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Booking homely atmosphere abroad

By MA SI | China Daily | Updated: 2017-05-25 07:30

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks at an event to launch the brand's Chinese name Aibiying in Shanghai on March 22. REUTERS

Growing outbound Chinese tourists try out new apps offering innovative homestay services

Wang Xiaochuan, 40, a restaurant owner in Beijing, had visited Japan 15 times, but the very thought of her 16th trip made her nervous. Her anxiety during the run-up to the February visit arose from the realization that this time she would be traveling with her aged parents and in-laws. The four septuagenarians had never been abroad.

"The anxiety haunted me for weeks until my husband turned to Zhubaijia for help," she said. The Shenzhen-based company, usually seen as China's answer to Airbnb Inc, has gone far beyond simple offers of domestic and overseas vacation rentals.

"Its service is really impressive," Wang said. After she booked an old villa in Kyoto, the company's employees helped her deal with tasks like booking restaurants and hiring a car (whose driver later doubled up as a guide-cum-photographer).

"I used to resist the idea of renting someone's house. But this trip made me realize that the money saved in homestays can help pay for other value-added services."

Like many outbound Chinese tourists, Wang benefited from the new overseas butler service of Zhubaijia. It is part of broad efforts by online players in China's hospitality industry, including Tujia and Xiaozhu, to outshine competitors such as Airbnb in popular overseas tourist markets.

Last year, Chinese travelers made 122 million outbound trips, up 4.3 percent from a year earlier, maintaining the country's position as the world's largest outbound tourism market, according to the China National Tourism Administration.

"Unlike foreign backpackers who look forward to do-it-yourself traveling experience, Chinese outbound travelers don't prefer uncertainty. They are eager to enjoy one-stop service," said Guo Xiao, executive vice-president of Zhubaijia.

The company, which has raised more than 600 million yuan ($87.24 million) from HNA Group, inked a deal with the latter's hotel unit in April to cooperate on products and sales channels, in a move to meet consumers' increasingly complex demands for personalized services.

To date, Zhubaijia has 270,000 overseas listings in 80 countries and regions. More importantly, it has about 10,000 part-time overseas butlers to better serve users and manage houses, the company said.

Sensing potential for growth in this segment, Xiaozhu, another player with focus on the domestic home-stay market, ventured into foreign countries this year. It started with South Korea, Japan and other neighboring Southeast Asian countries, all popular destinations for Chinese tourists.

With about 1,000 listings in Japan, Xiaozhu is growing, said Chen Chi, its CEO. "We plan to open a branch in Japan later this year. Japan has a long history of homestay services and it has abundant, good room resources."

A family find time to bond after dinner at a rented home booked through Zhubaijia, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, earlier this year. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

During the cherry blossom season in early spring (March-April), its room booking rate in Japan reached 100 percent. Unlike Zhubaijia that targets high-end travelers, Xiaozhu focuses on price-sensitive consumers.

"Chinese travelers, especially those born in the 1980s and the 1990s, are becoming increasingly accustomed to homestay in the domestic market. They are the main spenders. So, it would be unreasonable to ask them to use one app for booking rooms in China and another app in overseas markets. We're moving in advance to grow the supply of quality houses in foreign countries," Chen said.

But, according to Dang Jianwei, an expert on innovative economies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, it won't be easy for Chinese companies, especially startups that have no global influence, to persuade overseas homeowners to list their properties on their apps.

"Teaming up with local partners will be an essential approach to build up overseas listings," Dang said.

Tujia, the largest player in China's homestay market, is doing exactly that. It started its overseas business in 2012. It now has about 80,000 listings in foreign countries, complete with translation services for users who can't speak English.

One of its investors is HomeAway Inc, the US vacation rental marketplace with more than 1 million vacation rental listings in over 190 countries. All of them are backup housing resources now available on Tujia.

"Unlike our competitors, we've customer service people who are always ready to help users tackle problems encountered in booking and checking in," Tujia said in a written reply to China Daily.

Listing numbers alone don't tell the full story of overseas holiday home apps. For, owners typically list their properties on more than one online platform.

Zhubaijia's Guo said: "The common listings are about 10 percent in European and US markets. It is highly important to cultivate our core landlords who are willing to strictly follow our service standards, in return for assured traffic and better visibility on our platform."

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