Imperial Tours: Luxury Tours in China - Blog Slide Image

The China Connection

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By James Shillinglaw

Image of Vacation Agent Magazine November 2009Imperial Tours offers an upscale way to understand this giant country.

When Guy met Nancy, it was love at first sight. Indeed, it was a common love of China that brought them together in Beijing 12 years ago—and eventually led them to create Imperial Tours, a boutique tour operator that specializes in high-end China experiences.
Guy Rubin is British, with a background in financial services, but he recognized early on that China was a boom market, so he moved to Beijing to study Mandarin. Nancy Kim is Korean-American—with a background in art history—who also was in Beijing studying art and Mandarin when she met Guy.

Rubin and Kim still live in Beijing, but are now husband and wife with two children. They also happen to be managing partners of their specialty tour operation, which caters to a very upscale client base. In fact, it’s so high-end that their company has been a partner of Virtuoso, the luxury travel agency marketing group, for the past seven years, even though Imperial Tours is just 10 years old. The company is a preferred supplier of Signature Travel Network, another high-end agency group, and it has been recognized by both Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler as the top specialist in China.

Imperial Tours focuses on creating unique itineraries for an up-market crowd, with a client roster that has included such luminaries as Michael Phelps, Natalie Portman, Katie Couric and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, among others. Beyond independent travel, the company also caters to groups, particularly incentives for such companies as Ferragamo, British Telecom and Raymond James, the investment bank. The Beijing-based company now has a staff of 25, including local guides, as well as two dedicated reservations staffers in a San Francisco office.

Of course, Imperial Tours’ success didn’t come overnight. Rubin and Kim began their business by arranging trips for friends in the U.K. and U.S. When they finally launched a website, it was discovered by a wealthy Silicon Valley executive who took a chance, loved the trip and recommended the company to his friends in the Bay Area. That’s when Imperial Tours’ business really started to take off.

As Rubin explains it, what’s different about his company is that it does not work through official Chinese tourism channels like China International Travel Service (CITS) or other government tourism bureaus. Many other China-bound operators contract with local ground handlers, many of which are controlled by government bureaucrats. Imperial, on the other, goes directly to the source—the local suppliers, attractions and restaurants—to create its programs. The mere fact that the company can do this shows just how far China has come in the past decade. Rubin and Kim have been able to use their friends and other personal contacts to source all of their unique programs, which are always accompanied by professional guides.

“We always knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Rubin says. “We just went out and found it. We source all our own tour products. We get the local village involved, the restaurants and the shops. Our connections are fundamental to our business. We’re going out into the market and saying we do this, we have these clients and we can produce these people for you.”

For example, Imperial Tours can create a special dining experience in Guilin that is privately catered by a local restaurant. It will stage re-creations of local festivals so customers can experience the traditions of different regions of China. It will offer customers not just a visit to the Great Wall, but also a chance to have dinner on the structure itself. Imperial also can set up unique experiences with local individuals, such as a dinner by Mao Zedong’s former chef, whose father and grandfather also cooked for the Chinese leader, at an unmarked restaurant in Beijing. Customers also can enjoy a game of table tennis with Chinese champions of that sport, or they can have a banquet dinner in a recently renovated, three-floor palace within the Forbidden City that’s not open to the public.

Imperial Tours offers luxury private and group tours to China to such destinations as Beijing, Chengdu, Dunhuang, Guilin, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Huangshan, Lhasa, Lijiang, Sanya, Shanghai, Shangri-La, Suzhou, Xi’an, and the Yangtze River. The company uses only the best hotels, including Park Hyatt Shanghai, Grand Hyatt Hotel-Shanghai, Four Seasons Hotel-Shanghai, The Mansion Boutique Hotel (Shanghai), Raffles Beijing Hotel, Park Hyatt-Beijing, Aman-Summer Palace-Beijing, Grand Hyatt Hotel-Beijing, The Peninsula Hotel-Hong Kong, The InterContinental Hotel-Hong Kong, Xian Sofitel, Hotel of Modern Art-Guilin Area and Hyatt Regency Hotel-Hangzhou. Each tour is accompanied not only by a local Chinese guide, but also by an experienced western China host, who is fluent in Chinese, English and other languages.

While Imperial Tours custom-designs most of its programs for individuals, it also offers several scheduled group departures in 2010, including a 13-night “Imperial Tour” (a good introduction for people who’ve never been to China), priced at $9,670 per person, double; an 11-night “Family Tour” (ideal for families with children through teenage years), priced from $8,850 per adult and $5,770 per child (under 12) based on two adults and two children staying in a two-bedroom suite; a nine-night “Majestic Tour” (good for Spanish-speaking travelers), priced from $8,380 per person double; and a nine-night “Unique Destinations” (an in-depth look at Southwestern China and Tibet), priced from roughly $9,815. (Note: Prices quoted here are based on 2009 pricing, which was offered until Sept. 15). Departures of scheduled tours are limited to 20 people.

While the ability to deliver individualized experiences is a key difference in what Imperial offers, the company also focuses on providing luxury accommodations and services throughout. “We won’t go into any destination, especially with an American client, that does not have certain creature comforts,” says Kim. “We focus on those places that have high-end hotels and the facilities these customers require. If they don’t have those facilities, our key question is whether our clients are going to see something in that destination that they can’t see anywhere else in the world. So if you go to Lhasa, for example, there isn’t a five-star hotel there right now, but there is a Four Points Sheraton that’s clean and comfortable. And what you will see in Lhasa you won’t find anywhere else.”

Rubin says the most precious commodity of Imperial Tours’ clients is time, not money. And these customers want experiences that are specifically designed to meet their interests. “For every request that we get, we have a questionnaire that asks questions like, what was your last trip and what did you like about it,” says Kim. “Are you a nature person, a history person, etc. With the travel agent we try to learn as much about the client as possible. We will then put together an itinerary with lots of options in it.”

In the end, the success of Imperial Tours is linked to the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders, Rubin and Kim. “A lot of agents say to us that our success was because we were completely naïve about the business,” says Kim. “We just started it.”

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© November 2009, Vacation Agent Magazine, Performance Media Group