CLEARWATER BEACH — The future of tourism can be summed up in two words: China and smartphones.
That's what hospitality industry leaders were told at the 2013 Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Tuesday, which coincided with National Tourism Week.
David Downing, the deputy director of Pinellas County's tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, started off the panel discussion by noting the coming dominance of Chinese travel.
The most populous nation in the world has a traveling class, of about 130 million, Downing said. In 10 years, China will have 535 million travelers. D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, recently returned from Pinellas County's first-ever tourism foray into China.
"The trend right now, 10 years out, China will basically dominate (tourism) not just in this country but throughout," Downing said. "With China coming on in 10 years, what should we be doing as an industry to prepare for this?"
Stephen Fitzgerald, vice president for hotels at Travelocity, said the tourism industry will have to learn to cater to Chinese travelers.
"The first challenge is going to be, how do we service these folks?" he said. "We have some people who speak German and Italian and French. We have some people who speak Canadian (the crowd laughed). A key part of our industry is that we rely on Europeans and some Brazilians who speak English. That may not be true for the Chinese. How do we get the people on place who speak Mandarin?"
The tourism industry will also need to figure out how to market online in China, Fitzgerald said. "As marketers, we have to ask, 'What is the Google of China? How do we participate in the Chinese equivalent of Travelocity or Expedia?' "
Fitzgerald also told the crowd that smartphones and the mobile Internet will soon dominate online travel bookings.
"It's an Android world and it's an iPhone world," he said. "Over the next three to five years, we see mobile devices becoming the predominant form of booking as opposed to desktops and laptops."
To prepare itself for the smartphone revolution, Fitzgerald said, the tourism industry can't settle on just one mobile solution.
"Do you have a mobile website or do you create a mobile app?" he said. "The answer is if you can do both, do both. They both serve important differences in shopping and online behaviors.
"If a customer is unfamiliar with your restaurant or hotel, they'll find you on their smartphone on the mobile Web. Once they like you and come to know you, they'll want to engage with you more frequently. If you have an app, they'll download the app."
But if your options are limited, Fitzgerald said, "If you can only do one, do a mobile website."