City capitalizes on exposure in Chinese pop culture

Tourism Vancouver, Canadian travel industry lean on popular media to sell brands in Asia

The visit to Vancouver by Chinese actor Guo Tao (left) and his son Patrick (right) could help raise the city’s profile as a tourist destination among fans of the show Where Are We Going, Dad? | Tourism Vancouver

It is unlikely that many Vancouverites are familiar with TV shows like Where Are We Going, Dad? and Always With You, and that’s understandable – they are Chinese programs almost entirely filmed in Mandarin and not widely available in mainstream western media.

But Lower Mainland residents may soon see the impact of these shows – in the form of a rising wave of tourists from mainland China, especially in traditionally weaker “shoulder seasons” like the winter and early spring, Vancouver tourism officials say.

That’s because groups like Tourism Vancouver are increasingly harnessing the popularity of Asian pop-culture icons and using them as celebrity “influencers” to boost the city’s brand in markets like China. The move, officials say, is projected to help the city boost its count of overnight visitors from China by 11% this year over 2017, to a total of 331,472.

“It’s a good way to elevate our credibility, to attach ourselves to the brands of some of these people who have become quite successful,” said Stephen Pearce, Tourism Vancouver vice-president of marketing. “Young Chinese are increasingly aspirational; they want to do well. They follow on social media people who are self-made, who are successful in their own right. And if those people start paying attention to us as a destination, then these young Chinese will start paying attention, as well.”

The “crown jewel” of this initiative is the invitation to Chinese actor Guo Tao and his 11-year-old son, Patrick, to come to Vancouver in late January to take part in a number of winter-sports-themed activities. Guo and Patrick are the stars of Where Are We Going, Dad?, a reality show that highlighted the relationships between celebrities and their children in everyday life.

The show, which ran from 2013 to 2016, was so popular that the Guo duo starred in two spinoff movies, with the elder Guo now counting 12 million followers on his social media profile. That was when Tourism Vancouver decided to bring the father-and-son celebs to Vancouver and shoot a number of vignettes similar in style to the TV show that rocketed the pair to fame.

An added bonus: during Tourism Vancouver’s initial outreach last year, officials found out that Patrick, though he had never attended a live game, is a hockey fan. So the organization partnered with the Vancouver Canucks to bring father and son not only to a Canucks game at Rogers Arena, but also to a skills-development session with Canucks coaches, with both outings filmed and published on Chinese social media.

“We always look at the fit between who we are inviting and what Vancouver is,” Pearce said. “This particular reality TV show is all about fathers who are reconciling their time with family, versus time with their business. It’s about dads investing more time with their kids and families, and that’s great because Vancouver is a destination for families, and it’s a destination for people to connect with one another in developing closer relationships.”

The winter sports theme fulfils two major objectives, Pearce added. It establishes Vancouver as a winter recreation destination in a country set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, with Beijing’s leadership openly stating the goal of having 300 million Chinese citizens taking part in sports like hockey and skiing by that time. It also combines with the Chinese New Year celebrations in Vancouver to create a compelling draw for Chinese tourists during the winter months, which complements the traditional peak travel season in the summer.

“All of this is an attempt to get people in China to look at us with a fresh perspective, to have them say: ‘Wow, I had no idea,’ and to consider us in their vacation planning,” Pearce said. “If you can have somebody with his following giving you his implicit stamp of approval, it resonates with the followers – because they love looking through the eyes of the celebrities or influencers that they follow.”

Vancouver has been featured prominently in Chinese media before, notably in the 2013 film Finding Mr. Right (Chinese title: Beijing Meets Seattle – though the film’s casting of Vancouver as Seattle led to many Chinese tourists visiting Seattle instead).

Also in late January, the show Always With You, a story about the phenomenon of Chinese moms following their children to take care of them when they study abroad, began shooting in Vancouver. Tourism Vancouver officials again took the initiative to offer itineraries to the show’s cast and crew in another effort to further influence potential media-exposure influencers.

The most successful recent case of a Canadian destination using Asian popular culture to boost tourism traffic was in 2016, when a high-profile South Korean TV drama called Goblin filmed several sequences in Quebec City and prominently featured the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.

Hotel marketing manager Maxime Aubin said that because of the show’s success, the number of guests from South Korea mushroomed almost instantly.

“We’ve always had someone filming here, but very few have had as big an impact as the filming of the Korean show,” Aubin said. “The number of Korean travellers are five times higher than they used to be.… Before the show, we almost had none. Now, there are multiple tour groups constantly booking with us, and now you can’t walk through the lobby on any day and not see Korean guests taking photos with our mailbox that was featured prominently in the show.”

CedarBough Saeji, a Korea Foundation postdoctoral fellow in Korean studies who is teaching at the University of British Columbia, lived in South Korea for more than a decade and is an expert on the influence of Asian pop culture. Saeji said Goblin made Quebec City a top-flight romantic destination for South Korean tourists, but she added that fans of these shows can be fickle if tourism promoters do not sustain their efforts to market the destination after a show catapults it to fame.

“People in Korea – and generally, in China and Japan as well – are very much into trends, or new things that their friends haven’t experienced,” Saeji said. “They want the newest, hottest destinations, and dramas and TV shows are a very good way to introduce a destination and make it very attractive…. The challenge for Quebec is, in Goblin, all they really show of Quebec are the historic buildings and the beautiful cityscape from a few locations. There has to be more.”

In that sense, she compares that with the music video for the song Likey, by South Korean girl group Twice, which was released last year and featured Metro Vancouver in all of its background shots, with locations including Gastown, Steveston and White Rock.

“That’s why I think Twice’s Likey video is so good for Vancouver, because they went all over the Lower Mainland,” Saeji said. “So even if you just want to introduce people to the locations where Likey was filmed, they would need to go to places like White Rock, and going to see all these places would entail seeing what else there is to do at each of these locations.”

She also notes that it will likely be easier for Vancouver, with its proximity and direct flight access to Asia, to maintain long-term tourism interest stemming from media exposures such as Guo’s visit, because it is easier for people to get here than to get to Canada’s East Coast.

“And seriously, this is Vancouver,” Saeji added. “All you have to do is to get people to come here once, and you should be able to get them to come back.”