McCarran’s welcome program for Chinese gets praise, criticism


McCarran International Airport last week installed something you won’t see at a U.S. airport or any other public building — a water fountain that dispenses hot water.

There are two of them now at Terminal 3, one on either side of the security checkpoint, and they were installed specifically to cater to Asian travelers.

It’s the latest McCarran effort to woo a growing number of visitors from China, the world’s most lucrative market.

To Mike Boyd, president and CEO of Boyd Group International, which just wrapped up four days of seminars and presentations on aviation topics last week, McCarran’s program is the best in the country at welcoming the Chinese. He’s confident that there are thousands more coming after the nearly 109,000 — 426,000 if you count those who came via other cities — that arrived in Las Vegas in 2016.

But to Chris Jones, McCarran’s chief marketing officer and the ramrod for the airport’s China welcome program, it’s a good effort that could be better and is in need of a few tweaks.

Welcome program ‘very successful’

“The program has been very successful,” Boyd said in an interview between sessions of his aviation forecasting summit. “Hainan Airlines likes it. The passengers like it. And we’re gathering anecdotal but valuable information from those passengers.”

Boyd might be saying all those nice things because he is a principal for China Ni Hao, the contractor operating McCarran’s program. But Boyd also has a tell-it-like-it-is reputation when discussing aviation topics. He is never shy about criticizing the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration or airlines for the blunders they commit.

He said flat out that no airport or hotel chain has a welcome program like McCarran’s.

“They throw a few signs in Chinese out there and call it a welcome program,” Boyd said. “I think Mars is more welcoming to the Chinese than the San Francisco airport.”

Jones has a more critical eye of the program because he oversees the $7,500 a month, mostly in labor costs, that McCarran pays China Ni Hao. The initial outlay for the program was about $100,000.

B-minus grade

“If you were to grade it on a curve comparing what we have at McCarran to other airports around the United States, at least the ones I’m familiar with, it gets an A-plus,” Jones said of the program.

“If I look at it on an independent basis, of what is our grade and where we’re at, not on a curve, I’d say we’re probably a B-minus — which is good, but I wasn’t a B-minus student, and I don’t think we’re a B-minus airport,” he said.

The China Ni Hao welcome program includes airport signage in simplified Chinese and the development of a WeChat app dedicated to McCarran and Las Vegas. The app is constantly updated and provides travelers with information well before they get on the 12½-hour nonstop flight on Hainan from Beijing to Las Vegas.

China Ni Hao also provides maps, brochures and folders and explains debit and mobile payment methods commonly used by Chinese consumers.

HMS Host, a food supplier at McCarran, now has menus in simplified Chinese, and vendors were encouraged to offer new dishes pleasant to the Chinese palate. McCarran’s duty-free store hired staff fluent in Mandarin.

Using “simplified” Chinese is critical to the program. Boyd said many signs in airports are presented in traditional Chinese, which hasn’t been used on mainland China in more than half a century, he said.

Boyd said that at one airport, a display for wheeled baggage transports were labeled as “shopping carts” — probably not anything that would be completely lost in translation, but not entirely accurate either.

Airport ‘ambassadors’

China Ni Hao also has a team of red-jacketed “ambassadors” who greet every Hainan flight and are on hand when planes depart back to Beijing. The greeters ripped a page out of the Las Vegas playbook by wearing name badges that display their names and where they’re from in China.

And then, there are the hot-water fountains.

Jones said the airport had to develop a custom design because no U.S. vendor had ever built one.

In the future, Jones wants to see better response to the WeChat page and to review the ambassador program. The tweaks Jones is considering include how the ambassadors are managed and whether there is an appropriate number of greeters at each flight.

He admitted that some of the program’s shortcomings might have resulted from the need to get it operational quickly. He said he had some conversations with Boyd about China Ni Hao last summer. Then, in August, Hainan announced the Beijing-McCarran route with a startup in early December.

“We had some ideas of things that needed to be put in place, but then when the flight was officially announced, all of a sudden, we were on the clock,” Jones said. “We wanted to have everything set up well, but we also wanted to have it in place for the first flight.

Rush job?

“Did we rush it? Yeah, it was rushed, but I don’t think it was carelessly rushed,” Jones said.

“It’s one of these things that we got it done, we got a good product in place, we’ve had nothing but good feedback for it, but as I said, anything that’s going down a little in progression, you look at it and say, ‘What could we do better?’ Hence, the B-minus.”

Then, once Hainan began operations, the welcome program got another curveball: The airline changed its flight schedule because Southern Nevada’s hot summer days made it more difficult for the company’s fully loaded, fuel-laden Boeing 787 jets to climb at takeoff. Norwegian Air Shuttle, which operates the same aircraft type, solved the problem by simply canceling its summer schedule. Hainan opted to take off in the early morning hours. The 1 p.m. arrival and the 1 a.m. departure meant the ambassador greeters had to work a split shift on the three days a week the plane arrives.

Will McCarran’s China Ni Hao program expand? Possibly.

Perhaps the bigger opportunity for Las Vegas is to persuaide Chinese carriers to fly to McCarran from secondary cities and airports.

224 percent increase

In a forecast on flights to and from China, Boyd said McCarran has the opportunity to net a 224 percent increase in passengers, to 352,414 by 2025.

Some of that will depend on the Chinese and U.S. governments forming an open-skies agreement that would enable U.S. and Chinese carriers to fly as many flights as the market will bear from big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Currently, there is a cap on the number of flights to and from those cities reached months ago.

But Boyd said that the secondary Chinese cities — places most Americans have never heard of, but serve millions of people — have no such restrictions. Boyd said the 11 largest airports in China already are bigger than Los Angeles International. And, when Beijing’s new Daxing International Airport, due to open in 2019, comes on line, there should be even more opportunity.

Boyd and Jones hope Las Vegas takes advantage of the opportunity.

“The volume is completely landscape-shifting,” Jones said.

But, he added that he wants the welcome program to be right first.

“Like any new contract, after you’ve gone down the road a little bit, you look at it, you re-evaluate it, see what makes sense to continue, what makes sense to amend and what makes sense to discontinue,” Jones said.

The Chinese are coming

McCarran International Airport’s Chris Jones acknowledged what aviation expert Mike Boyd told the 400 airport, airline and aircraft executives attending his conference at Wynn Las Vegas last week — the Chinese will be arriving in droves.

The reason: China is building airports at a rapid pace and Chinese airlines are acquiring jets capable of flying trans-Pacific routes to the United States. Some Chinese airlines — specifically Air China, China Southern and China Eastern — have developed business relationships with United, American and Delta, respectively.

It hasn’t been determined whether that’s good or bad for Las Vegas. U.S. legacy carriers traditionally fly overseas to their hub airports and not directly to Las Vegas. Later this month, Jones and his Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority air service development counterpart, Brig Lawson, will visit with Air China, China Southern and China Eastern and other operators at World Routes 2017 in Barcelona in a bid to recruit them to fly nonstop from China to Las Vegas.