Chinese travel agencies are excited about the future of customized corporate travel that involves trips for team building, conferences, exhibitions and business exploration.
Some travel firms are already earning billions of yuan in revenue by offering such niche services.
For instance, Ctrip said its revenue from the niche segment reached 1 billion yuan (159 million U.S. dollars) last year. It is expected to grow fourfold this year.
"Customized business tours have a huge potential, and it won't be long before this segment occupies half of the overall customized tour market," said Xu Zhiyun, CEO of Ctrip's customized tour business, at a news conference.
The segment itself is expected to see collective sales of more than 1 trillion yuan (159 billion U.S. dollars) in the coming years, according to Xing Xiaoliang, an analyst with market consultancy Analysys.
Different from leisure tours, customized company tours have diverse goals, said Song Xuan, deputy general manager of CYTS Sparkle Tour (Beijing) Co Ltd, a subsidiary of China CYTS Tours.
Agencies in this segment offer much more than mere travel route planning, and hotel and flight ticket bookings. They help in organizing themed activities, channeling local companies that clients want to meet, Song said.
Wei Xiao'an, chief analyst of the World Tourism Cities Federation, said a tailor-made corporate trip could have 10 to 1,000 travelers. Such trips are sought mostly by private-sector companies. Typically, overseas destinations are popular.
"Only big agencies with lots of resources and experience in designing tours can handle such demands," Wei said.
China has around 28,000 travel agencies. Major ones among them include China CYTS Tours, Caissa International Travel Service, Ctrip and Tuniu. All of them offer customized corporate travel services, according to Xing.
He said charges for such services are relatively high due to extra costs related to designing customized routes and providing other services.
CYTS generally charges 10 to 15 percent of total payment as service fee when planning such a trip, according to Song.
Travel expenses could range from 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (159 to 317 U.S. dollars) per person to more than 100,000 yuan (15,868 U.S. dollars) per person, or more if the travelers are at the level of board of directors, he said.
As State-owned enterprises have clamped down on extravagance that could result in corruption, demand from SOEs for such trips has declined in the last five years, Song said.
However, customized corporate trips were worth over 2 billion yuan (317 million U.S. dollars) last year, he said.
"Business travel is closely related to financial performance of a company," he said. "If it doesn't perform well, these tours will be the first to be cut from the cost list. Anyway, I'm still positive about the future."
That confidence may be coming from CYTS' strategy to provide integrated marketing solutions to clients besides ordinary travel services.
For example, CYTS will help some clients to organize forums or conferences, including theme design, guest invitations, advertisements and indoor decoration. "We are selling services, not just tour-ism products," Song said.
Travel firms sometimes help customers to establish links with industry leaders or potential business partners through study trips.
The ease with which trips can be booked encourages companies to consider customized tours.
For example, an agent may consult tour advisors of travel firms and help arrange a meeting for a client wishing to visit a particular French chateau.
After filling in an online form with details like the destination, number of travelers and contact information, customers can interact with an advisor.
The latter, after learning more about the customer's detailed requests, designs a travel route and other details. These include short trips to scenic spots in the neighborhood of the destination, tour duration, itinerary and tips for outbound travel.
Standard packages include accommodation, transportation and local guide, according to Xing Yuwei, an advisor of CYTS.
Once confirmed, the applicant needs to sign a contract with the company, and make 50 percent of the expense as down payment. The rest is to be paid before the start of the trip, she said.
Ctrip's website allows travelers to choose the number of advisors they need to plan the trip. Such experts are not always staff. Ctrip outsources some of these expert tasks to more than 4,000 itinerary designers working with its 2,000 suppliers.
This helps it to compete well in an increasingly competitive market. Satisfying a customer's demand for the most suitable trip plan quickly is of utmost importance.
Ctrip announced last month it will sharpen its focus on customized corporate travel planning this year. Its online services will become smart or intelligent, relying on big data and artificial intelligence.