Spending big on the ‘duke experience’
For years the image of the Chinese visitors to Britain has been linked with the tour bus. Groups of up to 60 are ferried around, spending no more than a few hours at iconic sites, from the Houses of Parliament to the fabled Northern waterways that inspired Chiang Yee’s A Chinese Artist in Lakeland.
Bus tours still dominate inbound Chinese tourism in Britain, as most are firsttimers looking for value and the comfort and convenience of Mandarin-speaking guides with local knowledge.
However, as the Chinese become richer and more welltraveled, increasing numbers of private groups are heading to Britain — many for the second or third time — and some have a lot of money to spend.
“These are the kinds of people that say, ‘In Italy, we can do dinner at the Vatican — what can you do to match that?’ So I phone up Windsor and ask if we can do dinner at Windsor Castle,” said Jim Dixon, director of UK Countryside Tours, as he recalled one visitor’s request.
For the right price, anything is possible, he said, and popular demands often fall under what he calls the “living like a Duke” experience.
The lives of British nobility have long intrigued foreign visitors as well as fans of period dramas, such as adaptations of Jane Austen novels or Downton Abbey.
Jay Smith, managing director of Beiwei 55, a British tour operator that offers Mandarin-speaking guides, said more Chinese visitors are looking for the British lord and lady experience.
“Shooting and hunting is something we have had in the past,” he said. “An inquiry we had relatively recently was for a country house tour, to meet the owners, discuss how they run their estate, how they make money, how they came into that land.”
Dixon said that at the premium level Chinese travelers may arrive at London’s landmark luxury hotel The Dorchester and dine at one of its restaurants, such as China Tang, which has three Michelin stars. They may then go on to have the “Duke’s London experience”, hitting small, bespoke shops after hours where British nobility buy their clothes and hunting gear.
Visitors may then hop on a helicopter and fly up to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the opulent residence of the Duke of Devonshire used as a location for films including Pride and Prejudice in 2005 and The Duchess in 2008. There, they will dine with the duke, if he is available, in a room lined with priceless art.
The cost? Without baring all, Dixon said, “dinner is £20,000 ($26,200) before you throw in the helicopters and all the rest of it”.
... they are coming back a second time, and they are after something a little bit more unique.”
Cheaper alternatives include staying at country estates like Wedderburn Castle in Scotland or Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, he added.
“Bed and breakfast starts at £3,500 a night,” he said of the Scottish castle. “When you walk in, there are muddy boots, the gillies are ready to take you fishing, and the food is traditional Scottish fine dining: lamb and wild salmon.”
Country estates will often provide Chinese interpreters, and Haddon Hall will soon show Mandarin Jane, a theatrical performance based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre narrated in Mandarin. The residence has a strong claim as the inspiration behind the book’s Thornfield Hall.
In Manchester, while large Chinese tour groups file around Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium and museum during the day, the more discerning Chinese visitors will wait for nightfall, when the red carpet is rolled out. This may include a champagne reception, putting on a pair of David Beckham’s boots, getting coached “by a legend” or eating dinner with a former player.
“There are certain people who can pay the bill for the electricity to stay on at night, for the catering team, the bar staff and the tour guides to stay late, to bring in an explayer, to open up certain parts of Old Trafford and its museum — certain people can pay for that,” said Jason Leach, business development executive at Manchester United Museum and Stadium Tour.
Leach said bus tours are still commonplace, although requests from Chinese for a bespoke experience have quickly picked up. In the past year he cracked open the champagne for eight groups of Chinese VIPs. “We have noticed over the past few years a slight change: People may well have been to the UK before, but they are coming back a second time, and they are after something a little bit more unique,” Leach said.
“It is not something we advertise on our website, neither the English nor the Mandarin website has any promo stuff on it. It really is a case of the question needing to be asked. It might cost them the price of a holiday again, but they can afford it.”
business development executive at Manchester United Museum and Stadium Tour
Chinese visitors tour the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the stately home and seat of the Duke of Devonshire.