Cash and Carry

Chinese tourists in Boston are filling suitcases with luxe goods from local retailers—those who know how to tap into the market, that is.
Photographs by hudiemm/Getty Images

Photographs by hudiemm/Getty Images

Mike DiCarlo was going to have dinner with a famous comedian, but instead he’s stuck eating with me. We’re at Towne, on Boylston Street, to discuss tourism, something DiCarlo knows a thing or two about. While we wait for our drinks, he tells me an urban legend of sorts about a Chinese doctor who was in London for a conference. In typical Chinese fashion, the man was determined to try the best cuisine the region had to offer. So he asked for a recommendation from a local, who sent him to a hole-in-the-wall fish-and-chips joint in Brighton. “Well, as the story goes,” says DiCarlo, smiling, “he loved it. He went home and wrote about it on social media. All of a sudden, this guy who owns a little dinky fish shop? Seventy percent of his business is Chinese.”

It’s a story DiCarlo has told before, because as a top executive at the Boston-based marketing/consulting firm Attract China, he’s made it his mission to enlighten Westerners to the opportunity that’s knocking here at home, and help his clients market to an untapped money-spending behemoth: the Chinese tourist.

Founded in 2011 by then-26-year-old entrepreneur Evan Saunders and Where East Eats West author Sam Goodman, Attract China helps connect the dots between Chinese travelers planning a trip to Boston and the local purveyors interested in offering services to them. With no Google, Facebook, or other familiar forms of social-media marketing available to reach the Chinese population, Saunders and company have created a Chinese-hosted portal to showcase their clients’ offerings to potential visitors—the MFA, the Museum of Science, upscale retailer Louis, Boston Duck Tours, the Lenox and Mandarin Oriental hotels, and nearly 90 others are on the list. (Since launching, the company has opened offices in seven other U.S. cities.)

As it turns out, DiCarlo’s fish-and-chips tale wasn’t an urban legend at all. BBC News reported the story in August of last year, citing social media as the force behind the 50-year-old restaurant’s newfound popularity. DiCarlo will tell anyone who will listen that this is a phenomenon we’d better get onboard with, because according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Chinese visitors to Boston have grown from 37,961 in 2008 to 147,000 in 2012. That’s a 387 percent increase. With a population approaching 1.4 billion and a growing middle class filled with privileged, curious young adults, China is poised to overtake the U.K. as the top country sending visitors to Boston from overseas by 2017. In fact, by Attract China’s calculations, in 2020 there will be at least as many Chinese visitors to Boston as Bostonians living here. They are coming, and their dollars are up for grabs.

 

Motivated by our city’s rich history, superb educational opportunities, and reputation for intellectual supremacy, this new wave of Chinese travelers is independent (no more cross-country bus tours), experience-driven, and hungry for bragging rights—posting to popular Chinese social-media forums Weibo or WeChat as they kiss the feet of John Harvard, devour a whole lobster, or dress head to toe in Red Sox gear and run the bases at Fenway Park. “In Massachusetts, Chinese tourists are spending $200 million to $300 million a year,” says Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. This makes them the highest-spending group of international visitors for two years in a row (by comparison, travelers from the U.K., the second- highest-spending group, spent around $97 million a year during the same time period).

It’s the oft-misunderstood Asian cultural tradition of “face” that leads Chinese travelers to honor their families, friends, and coworkers with high-end, name-brand material goods as a form of social currency. Handbags, watches, jewelry—all are hot commodities for the Chinese, who happily take advantage of the much lower prices afforded in the States. (A Coach “Borough” bag, for example, retails for $598 here, but the same bag costs $953 in China, due to the government’s import and consumption taxes.)

Retailers are slowly responding. Macy’s in Downtown Crossing, for example, reportedly has 45 Mandarin-speaking sales associates on staff. This past February, Neiman Marcus launched a free app to help in-store shoppers quickly locate sales associates fluent in a foreign language, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Dutch. And a quick search for “Mandarin-speaker jobs in Boston” reveals wanted ads from the likes of Tiffany & Co., Boston Medical Center, and T-Mobile, to name a few.

While many businesses were hesitant to speak on the record about the trend, off the record I heard tales of lavish spending from Boston’s upscale retailers: An international high-end shoemaker started to notice tiny size 4s were selling out in all of their area stores, and attributed it to Chinese buyers. A fine jeweler on Newbury Street told me a Chinese woman wanted to buy a $10,000 bracelet from them, until she found out it was made in China. A luxe national watch retailer says that when the Chinese ask to see a $5,000 watch, they’ll get offended if you show them anything priced below $7,000. “There’s a popular anecdote,” says Betsy Wall, of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, “that at a high-end store like Tiffany’s, an American tourist might spend $300, where a Chinese visitor will spend $10,000.”

Gérard Riveron, who’s been the executive director at Dorfman Jewelers, on Newbury Street, for nearly 10 years, has witnessed similar scenarios. “When it comes to luxury products, we’ve seen an influx of sales in the past two, three years that’s directly connected with Chinese visitors,” he says. “Our sales have grown 14 to 15 percent because of [it].” Newbury Street’s newly expanded Chanel flagship store attributes 30 percent of its business to international money, and Betsy Jenney, owner of the eponymous Newbury Street boutique, says that while she never depends on tourism dollars, Chinese buyers could account for up to 15 percent of her business this year. Boston jeweler Shreve, Crump & Low reported a similar percentage.

DiCarlo and Saunders think those numbers are much too low. “In 2011, 13 percent of all Chinese coming to America visited Boston,” Saunders says. “In that same year, only about three and a half percent of the money they spent in America was spent in Boston. So Chinese travelers were coming all the way here, but weren’t spending as much as they were in other cities. And this wasn’t because they disliked Boston. This was because they didn’t know where to spend their money in the city. So we offer that up to businesses: Last year they spent $300 million in Massachusetts. How much of that did you get?”


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To help some of their clients get a piece of the pie, the folks at Attract China have created a map of the city and transportation system in Mandarin, allowing local businesses to take out ads around the borders. All too often they’ve seen groups of Chinese tourists on Newbury Street huddled around an upside-down map, confused looks on their faces. “They can’t read it,” DiCarlo says. The first run of 30,000 flew off distributor shelves. It’s been so popular, in fact, that Mayor Walsh took out an ad on a premier inside page, welcoming Chinese tourists to the city. DiCarlo swears that Chinese foot traffic to Louis has dramatically increased since it became an advertiser. And Julie Messer, customer service manager at the Shops at Prudential Center, says she suspects the influx of Asian shoppers they’ve recently experienced has something to do with their placement on the map, although, admittedly, it’s difficult to measure.

 

At another meeting, this one inside Newbury Street’s Sonsie, DiCarlo has one last story to share. “Samsonite is a client of ours,” he says. “They have a store down in Faneuil Hall. And as you know, they sell suitcases. As a normal course of business a Chinese tourist will go in there and buy a suitcase, and ask to leave it there for an hour, or two, or three. Then they go to Coach for purses and wallets and buy tons and tons of stuff for their friends. And they bring it back to Samsonite and try to jam it all into the one suitcase. And Samsonite will say, ‘Don’t do that! You’ll ruin [the suitcase].’ So they buy two suitcases, and they fill them up and they send them direct to the airport.” DiCarlo pauses. “That sounds like the exception rather than the rule, but it isn’t.”

As far as he’s concerned, this isn’t going to stop anytime soon. “This is the biggest thing that has ever happened in the history of the world. I mean, you’re talking about a demographic of which there is no comparison. It’s totally mind-boggling. People always ask me, ‘What inning do you think this trend is in? Second inning? Third? Seventh?’ And I tell them, ‘This is not even out of spring training yet.’”