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Science & Technology

How China's Airbnb copycats beat the silicon valley titan at its own game

SCMP | Tue,2017-03-07

It’s hard to guess Zhou Yichang’s profession based on his description.

He visits Chinese families, surveying their living conditions and suggesting improvements. Sometimes he helps them find a handyman, or even paints their walls. Between visits, he answers their questions via a messaging app – as many as 60 requests a day.

But Zhou is not an interior designer or a social worker. He is a customer manager at Xiaozhu, a Chinese Airbnb-like home-sharing company.

“As many Chinese have never experienced home sharing, my job is to help them understand how to cater to guests and solve problems they have,” Zhou said. One family expecting a guest didn’t have a clean, dry bed sheet, so he brought them one.

Airbnb was founded in San Francisco in 2008, but did not set up a China office until less than a year ago – by which time scores of Chinese firms had already copied its business model. Largely unknown outside China, these businesses have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and earned the loyalty of many Chinese travellers. Xiaozhu claims about 10 million active users since it went online in 2012.

Chen Chi, founder and CEO of xiaozhu.com, a platform for people to rent their homes to travellers in China. Photo: Simon Song

While these companies borrowed Airbnb’s template, they also innovated, introducing services that Airbnb would later mirror.

Zhu Bai Jia, a Shenzhen-based start-up founded in 2012, focuses on providing outbound Chinese tourists with short-term home rentals in some 70 countries. Besides assisting travellers looking for a home away from home, Zhu Bai Jia helps them plan entire trips, using hosts that also serve as part-time tour guides. Airbnb launched a similar service only last year.

“When Airbnb launched ‘Airbnb Trips’ last year, we laughed,” Li Le, the spokesperson of Zhu Bai Jia, told This Week in Asia. “The joke in our sector is that ‘China used to copy Silicon Valley, but now it is Silicon Valley that copies China.’”

The site of home-sharing giant Airbnb. It’s operations have attracted more than a million guest arrivals in China. Photo: AFP

Innovations are even more vital in the domestic market. “If you just try to take the pure Airbnb model to China, it would never work,” said Raymond Chang, who teaches entrepreneurship at the graduate business school of Yale University.

He explains that in America, the custom of opening one’s home to travellers has been engrained since colonial days, but such traditions don’t exist in China. “There are a lot of social barriers that have to be overcome,” Chang said.

The founder of Xiaozhu, Chen Chi, learnt the ins and outs of home-sharing by stepping into the shoes of his hosts, sharing his own home in Beijing since 2013. He found it was often a chore to deliver keys to guests in-person during working hours, so his company began to subsidise the installation of smart locks that allow guests to open doors on their own with a one-time code.

A view of the working space of Xiaozhu in Beijing. The company is a home-sharing service, offering an online platform for people to rent their homes to travellers in China. Photo: Simon Song

Xiaozhu has also trained part-time cleaning ladies and linked them with hosts – a service that Airbnb does not provide.

Host Vicky Tang made use of the free advice that Xiaozhu provides, meeting a manager at her home in Shenzhen.

“Your place looks really good,” the manager said while walking around her flat decorated with green ivy, colourful cushions, and IKEA paintings. “But your bed sheet looks a bit old,” he stopped and said. “Will you consider buying a new one?”

“Having a good night’s sleep is essential for bed-and-breakfast services,” the manager explained. “Even though guests can’t see the difference in photos. They will feel it when they sleep here.”

Tang, 23, is a first-time host and eager to attract guests to help ease the financial pressures of living in a city with soaring rents. “This training is really helpful,” she said. “In the beginning, I didn’t bother to write much [on the site] about myself , but now I know if I add more details – say, I learnt Korean in school – it will help people get to know me and attract like-minded guests.”

A property listing on the Airbnb website. Photo; Moneypost

Her training session lasted an hour, with discussions ranging from who should pay utility bills to how to politely turn down a booking request. Then Tang asked the same question almost every Xiaozhu user asks: “How do I know if this guy is trustworthy?”

To remove barriers to trust, Xiaozhu encourages users to connect their accounts with Sesame Credit, a social credit scoring system developed by an affiliate of China’s Alibaba Group that rates an individual’s credibility using big data. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

Airbnb declined to comment on its Chinese copycats, but said it has been ramping up efforts to make its service appealing to users in China. Sean Pan, the head of operations for Airbnb China, said it had reached almost a million guest arrivals in China.

Airbnb guests can now pay via Alipay and sign up through WeChat. Yet it is unclear whether Airbnb, one of the world’s biggest accommodation companies valued at US$30 billion, can compete with its copycats in China.

“Which company is doing better in China?” It’s very hard to tell,” said Jesper Palmqvist, the Asia Pacific director of STR, a market intelligence company which researches the global lodging industry.

“Some people have tried to do the parallel between how it’s played out with Uber and Didi Chuxing, but personally I think it would seem [too] early to compare that in any way,” he said.

Some argue Airbnb and its Chinese copycats don’t have to enter a fierce competition, at least not for now. “China’s home-sharing market is still in its infant stage. We should work together to compete with hotels, rather than fighting against each other,” Xiaozhu’s founder Chen said.

A Chinese national flag flutters in front of an apartment tower in Shenzhen. Photo: Reuters

For Zhou, the Xiaozhu customer manager, Airbnb and Xiaozhu already share premium space on his smartphone.

The 25-year-old rents a four-bedroom apartment in Shenzhen, and lists three rooms on both Xiaozhu and Airbnb. Zhou said his room-letting covered his rent for the whole year and then some.

When asked which platform helped him most, he chose Xiaozhu. Airbnb’s chief Chinese rival keeps his phone buzzing with orders.

“Xiaozhu brings me more business, while my last order from Airbnb was almost one month ago,” Zhou said, pausing for a second before carrying on. “I’m not trying to bad-mouth our competitor,” he added with a sheepish smile.

(SCMP)

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