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Richard Tams has become British Airways' first executive vice-president for China, with a brief to build business. From Beijing he shares his thoughts about the region - and reveals his new Chinese name
What is the strategy?
First, we need to increase our commercial presence here to bring in the business. We’ve restructured our sales team and are building up a marketing team, both of which are exclusively staffed by locals. Outside Hong Kong, I’m the only non-Chinese person in the organisation.
Second, we need to build stronger relationships and exert greater influence on government and regulatory affairs. Network and personal connections are vital in Chinese business culture.
Third, we are looking to make changes to our product to be more in line with what Chinese consumers want. We have launched a Chinese language edition of High Life magazine and are also looking at catering, in-flight entertainment, the ground product, and language capability at all customer touchpoints.
And it’s pivotal that we go into partnership with a Chinese domestic carrier. We need to offer connections around China, as well as some kind of frequent flyer reciprocity. We are talking to a number of Chinese carriers to develop those bilateral relationships.
BA’s executive vice-president for China, Richard Tams
Who are the big competitors?
Chinese airlines are raising their game from a product perspective and offer a level of familiarity that Chinese customers like. European carriers such as Lufthansa and Air France/KLM have larger networks than ours, so we have some catching up to do. And the Gulf carriers are present too.
What’s the potential for growth in China?
Enormous. Spending from Chinese visitors is expected to grow by 84 per cent over the next four years. But one of our bugbears is the visa situation. It’s expensive, time-consuming and difficult to get a UK visa, even for transfer, so we’re losing out to other European countries.
Do service expectations differ?
Although they’re quite intrepid, the Chinese become anxious about language, culture and food when they travel. So we need to be providing a Chinese service style. That includes food they are familiar with and speaking to them in a language they can understand. At the same time, we’re a British airline and they like the idea of starting their holiday when they step on board. So it’s a balance.
How are you settling into life in China?
I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. It’s been helped by the fact that many years ago I worked in Korea, and there are certain similarities in terms of business culture. Relationships are very important to Chinese business people, and they like to do business face to face. If trust hasn’t built up in a relationship, things don’t happen. And obviously trust takes time to build.
On average a senior manager in a Chinese company will spend at least 40 per cent of their time developing relationships. That’s how important it is. My Mandarin is starting to come along, and I have a Chinese name – Tan Re De, which means ‘wisdom and ethics Tams’. It was chosen for me by our office in Shanghai. I hope it’s appropriate!