experience yachting. We took a lot of sea trials out and had lunches and dinners on the yachts. We also attended dinner parties that were on yachts that we organized so people could really experience the feeling of what it is like to own a yacht. We took the yachts out and had the opportunity for a first-hand experience at driving it. Although the trip was focused on yachting we also arranged a private jet ride and shopping experiences at Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, all the
stores on Saint-Honoré, Champs-Élysées and Place Vendome.
Q: How many people were on the trip and how many of them are seriously interested in yachting?
15 people overall and 6 – 8 people were in the market for buying a yacht. The others were there for the experience. It’s a great show and the various events allowed for valuable networking opportunities as well.
Q: Did anyone purchase a yacht during the trip?
There’s a lot of interest about yachts, ranging from 40m – 60m. Our clients learned about buying yachts but did not make any final decisions at the show. All of the yachts are personalized so it takes about 2 years to make. You have to go over many processes. My understanding is it’s a 6-month process to buy a yacht. Most Chinese people won’t buy a used yacht, so it needs to be brand new and custom made for them.
Q: What kinds of questions did the Chinese ask most often in regards to yachts?
They asked a lot about the interior especially about the type of material used; How many staff would be needed to operate and maintain it; what the tax was for bringing it in to China – is it 45% tax if we ship it to China; where will I put it if I want to enjoy it in China; how shall I manage it. They often went to the engine room to look at the engines because some of the yachts have a speed of 15 knots and some others 45 knots. Inside, outside – space is very important.
From talking to them, it’s about a different level of lifestyle. They figure they’ll spend 2 or 3 months out of the year on a yacht so they want to ensure it suits their lifestyle and is customized for them.
Q: When you talk about the personalization process, what are their preferences?
A lot of the preferences involved a desire to localize it for Chinese lifestyle and entertainment. There’s no card or mahjong playing areas, or there’s no karaoke areas – so they want to put those in the yachts. A lot of them want the kitchen to be able to cook Chinese food – can I get a Chinese chef? A Chinese staff? There’s no Chinese boat staff yet – it doesn’t exist in China yet. More of the requests are in regards to logistics – how they are going to maintain it, how to ship to China?
Q: What did the Chinese guests enjoy the most about yachting?
I think it’s the lifestyle. Blue skye, blue waters, and you got the hills at the background. It’s the overall feeling of being completely relaxed in a very natural environment. You’d be surprised to know how many of them had a moment of “Wow, this is a totally different feeling. This is how it’s supposed to feel at this kind of level.” Another one explained “If you have made it to this successful level, I feel like this is the next kind of thing you should aspire to have.”
Q: What is the most interesting thing you observed when the Chinese guests were experiencing yachting?
The Chinese guests were taking A LOT of photos. I think it’s for remembering how it feels to go yachting when they are back to China. They took a lot of the photos with staff, the designer of the yachts, and other staff. Also, since they know that all the yachts will be personalized to their specifications, so they were trying out a lot of aspects of the yacht and making comments such as “oh the bed is not soft enough and it’s not big enough”.
Q: What do you think the luxury yacht companies should pay attention to when they cater to Chinese customers?
I think they need more Chinese staff. The biggest problem I saw was a lot of the yacht dealers or yacht builders don’t have Chinese staff. So when I brought the Chinese guests, I was supposed to translate but it was difficult for me because I myself don’t know too much about yachting terms in Chinese. I feel it’s really important to have Mandarin speaking sales people that can explain Chinese technical yachting terms and know the exact prices involved in the process of getting a yacht to China.
Q: Food is always a big issue when Chinese travel overseas. What was the experience like on this trip?
You know what, I was surprised. They didn’t request Chinese food that much. Just a few years ago, it was a big issue. But lately I notice as long as the breakfast has soup or porridge, it’s fine. They had egg and sausages and they were fine. I was surprised how many of them would were open about eating foods that were foreign to them. Another interesting note is sometimes they weren’t dressed properly for the 3-star Michelin restaurant, but overall they enjoyed all the fine cuisine.
Then again, on the last day, we went to eat Shandong cuisine in Paris, they ordered so much and they were like “wow I really missed Chinese food now that you take mev here.”
Q: What do you think Chinese guests like the most about the high end dining experience? The food itself or something else?
I think it’s the prestige of it. None of them actually finished all of their courses, but they do seem to enjoy the concept of participating in a grand French dinner - such as the one with Prince Albert. However, it’s a long meal. Usually by the third course, they are already full and start to drink wine only from that moment on.
Q: Do you have any advice for high-end restaurants to better cater to Chinese?
The format doesn’t really work for Chinese. Chinese expect dinner to finish in an hour and a half so a 3-hour long course menu doesn’t work for them. So maybe it’s better to make a shorter menu. Anything that’s past the sixth course just becomes a waste. They won’t eat it and they won’t finish it. They do like the food but they won’t sit for that long.
Guy Savoy restaurant did it properly. They have a Chinese menu so I didn’t have to translate the French menu to Chinese. When menus aren’t in Chinese it’s difficult for me to think of a good expression to translate the sometimes untranslatable seasoning terms from French to Chinese when they are already at the table.
So a Chinese menu, a shorter menu, and maybe a Chinese waiter/waitress is really important. Having a great wine list is ideal. We had 1958 Lafite and the Chinese guests were actually buying bottles directly from the restaurants because it’s cheaper that way than from a store in China.
Q: How were the Chinese guests enjoying their wine? What do you think they care the most about fine wine?
They don’t really know a lot about the nuances. They know more about the regions, like Latour, Lafite and Bordeaux. But you see a genuine effort in wanting to learn about wine despite their lack of knowledge. So if you brand it right, they are going to believe. For example, if you tell them the wine was for royalty, they are
going take that as being the best wine. It’d be very good to have a Chinese person because they can relate to them better. It makes a difference to have knowledgeable Chinese staff at the winery leading them to go through the whole process to get them attracted to the wines.
Q: Lets move on to the shopping experience in Paris, what were their favorite brands?
Hermes, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton but they did mention that “LV” is becoming a bit cliché for them as they view themselves as more sophisticated compared to the emerging wealth Chinese and feel like everyone has a Louis Vuitton item now so it’s not good enough for them anymore. In terms of watches, Patek Philippe is the number 1 in watches. A lot of them looked for Franck Muller. In terms of jewelry, they love Van Cleef & Arpels. Also, I noticed this group was more likely to buy when not in front of a lot of people. So sales were more likely when there was access to a VIP room because they don’t want to draw too much attention to themselves. Some came back to the store again after the group of people left and bought the items they were interested in. One client bought jewelry products as gifts – 10 same necklaces from one of the jewelry brands in one purchase.
Q: How was the overall luxury store experience for the guests when they shopped in Paris?
I would say half of the stores got it right. The ones that provided proper service welcomed us warmly when we came
in, they gave them access to the VIP room and served champagne and desserts. They offered incentives Chinese are accustomed to such as special services, discounts, gifts with purchase. I was personally very disappointed with one particular jewelry brand as the staff really made us feel as if we were walking transactions rather than people.
What I also observed is that Chinese like to reconfirm with people they know and trust that they are making the right purchase decision. If they don’t know about a brand, they will call their relatives or friends to ask if they have heard of that brand. If the brand is one that no one (in China) knows, they didn’t buy. So there’s a lot of “face” value attached to the purchases they make overseas.
If a brand really wants to attract Chinese customers, it really needs to build its brand in China. Even if the brand doesn’t event have a store in China, branding will get the Chinese consumers to become familiar with them. For example, when the Chinese learn that Van Cleef is the jeweler of the Monaco royalty, that really made an impact on their perception of the brand – they were impressed in a way that translated to: “Oh this is royalty quality. I’m wearing a piece that royalty would wear.” As many items purchased are gifts, they enjoy retelling the story to friends.
Q: What’s an area of concern you observed during the trip when it comes to westerners dealing with Chinese consumers?
The biggest concern I had was too many sales people hard selling during our trip. I think they need to scale it down a bit. In many cases, the people who were most frequently trying to hard sell our guests into buying a yacht or merchandise were Chinese sales staff. What I saw at times disgusted me. The level that sales people were willing to go to try to get rich Chinese people to buy merchandise was a big turnoff. It was to the point where some would try to walk away from them and wanted to be left alone. So therefore it’s not enough to have sales staff who speaks Mandarin, it’s important to have Mandarin speaking staff that knows how to soft sell and make the customer comfortable.
I’ll give you one example. There’s a yacht company that invited people to a dinner which we thought would be a nice experiential brand dinner. However, during the dinner, every invited Chinese guest was surrounded by 5 sales people. It became overwhelming to the point where one of my clients said to me in Chinese “I feel like a pack of wolves are trying to kill a little lamb — and i’m the little lamb.”
Also, another interesting story I want to share from our shopping trip is that we notice luxury brands paid very close attention to the kind of watch our guests were wearing as a way of distinguishing what level of potential customer they were when we walked in. For example, one of our guests noticed that on the days he wore his diamond Patek Philippe watch he got a lot better service. They are aware of this as they said when they don’t wear something that shows their obvious level of wealth, they won’t receive VIP services in most of the stores overseas. However, in China, he feels the sales staff are accustomed to emerging wealth Chinese of all levels of sophistication and know that sometimes some of the worst dressed customers who walk in are the highest spenders. I thought that was interesting.
Q: How are you able to gain so much candid insight from your clients?
Very simple. First of all, I am Chinese and grew up in mainland China. I learned a lot from my own family’s experience when traveling overseas. Secondly, unlike traditional Chinese tour operators, we are a very customer focused company. Affinity China does not take commissions or “kick backs” on retail purchases. We do our best to secure good treatment for our clients wherever they wish to shop. Unlike tour operators who never see the group of tourists again, our company deals with individual travelers who we want long term business with. We make our money from the service fee that’s built into the travel package, not retail commissions. As a result, they trust me when I accompany them when shopping overseas.
However, with larger purchases such as yachts, private jets, real estate investments where a higher level of service, longer time commitment and reaching out to our trusted network of relationships overseas is needed, we do earn a commission on the completion of these transactions. However, it’s never high pressure as our company is taking a long term view and therefore we need to remain very customer focused.