Over the past year or so, the "blind box" phenomenon has swept across China. What's a blind box you ask? Well, it's essentially when someone pays money to receive an unknown product; i.e. blindly purchasing whatever is in a box. It's somewhat akin to a game show contestant who chooses between winning a car, or taking whatever's behind door number three. Whereas many blind box promotions have been for relatively standard fare like collectible figurines and make up, domestic travel app Tongcheng surprised consumers earlier this year when they unveiled their own promotion: RMB 98 for a one-way ticket to an unknown destination at an unspecified time. Although that initial campaign ended, Tongcheng is gearing up to do it again beginning today, Apr 22.
In short, for the absurdly low price of RMB 98, users could purchase a one-way ticket on Tongcheng, however, given that it was a blind box promotion, folks had no idea where they would be traveling to, or when they would go. Luckily, it wasn't a complete loss because – unlike most blind box products and campaigns – Tongcheng allowed consumers to get a full refund if they were unhappy with the destination, or their allotted take-off time conflicted with prior engagements.
The campaign attracted more than 10 million participants, mostly from social media platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu. Interestingly, given the unpredictability of destinations coupled with the fact that most flights were for weekdays, making it harder to take time off work and actually enjoy the vacation, many netizens opted for the ticket refund, and turned the mere act of purchasing the mystery ticket into an internet spectacle all its own.
No matter how you slice it though, the promotion was successful enough: Social media platforms increased their user base and engagement, airlines had the opportunity to offload unclaimed seats, and consumers had the chance to land some seriously discounted tickets.
In fact, Tongcheng wasn't the first travel industry player to capitalize on the blind box craze. Last year, China United Airlines launched an RMB 398 blind box promotion with JD.com which contained round-trip tickets to an unknown destination, however, unlike the Tongcheng scheme, purchasers had the freedom to choose when they would fly. Likewise, China Southern Airlines held their own blind box promotion last summer, which contained round-trip tickets for two to six people and a hotel voucher. What's more, last year some airlines even started selling annual ticket packages known as 随心飞 suí xīn fēi, which offered customers free flights with virtually no time or destination constraints for an entire year.
It's possible that we may continue seeing such deals and promotions, as airlines are eager to make up for substantial revnue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, China's top three airlines — China Airlines, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines – suffered a combined loss of RMB 37 billion in 2020, with annual profits plummeting at least 45 percent. Likewise, the first quarter of 2021 shows no signs of a speedy recovery, as total losses accounted for roughly RMB 30.05 billion.