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How Can a European Museum Attract Chinese Tourists?

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With over 2,000,000 Chinese tourists who visited France in 2015, China is France’s second tourist market after the United States, but how can a European Museum attract Chinese tourists?

In this presentation Patricia Buffa, shares how Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris used the Chinese social media websites We Chat, Weibo and Douban to reach out to potential tourists in China. What worked for the museum and what did they learn about using these platforms and Chinese audiences. 

Patricia Buffa: I work at Foundation Louis Vuitton and I am not French. I am Italian originally and I moved back from the U.S. actually to get this opportunity to work in this institution. My main job is on Western communication and social media channel etc. But I also run our communication in China, which has been an incredible experience for me because I don’t speak Chinese, and I have never been to China, so it’s a quite challenging opportunity that I had and I wanted to share it with you today because I know many other Western institutions are trying to find their way to communicate in China with a Chinese audience and since it’s not that easy, I hope that we can exchange and talk more about this and learn together about how to do this.

First of all, I have a question for you, if I manage to change the slide. Oops, sorry, next. I cannot move forward with the presentation. But, my first question for you was, “Have you been to the Foundation Louis Vuitton? Has anyone in the room been to the Foundation?” Okay, so you guys know what I am talking about, but for those of you that haven’t been, I would like to introduce our institution briefly. Okay, great.

So, we are located in the Bois de Boulogne, which is in the west of Paris, in Jardin d’Acclimatation, which is the first amusement park that was built in Paris in 1860 during Napoleon III. We sponsor modern and contemporary art for exhibition and interdisciplinary programme, and we also sponsor music. We have an auditorium where we hold classical music concerts. As you can see, we are a pretty young institution. We are about two and a half year old, two and a half [old]. Most of our audience is from France, 74 percent. We have also a few European folks, like you, that came and visit us. North American and only 3 percent of Asian, and of course when I say 3 percent of Asian, it means that when you think about China, it’s of course a sub-set of this, so we have an even smaller Chinese audience coming to our museum. So we can ask ourselves why, and also why this audience is particularly interesting to us.

It is particularly interesting to us and maybe to your institution as well, because China is actually the largest outbound tourist market in the world, so we had 57 million visitors from China in worldwide in 2010 and they are going to become 220 million by 2020. So it’s really an incredible number of people that are going outside of their countries to come visit our cities and of course our institutions. The same trend is reflected in France, where we switched from 900,000 visitors to 5 million visitors expected for 2020.

So, why a Chinese audience particularly matters to Paris, where we’re based? It is because actually their profile is quite interesting. As you can see in the slide they are pretty young, their average age is 34 years old. They travel mostly by themselves, so even if you have the stereotype of thinking about Chinese tourists as people that travel together in buses, well actually they don’t, they come by themselves and they book their trip online. 87 percent will book their trip online which means that they get information about where to go and what to do, most likely digitally.

So this is why it is really important to think about a communications strategy, when you want to talk with a Chinese audience. Then when interviewed, 96 percent of them reply that their top activity is visiting museums and monuments. So this is why we should be better at communicating and interacting with this audience compared to also the other ones. But again, communicating in China is not the easiest thing because, as you may know, they actually don’t have Google, they don’t have Twitter, they don’t have Facebook, and they don’t use most of the platforms that we have.

This is on one hand because they just have different tools, and on the other hand because the government, the Chinese government, monitors and blocks all the unfavourable incoming data that comes from foreign countries, so it’s really – there is the system that is called the Great Firewall and this was actually strengthened in 2009, which was the year of the 20th anniversary from the Tiananmen protests, and on this occasion of course the Chinese government tried to even reinforce the control on incoming data and information.

This made, for a Western institution, even harder to be able to penetrate this Great Firewall, but it also created opportunities for Chinese tech companies to actually grow. So this is actually not a coincidence that in that year, Weibo was opened. Weibo is, as you may know, the Chinese version of Twitter. Many other social media popped up and opened and sort of helped create this big intranet that is China’s digital space.

So how can we work with this space? Of course – so in my previous slide, I was mentioning a few of the Chinese version of our most known social media and digital platforms, such as YouTube, that is Youku, etc. and so on. Most of you may have already heard me speaking about WeChat. WeChat was developed by Tencent and it was launched in 2011. It has over 890 million monthly active users. They are mostly Chinese. We call it a sort of smart phone Swiss Army Knife. This is because it is an integrated app. It has – basically a Chinese user doesn’t behave like us, they don’t go through different apps during their day to do different tasks, they just use WeChat for everything.

It was developed as a one-to-one communication tool, a little bit like our WhatsApp, but they were the first to install messaging recording tools, and video exchange and everything, and they actually are really interesting because their business model is different from most of our Western social media business models.   If you think about Facebook, it’s a business model that is mostly related to advertising, so that’s where most of their revenue comes from. Well, WeChat doesn’t make so much money from advertising, but they make money mostly through providing services to their users. The company are interested in providing services through WeChat to get to their audience.

This is why it became such an interesting and complex social media, because again they monitor and they are in touch with the users 24/7, because Chinese people can order a meal on WeChat, pay for their bills on WeChat, do investment banking on WeChat. They can even go on online dating thanks to WeChat.

They actually shake their phones – this is something pretty popular in China – and by shaking their phone, they get in touch with people around them in the same area that are on WeChat. It’s a way to meet strangers; it’s also a way to do business. Emails are not really developed and used in the business environment in China. They actually also do communications internal in the office and with other vendors or clients through WeChat, so it’s really – they order their cabs on WeChat, they have heat maps to see if the museum is too crowded; maybe they’re going to go there later.

It’s just an incredible tool, and not to talk about WeChat Pay again, that allows users to pay for everything, so they’ve basically got rid of bills and even the plastic credit cards that we use. This is really fascinating for us because of course maybe the Western social media will not get there because we have a different way to work and also operate digitally. But of course you will know that Facebook and other Western platforms are looking at WeChat for inspiration.

Let’s adventure more in Chinese social media and the way Western institutions deal with them. So, we are in France, as we were saying, and of course we were not the first museum to embrace and to start this journey. Before us already Louvre and Place of Versailles and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, museums also that you all know, and the Museum of the Army already opened in 2015 their Weibo and WeChat account.

Following their example, we did something similar and on the occasion last year in 2016, we had an exhibition. We organised it together with the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. That was an exhibition displaying works of art of the younger generation of China’s artists and it was in dialogue with a collection hang of our Chinese art collection. So, last year at this time we were completely dedicated to Chinese art and we thought it could be a good opportunity to start interacting with Chinese artists.

Of course we were not thinking that in this way we would attract Chinese tourists, because Chinese tourists plan, as all of us, their trip, quite in advance. We started thinking strategically about communicating in China only in 2016 generally, at the time of our exhibition. We started to think it’s going to be a good way to capitalise on and test things with people that have come to the Foundation because they are already in Paris, but the strategy needs to be assessed in the longer-term; results don’t come right away.

Here is the model that we thought to create to start talking and to interact with a Chinese audience. We wanted to create a full digital experience, recruiting of course new followers, and when you talk about recruitment, it’s really important to think not only about the online recruitment, which of course we did by opening our Weibo, Douban and WeChat accounts, and by communicating on travel websites, and looking at how we were ranking on their Baidu etc.

It’s really important to also think about the old way of communicating, so working with celebrities, working with influencers, and they really helped us have new followers on our accounts, so the offline to online recruitment is something that I really think is important not to forget when we are in this digital world and we think everything happens online. Everything doesn’t happen online, it happens offline as well, and it’s really important to have these two dimensions really because it needs to be considered as an element of something, of the same thing.

Then we thought about the onsite experience, which was through our WeChat account and through our FLV, Foundation Louis Vuitton, apps that I’m going to talk about in a second. And then of course we were hoping that the people that would come to the Foundation would share their experience through WeChat Moments and through Weibo, and hopefully that would help us recruit more followers and sort of create a virtual circle.

We had a chance to work with a Chinese star. His name is Lang Lang and I think maybe you know who he is. He is one of the most famous pianists. He is Chinese, he’s based in New York and he actually inaugurated the Foundation Louis Vuitton auditorium, so the first concert that we had at the Foundation was by Lang Lang that played some fantastic music of Chopin at the time. Then we invited him again a year later with his International Music Foundation. So on these occasions we were able to work with his social media manager and tried to do some cross-publication so of course for us being boosted and being supported by such an important public figure that is Chinese was incredibly helpful. Here I am just showing you on this slide his Weibo and WeChat accounts.

Then of course I was saying travel website. If you’re trying to investigate ways to enter the Chinese communication world, it’s important that your institution is somehow referenced on travel websites. As I was saying before, 87 percent of Chinese tourists book their trip online. They most likely are going to book it through Ctrip, Qunar, Qyer – so these websites are the most popular websites and it’s important to make sure there is a mention of your institution, that there is a description of your programme and opening hours and activities.

Working with some PR agencies and journalists that would come and visit the Foundation, we managed in the first two months of the exhibition to get around 10 publications that were read by over 1,500 people. Before this there was actually nothing, so it’s not a fantastic result, but it was a first way to be there, to be present. I think what I am trying to express today here is that most people think that speaking to a Chinese audience is opening a WeChat account. Of course WeChat is really important, but it’s actually being active in the entire ecosystem.

In the same way we do in the West, it’s important that your website is well-ranked on Google, thinking about the CEO and thinking about your institution pops up when people do queries online, so the same thing needs to be done in China. It is not just opening your Weibo and WeChat accounts that you’re done. You actually need to think about how your institution is mentioned under search engines and so on.

This is why my next slide is about Baidu Knows. I was saying earlier, Baidu is the Chinese version of Google, to make things simpler, of course. We’re trying just to understand each other here, but – Baidu has a lot of different sub-platforms that it hosts, and one of them is called Baidu Knows, in English. I don’t know how to say it in Chinese and I’m not even going to try. Baidu Knows is a sort of Q&A website, which has over 120 million registered users. To participate in Baidu Knows you need to be a registered user.

Apparently Chinese people like to investigate through questions and answers. Instead of just Googling something, basically, or [Baiduing] something, they also use this resource, which is looking for answers that people already answered to questions they might have had. Again, before we started thinking strategically about communicating in China, when you are typing a question such as this one, which is, “What are the top ten museums in Paris?” Well before we started working on social media in China, we didn’t show up because of course, again, Paris is an incredibly competitive place if you’re a museum because there are fantastic institutions. I don’t even want to try start mentioning them, but we have the Louvre and St. Pompidou and so many incredible art institutions so if you are young, like Foundation Louis Vuitton you are only [half] two year old, well, you’re just not mentioned.

So we started working with again the agencies I was mentioning earlier, the PR and the press, and because they started writing articles in Chinese, then we started performing a little bit better on Baidu Knows so that after a few months, when you were typing in Chinese, “What are the top ten museums in Paris?” well, you can see that the fourth answer did mention Foundation Louis Vuitton and we are on the first page, so that’s not too bad.

A few weeks ago, just preparing this presentation, I started – actually I was curious, so I typed one of the few things that I know how to write in Chinese, which is “Foundation Louis Vuitton” – yes, I can do that – so I typed that on Baidu Knows and I actually found a series of results, which are – the first one that you see on the very top result is just an advertisement, like it happens in Google, so the first one is an advertisement. The second one is an answer on Baike Baidu, which is the Chinese version of Wikipedia, again to try to explain things in a very easy way. It’s really interesting that at least there is an official description of the Foundation right as the first answer.

The second question is about the relationship between Louis Vuitton the brand and the Foundation Louis Vuitton, so it’s another interesting question. The answer was pretty accurate, so if you’re asking yourself the same question, the answer is that we carry the brand of Louis Vuitton but we are actually a foundation that is funded by the LVMH Group at large.

Then the following question is about, “What can I see if I go to Foundation Louis Vuitton?” so we were really happy that somebody replied to that question. The other question, and I’m just going to stop it here, is about the [personal] design of the Foundation Louis Vuitton, which is the front area as you all know.

Let me then just talk about another platform that you may or may not know, which is Douban. Douban is a social media platform that was launched in 2005, and it’s a niche platform in a way that is mostly used by people that are interested in music, literature, it works as a blog and also as a web radio. Sixty-six million registered users are on this platform and also 150 million unregistered users. Again, compared to the 120 million users on Baidu Q&A you may think it’s a smaller audience. It is of course a smaller audience on this social media, but it’s really relevant to us because they are so interested in what we do. They are – people that are subscribed to this platform are our audience, so people that are museum goers, that love music, that love culture at large.

It’s really important if you’re planning to start communicating in China again to beyond Weibu and Douban and maybe to also open – sorry, to go beyond Weibo and WeChat, and also open a Douban account. This is just a screenshot from our Douban page, with a few articles that we wrote at the time that we organised the exhibition on Chinese art in collaboration with the UCCA.

Then finally, let’s talk about Weibo, which is the most known probably, together with WeChat, social media used in China. It was launched in 2009, as I was mentioning earlier, on the occasion – at the same time of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. It really works as Twitter for us. It’s a micro-blogging site, and it has 330 million monthly active users. Again, I was really happy when I took the screenshot to see that another Western institution is actually Tweeting, if I can say so, on Weibo, or is [Weiboing] perhaps.

So, we’re not alone. We are out there, we are learning by doing, I guess, in this field. Finally, I am showing you our Foundation Louis Vuitton Weibo account, which I’m pretty proud of because we have over 90,000 subscribers. This is an incredible number for a Western institution and I’m going to tell you why we are performing so well. It’s actually a pretty, an easy answer. It’s not that we’re doing something exceptional compared to other institutions, it’s because we organised an exhibition in China in 2015. This was even before we started thinking strategically about communications in China. It was the first [art le nord], like we say in French, so exhibition that was organised outside of the Foundation displaying work from the Foundation’s collection.

In this case we displayed Frank Gehry’s maquettes of the building, and the first time they were displayed outside of Paris it was in China, in Beijing. On that occasion we opened our Weibo account and we started publishing posts on Frank Gehry, on the building in France, and I really believe that the reason why our account became pretty popular is because we did something in China. I’m sure that if we didn’t do this exhibition over there, we would have far less followers. So if you’re thinking about strategy and communication in China, try to think about the opportunity you may have to show some work or [probably] with loans, or anything like that that may help the Chinese audience to really get to know your institution on site in China first.

Then finally, let’s move to our WeChat account. As I was saying, we started thinking strategically a little bit too late. We didn’t think we could attract tourists from China to come see the exhibition because we launched the account on the very day of the opening of the exhibition on Chinese artists, we thought we would capitalise on the onsite experience. Earlier I mentioned that you can shake your phone to get in touch with people around you. Well, we offered the Chinese audience that was coming to Foundation Louis Vuitton the opportunity to talk with Lang Lang himself, by shaking their phone.

At the time in January 2016 when they were coming to the Foundation, they would shake their phone, they would receive a phone call from this incredible pianist that really, Chinese people admire a lot, and we also admire a lot too of course. I remember seeing on the face of the few people that were from China, when they came to the Foundation they were really kind of moved that such a star would actually talk to them, welcome them to a different nation, remind them that he had the opportunity to actually open the Foundation with his concert, and that it was quickly explained to them everything they could do at the Foundation that day, so the exhibitions they could see etc.

Then we also had a – we worked with our Wi-Fi at the foundation so that basically, when the Chinese person would try to look to connect to Wi-Fi at the Foundation, they would also have an invitation to subscribe to our WeChat account through our QR code.

So these are the ways that we were trying to start recruiting Chinese followers on our WeChat account onsite. Then here, I’m just explaining a little bit about the way our WeChat account works. Maybe for those of you who don’t have WeChat, it’s important to make a distinction between a regular user account and an official account. WeChat allows for a regular user to use iMessages and use – sorry, Moments, to share their posts with friends, and of course they use the instant messaging apps and all the features that WeChat offers, but an official institution can have an official account on WeChat.

The difference is that if you have an official account, you can create your own micro-site on WeChat. A micro-site is typically made of three tabs and every tab can – two or three tabs, three is maximum – and every tab can have a maximum five sub-tabs. This is the way we organise our own website on WeChat. The first tab on the left is practical information as you can see, there is the [unintelligible 00:22:18] at the Bois de Boulougne I was mentioning earlier, our opening hours and where we are located.

Then the second tab is dedicated to our exhibition. So here again I took a screenshot of what we were displaying at the time; it was our exhibition event organised with the UCCA and also the hanging of our collection of Chinese art. You could at the time scroll through the images and have some audio that was recorded for every – of the artworks, which means that the app could also work as an audio guide, all integrated again in one tool. WeChat also offers very interesting tools; it’s a really customisable app.

At that time we activated the tool that will let you zoom in the works of art, to have a clearer look at them. Then the third tab is dedicated to architecture, as I was mentioning, so Frank Gehry, the mention of the building, the construction site, etc. etc., and the last tab is dedicated to the exhibition that we did in China I was mentioning earlier. Again, it is really important that they can read something that they can be familiar with, because it happened in Beijing.

And then communication. Thus far I have just talked about tools and how to learn using these tools that are different from what we use every day. But of course communication is not just about translating. As I was mentioning earlier, you can send newsletters, official accounts can send newsletters to their users that are following the account. You are actually – you cannot send more than four newsletters a month, so it’s interesting – while I was talking about a different business model between Facebook and WeChat, you don’t have any blocks in the number of responses to a post that you can do on Facebook. Well, you cannot do all the communication that you want on WeChat, you need to again do a maximum four a month, and every newsletter has a maximum eight chapters in it.

It’s really considered a service for the users and not as a sort of big magazine where they get advertisement all the time. But when you’re communicating with them, it’s important to understand – or I try to think about what Chinese people may like to read and I, for instance – of course even communicating in the U.S. and France, every country has their cultural differences and I think this is the most important thing to try to understand when talking with a Chinese audience or a foreign audience in general. So for instance, in France I am used, in our regular newsletters, I am used to putting commercial propositions right on top of it because I know I’m going to lose the attention of my user right afterwards.

In France especially, people love to click on buy buttons, “Book your ticket now,” boom, that happens, it’s fantastic. Well in China I learned that if you just sound a commercial proposition right at the beginning, you’re actually not really performing well because they may just think that it’s commercial and they may lose interest in your newsletter. Even if, for instance, in France we try to be short in our messages, and a lot of images and short texts, I learned that in China I can be longer and actually, as long as the story telling is interesting to them, they will go through the end of the newsletter.

So here is a quite simple example of a newsletter that we did to promote Le Frank. I organised the slides vertically, so the sense of reading is vertical, and you can see that I started talking about the – we started talking, of course I’m not writing Chinese myself – but we started talking about Le Frank, which is our restaurant, only at the end of it. At the beginning we start with a book by [Maura Camida] was what I talk about when I talk about running. So in this newsletter we were trying to create a parallelism between doing repetitive actions like running and repetitive actions like eating and how you develop your creativity through breathing and doing repetitive actions.

Only at the end of it we got to the point that was interesting to the Foundation itself which means promoting our restaurant. This is something that I really learn by doing and, again, if you try to copy and paste or translate your content that you’re doing for your national audience, it may not be really successful in China, as anywhere else perhaps.

Sorry, I don’t know why this is – So here I’m going to talk about the future steps on WeChat. I include a slide where I was presenting a game that we call Lucky Vibes, it’s actually an app that exists and it’s downloadable on the App Store. It’s an app that we developed to interact with a younger audience, of teenagers mostly, and I don’t know why it’s not showing up here, but basically it’s organised with a – it’s a game, it’s really a game, there is nothing intellectual or educational about it. We are trying to attract a new audience that may not know the Foundation by engaging them in a game where they have an air balloon and try to catch notes following a melody and whenever they’re catching the right notes, you get a score, and any time you reach a certain level you learn information and fun facts about the Foundation itself and then you can share your score with your friends.

It’s just a classical game and we’re thinking about developing this on WeChat, and maybe I can show you – this is okay – so this is what I was trying to present earlier. It’s just an app that I think we could develop in China and I am currently working on integrating it in HTML5 to be able to make it as a feature in the manner that I showed you earlier. So perhaps somebody who doesn’t know the Foundation yet, may have fun playing with this app and share their score on Moments, and of course win. They could win tickets to the Foundation, they could win guided tours, so it’s a way to again be playful, which is something that really works well on WeChat.

Well, I’m sorry that didn’t work. I wanted to show you the way the app works, but you can maybe just download it yourself later. Then we are also working – I was telling you before that I think we were really successful on Weibo because we had an onsite experience for a Chinese audience. We are lucky enough to have four cultural spaces we can work with, which are the cultural spaces of Louis Vuitton. One existed in Paris, it was closed at the time the Foundation opened. There was one in Munich, one in Tokyo, one in Venice and one in Beijing. The cultural space of Louis Vuitton in Beijing is going to open in June an exhibition on Gerhard Richter.

Basically the idea is that because the exhibition there is going to be on Foundation Louis Vuitton collection, of course, we will add our QR code, our reach out account, in this space so that people that will go see the exhibition may learn more about the Foundation on site and we are hoping that this will be a way for us to recruit more followers. I haven’t stressed this enough earlier, but I think again, your QR code is really like your business card. Even Chinese people don’t really hand a business card to each other anymore, they just scan QR codes, because that’s the way you can actually subscribe and be in touch with another person who has a WeChat account.

QR codes are not used just to scan their ticket when they’re taking their flight to go somewhere, but they’re really used to make payments, to learn things, so – I have the feeling in the West, even when in the museum we try to add QR codes next to art works, in my experience they have not been so much used, or – in China it’s vital that you have your QR code everywhere. So understanding to talk about Chinese audiences, is also understanding and integrating your design and way of doing things. Don’t be afraid to print out your QR code and flyers really big; it may not be aesthetically nice to you, but it may be really important to be able to recruit new followers, and then if you don’t have an exhibition or plan in China, maybe work with your country consulate to make sure that some flyers are printed out there with your QR code if you are opening a reach out account and information so that you can have this very important offline to online recruitment process that will help you be more known in China.

This is it.

Patricia Buffa from Fondation Louis Vuitton spoke about how a European museum can attract Chinese tourists in May 2017. If you are interested in bringing Chinese tourists to your museum, you might be interested in this presentation on How do you attract Chinese visitors to your Museum?