Jia Liu Thompson, owner of Jia’s Dream Tours, a company that specializes in organizing customized tours to China, credits SCORE with helping her develop a focused marketing strategy. “There are a lot of companies selling tours to China these days,” says Jia. “My SCORE counselors, John Edwards, Guy Thompson, and Alan Campbell emphasized that I needed to differentiate myself from the pack.” She adds, “Their questions and observations helped crystallize my thinking around the strategy of offering custom and specialized tours rather than the typical group tour that is generally offered.”
Jia, who was born and raised in Beijing, attended the prestigious Beijing Tourism University where she studied tourism, Chinese culture and history, and English. After graduating, she worked as a national tour leader for five years for the three largest tour companies in China that control 95 percent of the market. She led English speaking tour groups throughout the country and gained valuable experience and knowledge about what worked and what didn’t work in the business. It was while she was leading a tour to Xian, the ancient Chinese imperial capital which is famous for its life-sized terracotta warriors that Jia decided that she really wanted to run her own tour company that would offer a special experience to visitors to China.
It was also about this time, while leading a tour, that Jia met her future husband, Mike Thompson. After they were married, Jia and Mike spent a year in the Atlanta area where Mike was employed. Jia still wanted to pursue her dream, though, but realized that she needed more advanced business background before starting her own company. With Mike’s encouragement she applied and was accepted into San Jose State University’s intensive, one year MBA program. In 2001, Jia and Mike moved to California where she attended the University and Mike found a new job.
By January 2004 Jia was ready to start her business. She spent all of 2004 and most of 2005 trying to build awareness of her company, Jia’s Dream Tours. She renewed contacts with people for whom she had led tours earlier in her career. She gave talks on Chinese history and culture at local community groups such as Kiwanis clubs and women’s organizations. She developed a website and began answering questions about China in on-line discussion forums. However, all of this activity produced only minimal results. In November 2005, Jia decided that she needed marketing help. Based on recommendations from San Jose State contacts and after reviewing SVSCORE’s website, she visited the library at the SVSCORE offices in San Jose to research marketing ideas. She also arranged a meeting with SVSCORE counselors.
“John Edwards and Guy Thompson, my counselors at the initial meeting, advised me to promote differentiation in my business by emphasizing customized and specialty tours,” Jia says. “They questioned the effectiveness of spending so much of my time giving talks to local community groups,” she explains, but adds “however, they thought that answering questions online strengthened my reputation as a China tourism expert and broadened my market reach beyond the South Bay area.”
Based on this input, Jia refocused her strategy and marketing efforts. She began offering tours to China with unique themes. For instance, she offers a pottery tour for art lovers where travelers meet and talk with local Chinese pottery artisans and even spin pottery themselves. She offers a China Business Tour in partnership with San Jose StateUniversity’s Professional Development Center where participants spend two weeks visiting major Chinese business centers, learning how business is done in China and making contacts with Chinese companies. Jia also created a tour for professional and amateur archeologists and another for people interested in space programs which visits China’s Space Control Center.
“My father is a famous fourth generation traditional Chinese medical doctor specializing in acupressure. He has treated over 30,000 patients from all over the world including high level Chinese government officials. Articles written about himhave been published in eight languages and in many countries,” Jia proudly states. “Using my father as inspiration, I created a tour where doctors and others can attend lectures and seminars with renowned Chinese doctors who explain in depth the 5000 year history of Chinese medicine.”
Jia’s business grew in 2006 to almost double the number of tours she had arranged in the previous two years and broke even on the bottom line based on the unique and customized tours that she began to offer. However, she believed that it could grow even faster. In October 2006 she met with SCORE counselors John Edwards and Alan Campbell to review her progress. “John and Alan looked at my website and told me that it really didn’t reflect the direction of my business,” she says. “It was too generic and didn’t emphasize the uniqueness of our tours nor the customization we provide for the individual traveler,” Jia adds. Based on this advice, Jia revamped the website for Jia’s Dream Tours. She explains, “Mike and I have always monitored the amount of time people stay after clicking on to our site. After making the changes as suggested by John and Alan we noticed that the time people stayed increased significantly.”
In 2007 Jia’s Dream Tours again doubled the number of tours sold and revenue earned and became profitable. In fact, Jia has achieved a certain celebrity status. She was selected by the dean of San Jose State’s College of Businessto be featured in a national advertising campaign. Also, her answers in the online discussion forums were consistently voted as most useful by people asking questions about travel to China. In addition Randy Cassingham, syndicated columnist and author of the popular “This is True” blog, selected Jia to arrange the first ‘True Readers’ group tour to China this past October. He gave her great publicity by extensively covering the tour on his blog.
“My goal is to build a world class tour company,” says Jia. “I want a company that exceeds the expectations of first time travelers who need hand holding as well as veteran travelers who want to do their own thing. I plan to continue to use SCORE counselors as a key sounding board for my ideas,” she concludes.