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The southern Italian port of Taranto is no tourist mecca. Although Puglia’s star has risen over the past decade with travelers seeking a less trampled corner of the peninsula, even for Italians, the city remains synonymous with shoe factories, shipbuilding, and an ill-fated Second World War battle. To say Taranto is beyond the purview Chinese tourists would be a gross understatement. What Taranto does have, however, is a world-class archeological museum, an institution that now boasts both a Chinese website and a place on WeChat.   

Such a surprising presence on Chinese social media is down to Digital to Asia, a Milan-based marketing agency striving to bring Chinese tourists to some of Italy’s hidden cultural gems — when they begin traveling again, of course. Having won a contract from the Italian Ministry of Culture to support lesser known destinations, Digital to Asia began working with 10 attractions that, as the General Manager Giovanni Capra puts it, “had nothing in Chinese, not in the ticket office, not on maps or signs; we are creating the communication Chinese tourists need.” 

Central to this effort is incorporating sites into a comprehensive WeChat Mini Program, a non-downloadable app within Tencent’s signature product, that allows users to browse across 12 Italian cities, from Genoa and Turin in the north to Naples and Taranto in the south. Users can glean essential site information, find it on a map, and purchase tickets. And it’s not just cultural institutions: Digital to Asia’s Mini Program includes culinary tours, shopping recommendations, and city day tours. 

Digital to Asia’s WeChat Mini Program contains visitor information — from wayfinding to ticketing — about attractions across 12 Italian cities.

The past year may have been the quietest year on record for Italian tourism, but the agency is busy readying itself for the return of Chinese travel, as signified by its move into livestreaming. In March, it held an inaugural livestream at Duomo di Milano, an initiative CEO Guiliana Zagarella says was the first of its size and stature in the Italian Market (100,000 views and 1 million impressions). Jing Travel connected with Digital to Asia’s leaders to discuss the agency’s journey, its thoughts on livestreaming, and what’s next.

 

What’s Digital to Asia’s backstory? 

Giovanni Capra: Previously, we started an association called Going to Asia that wasn’t set up to make money. It aimed to connect Italians and Chinese through culture, to share knowledge and culture, mainly by teaching Chinese and Chinese culture to Italians.  

Guiliana Zagarella: Later, when we started working with fashion brands in Italy and handling the drive-to-store of Chinese customers, we noticed many Chinese tourists in Milan and Rome had issues visiting Italian sites. This is why we developed the Mini Program: to allow Chinese customers to buy a ticket in a their language without queuing. 

What’s the significance of the Mini Program?

GZ: It’s the first Mini Program for cultural ticketing in Italy. We’re trying to get as many tourism customers as possible and the Ministry of Culture has the sensibility to include not only the main attractions in Italy, but also the second level, allowing them to connect with Chinese customers. This is important; every Chinese tourist knows the Uffizi, but its smaller destinations are difficult for Chinese tourists to know and find information about. 

How are you building awareness around the Mini Program?

GC: We have a partnership with Alipay and they will give us space on their app — a banner, for example, that will link to our Mini Program. This is a main touchpoint, but we are also advertising the Mini Program on the major social sites in China.  

GZ: The Mini Program is a way to start, but then we have to create some hype, send some influencers, for example, to the attraction.

Behind the scenes at Digital to Asia’s Duomo livestream. Images: Digital to Asia

Could you discuss your decision to move into livestreaming?

GC: We saw livestreaming grew dramatically in the past year and though the main target is commercial, we know it has cultural potential. It was all done in-house: we chose Weibo, found a local media owned by a Chinese person living in Milan, and created the livestream in collaboration with the Duomo of Milan itself which we had permission to enter. There were two people, a Chinese guide of the Duomo and a Chinese influencer, and they made it a game — a friend inviting another friend to discover the Duomo. 

You received more than 100,000 viewers. How did you generate attention?

GZ: Ten days beforehand, we began spreading the word on Chinese social media, both in Milan and in China through our partners. This for sure helped; we took advantage of being partners with YesMilano [Milan’s official promotional website].

What were the logistics behind the livestream?

GC: In terms of organization, it was quite easy because the Duomo is private and we have been working with them on marketing to China for three years. For the cultural part, the Duomo staff helped decide the journey, where to go, what works to show and emphasize. On our side, there were four people: the camera operator, a photographer, me as a coordinator, and the guide. It took around four weeks. 

What’s next for Digital to Asia in the coming months?

GC: We will go ahead with more livestreaming, hopefully together with the Ministry of Culture to do a big site like the Colosseum or the Uffizi. These are difficult because they are very autonomous. We are looking for Italian sites and attractions, whether public or private, that want to be known in China. 

Chinese travel trends were already changing before the pandemic. On the one side, more Chinese are traveling alone and living in Europe; on the other, attractions must have the capacity to welcome them in a Chinese way. This is the most important thing, but it’s not the case today.

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