WeChat nation: THack goes mobile in China

Wenyi Road connects historic Hangzhou on the shores of beautiful West Lake to the concrete and vertical monotony of China’s digital future on the outskirts of the city.

There are no lakeside pagodas or ancient shrines at the shiny, high-tech other end of the road.

But the people on both sides of the city are the same … they are heads-down with thumbs tapping on the mobile devices propelling the new China.

Today’s monuments in China are companies like Tencent in Shenzhen and Alibaba Group in Hangzhou.  In the digital economy they are more than companies … they are communities, entertainment centers and marketplaces.

Alibaba, a collection of ecommerce, travel and financial brands for consumer markets, is nearing a predicted huge IPO.

Tnooz arrived in Hangzhou last week looking to tap into the mobile vibe of WeChat, QQ, Weibo and the revolution taking place in mobile services and mobile life itself in China. We were curious how the Chinese mobile phenomenon linked to outbound and internal travel markets.

In a partnership with Guangzhou-based Travel Daily, Tnooz presented the latest edition of THack, a weekend hackathon of developers, technologies, leading travel brands and  creative approaches to enhancing the traveler experience.

China Travel Daily pulled together sponsors and APIs from Taobao Travel (part of Alibaba Group), Ctrip, Tours For Fun, China Eastern Airlines, TravelSky and Amadeus.

Tnooz provided the THack format, developer challenges and judging criteria. And the word spread among developers throughout China, with the help of Travel Daily’s WeChat and QQ communities and individuals developers.

Amazingly, 21 of 23 projects spun up by 100-plus developers were designed on mobile platforms. The developers traveled to Hangzhou from Shanghai, Beijing and Chungdu. They worked as teams of two to five. Several team members (and at least one entire team) met on e-communities WeChat or QQ … a real-time sign of the sharing economy.

Each team was asked to build something to meet one or more of four challenges:

  • mobile service of outbound Chinese travelers
  • multi-modal transport planning
  • personalized social travel
  • tours and activities within China

Ten days before THack began, the teams were given access to proprietary APIs from travel brands and tech providers Taobao, TravelSky, Amadeus, CTrip and Tours For Fun. Developers has access to APIs providing flight and hotel searches, booking and tours and activities throughout China.

Product managers from the API donors answered questions from developers about their tools and systems on ad doc forums created on WeChat and QQ for THack @ China.

thack china1

The real creativity began when the teams assembled for a round-the-clock design and coding session at Alibaba’s huge headquarters. And the majority of the teams chose mobile platforms to show off their ideas.

The mobile-based projects included these ingenious concepts and potential products:

  • travel alert service delivered by SMS, the primary means of contact travel sellers use to reach travelers
  • at least two services that used iBeacons to track either luggage or your travel companion through the airport or in-destination
  • HTML5 application that searched social media profile information to recommend hotels
  • mobile service that draws on Instagram photos by locals in a destination to attract visitors
  • a social travel networking “game” that asks users to “relay” reviews and recommendations over WeChat
  • social networking app for crowd-funding educational and charitable travel
  • B2B app to link tour operators to travelers for marketing and support after purchase
  • best-price calendar for overseas flights
  • small-hotel mobile service that compiled user-generated content and points of interest as a marketing tool

You can read about winners and their hacks here.

After three years of running THacks around the world, we’ve seen a heavy emphasis on social media-travel mash-ups and loads of clever mapping and geo-location services as base layers of travel hacks.

But never have we encountered such large percentage of mobile projects as at  THack in China.

Maybe that’s a wake-up call to the global travel industry: you’re missing the wave if mobile is not at the core of your business.

China is a unique market with government restrictions on outside services such as Twitter, Facebook, search engines and payment systems.

But that has not dampened China’s internal digital economy or the mass consumer hunger for connectivity, online social relationships and virtual business development … as witnessed in Hangzhou.

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Gene Quinn

About the Writer :: Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a co-founder of Tnooz and was CEO from September 2009 to December 2016.

He is a pioneer in digital media and chairman of leading travel research company Phocuswright.

An editor, columnist and reporter in his first career at The Chicago Tribune and previously Philadelphia Daily News and Wilmington News-Journal, Gene has since been involved at the forefront of the new digital economy.

He has held advisory, executive and board positions at a string of media, technology and marketing companies and organizations, including Newtrade Technologies, Checkfree, MTV Networks, BzzAgent, the MIT Media Lab and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the birthplace of the Mosaic web browser.

 

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