Fosun Tourism Group has had a busy year since the collapse of Thomas Cook. James Chapple speaks to chairman, executive director and chief executive Jim Qian to find out what’s next
After nine months of Zoom meetings, there’s something reassuringly “normal” about just calling someone up for a chat – even if it is being routed 6,000 miles to a car somewhere near Shanghai.
Jim Qian is heading home from one of a growing number of Chinese holiday hotspots developed by Fosun Tourism Group; he greets me cheerily after his latest “foliday” – that’s a “Fosun holiday” to me and you, one that combines work and leisure at a resort or “foliday town” within easy reach of major population centres.
He one day hopes to see the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, attributed – he says with a self-deprecating chuckle – to “some Chinese guy”. It would be easy to dismiss this quip as small talk; I feel it’s anything but.
It’s hard not to envisage a future where China doesn’t play an increasingly significant role in every aspect of life in Europe, not least travel. For decades, China was closed. But the reforms of the 1980s and emergence over the past 20 years of a prosperous, aspirational middle-class has broadened the country’s horizons.
Pre-Covid, more than 140 million Chinese people were travelling overseas each year, Qian tells me. Yet this is still only a fraction of its 1.4 billion population.
European families, Qian claims, “travel” about seven times a year; in China, it is closer to three times. But with incomes rising rapidly, Qian knows China will quickly catch up with Europe. He believes lockdown has whetted Chinese peoples’ appetite for international travel, and sharpened the country’s focus on holidaying closer to home too, with China’s borders still firmly shut due to the pandemic.
Qian studied economics in Germany, where he worked in finance, fostering a strong understanding of European sensibilities. He joined Fosun in 2009 and closed the firm’s first European investment the following year – a stake in Club Med. Fosun took the business private in 2015, promising to invest in its European operations and launch the brand in China.
“We started to think about how we could build an international holiday group,” Qian explains; in 2016, Fosun invested in Thomas Cook, and was Cook’s largest stakeholder when it collapsed last September. Two months later, Fosun acquired the Cook brand for just £11 million.
“The Chinese people are very open, they like good brands, especially European brands,” says Qian. Club Med and Cook’s history and prestige fit this brief, with the latter – controversially for some, at least in Europe – recently reborn, in Qian’s own words, as a “lifestyle platform”.
“We’re building an eco-system to meet global demand from families for holidays,” says Qian. This, he explains, spans three strands – physical resorts and destinations; “content”, the offering and activities available in-destination; and customer platforms such as Cook to tie the offering together. “I believe we need more brands to fulfil this eco-system,” Qian confirms. “We are still looking. We want to create a foliday lifestyle.”
Work, it seems, doesn’t entirely set you free in this new reality. Qian says the rise of homeworking will blur distinctions between work and leisure. “If you can work at home, why can’t you work at the holiday destination?" Qian muses. “A foliday means you can combine your holiday with your job, hobbies, education and healthcare.”
True to Qian’s word, Fosun has continued to invest in Club Med – both in Europe and in China. Since Fosun’s acquisition, Club Med has announced new locations in Spain, France and Morocco, and opened two ski resorts in China.
Aligned with Qian’s belief short-distance holidays will meet some of China’s growing travel demand, in much the same way staycations have in the UK, Fosun’s Chinese Club Med Joyview brand is perhaps the best example of its strategy to develop European brands for a new audience. Joyview locations “adopt the character of Club Med”, says Qian, but are typically situated a short drive from major urban centres rather than the coast or mountains.
It’s aimed squarely at China’s emergent middle-class, with Qian acknowledging, in a country of 1.4 billion spread out across a landmass the size of Europe, there is no typical Chinese holidaymaker – and neither is there a shortage of families who fall into Fosun’s target market.
“I believe there are some Chinese customers who have very similar demands to European customers,” says Qian. “So we need to develop similar products for them.”
He thinks this gap will narrow too. The process is already under way; in less than 10 years, China has become Club Med’s second-largest source market globally.
Fosun is also bringing Cook’s Casa Cook and Cook’s Club brands to China. “In China, we’ve promoted travel to Europe with our European brands,” he explains. “Chinese customers will accept them and go there. Now we also have Thomas Cook. I believe Fosun can play an important role in cross-continental travel between Europe and China.”
“In future, it is very possible we will have some foliday-style businesses in Europe,” he adds.
Fosun has ambitions in the cruise market too. Qian reveals that while Fosun has no plans to invest in a European cruise brand, it would be open to working with established brands.
“We believe Thomas Cook can do this business, to cooperate with European cruise companies to help them attract more Chinese customers,” he says. “I’m talking with UK colleagues about how we can develop more of these products for Chinese customers.”
The Covid crisis has undoubtedly accelerated Fosun’s plans in China, but the group’s focus is unquestionably global. Almost half of its revenues in the past year were in Europe. “We are still focused on developing our business in Europe,” says Qian. “In the post-Covid era, outbound tourism [from China] will be a real boom business.”
I have little cause to doubt Qian and Fosun’s ability to achieve these lofty ambitions. With change inevitable as more Chinese people look to travel, the question now for Europe’s travel and tourism sector is the extent to which it can benefit from Fosun’s expansive vision.