Airbnb’s rivals in China hold hands in a nervous new market

Amie Tsang & Paul Mozur
Sun Huifeng, a marketer for an information technology company who rents out one of the rooms in his apartment, waters his window plants, in Beijing, March 11, 2017.
Giulia Marchi | The New York Times

Sun Huifeng liked the idea of tapping Airbnb or one of its rising local competitors to rent out his spare Beijing bedroom.

The problem: He didn't like the idea of a stranger in his house.

"I mainly worry about the quality of guests," said Mr. Sun, 31, a marketer for an information technology company. "Or, to speak more plainly, I was even worried that some criminals might come."

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Xiaozhu, a Chinese version of Airbnb, swung into action. It ran him through the company's guest-vetting system, helped him install a password-based lock on the door to his Beijing apartment and provided bright pink cushions for his sofa. Twice a week, Mr. Sun carefully waters the plants Xiaozhu gave him.

Airbnb sees big promise in China, where travel spending reached nearly $500 billion in 2015 thanks to a new generation of domestic tourists. On Wednesday in Shanghai, Airbnb unveiled a new Chinese name — Aibiying, which means "welcome each other with love" — as well as efforts to increase local hiring and deals to draw visitors to Shanghai with offers such as behind-the-scenes visits to the Chinese opera.

"Our mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere," Brian Chesky, Airbnb's chief executive, said in Shanghai on Wednesday. "If we are going to achieve our mission of belonging anywhere, anywhere must include China, and anyone must include Chinese travelers."

But like other global tech firms with an eye on China, Airbnb faces challenges. Chief among them are domestic versions of the site, including Xiaozhu and another rival, Tujia, that offer more local listings. To counter Airbnb's advantage with cosmopolitan Chinese who may have used its service in New York, Paris or Tokyo, the competitors are taking big steps to educate other skeptical Chinese about renting out — and crashing in — a spare bedroom.

The cultural barriers are significant. In a country where a home is for family or for investment and tourism is still relatively new for many, the idea of posting homes online for random guests to rent takes some getting used to.

"There is a manager behind every property," said Kelvin Chen, the chief executive of Xiaozhu. "We still need time to educate our users."

Airbnb offers the latest gauge of whether an American technology company can make it in a politically and commercially thorny market. The government blocks Google, Facebook and Twitter. Uber and the online arm of Walmart bowed in the face of intense domestic competition and sold their businesses to local rivals.

A special lock lets host and guests easily gain access to the home of Sun Huifeng, who rents out one of the rooms, in Beijing, March 11, 2017.
Giulia Marchi | The New York Times

Perhaps mindful of its regulatory scuffles in the United States and Europe, Airbnb is taking a careful approach in China. It has worked out agreements with Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent. It has also teamed up with officials in cities like Shanghai to promote tourism.

Crucially, like LinkedIn, another international hopeful in China, Airbnb complies with Chinese laws requiring it to keep Chinese data only on domestically based Chinese servers. That could expose it to requests from the Chinese surveillance authorities to track any of its users. Last year, Airbnb sent a message to its users in China informing them that data would be stored in the country.

For Airbnb, which has only about 80,000 listings in China, its more than three million listings around the world put it in a strong position to cater to the millions of Chinese who travel overseas each year. It also has outreach efforts, like informational events for hosts and occasional promotions offering free photography for hosts with apartments they want to rent out.

Local rivals are going further to teach skeptical Chinese how to be good hosts and good guests. That helps in a country where horror stories of trashed hotel rooms and bad traveler behavior abound.

Natasia Guo, a longtime Airbnb host and entrepreneur in China, said most visitors tended to be younger, while the odd middle-aged guest did not seem to understand how the service was supposed to work. Of one 40-year-old guest, she said: "He treated my place like a hotel. And the reason I say that is he started smoking in the room."

"I think he was using one of our bowls as an ashtray," she said.

Xiaozhu, which has about 140,000 listings, seeks to reassure hosts against such problems. It also works with the internet censorship department and the public security bureau, which helps weed out users with a criminal record. For the benefit of guests, it offers its own cleaning services as well as training events to teach hosts how to get along with customers and decorate their homes.

Tujia, a competitor with more than 420,000 listings, more directly manages many of the apartments it showcases, either itself or through management firms. In some cases, it works with property developers sitting on unsold units. For those it does not manage, it conducts inspections and also maintains a blacklist of problematic guests. Many of Tujia's users stay for a longer period of time or use the properties for vacation.

David Wang, 52, a Beijing resident, said his nephew first suggested renting out the spare room in his mother's courtyard house in the capital. But Mr. Wang's 89-year-old mother took some persuading. To assuage her concerns, the family segregated the room from the rest of the house, blocking the door to the courtyard, and created a new entryway from the road. Then they installed a closed circuit television. They listed the room on Xiaozhu, which provided linens, a picture frame, lamps, curtains and a small Ikea table.

"Now she is happy because every cent from the rent goes into her account," Mr. Wang said.

The companies are counting on younger Chinese to catch on as both hosts and guests. "Chinese millennials are keen to have an authentic experience," said Jens Thraenhart, president of Digital Innovation Asia, which connects Asian tourism business with digital know-how.

Zhu Jiamin, a 28-year-old from Shanghai, said he just started hosting on Airbnb, in part because of the positive experiences he had traveling overseas using the site and other services like Couchsurfing. He said he had no problem having long conversations with guests or sometimes showing them around. Other friends rent out apartments and pull out the stops to attract guests.

"They have photos that are way too fancy," he said. "The places are decorated with flowers, and some of them even hire models, some beautiful girls, for the photos."

Mr. Zhu said that he chose to focus more on having meaningful exchanges with people who stay at his place. "You just feel that their photos don't represent the people who live there," he said. "It's not a home. It's a fancy place to take photos."

Mr. Sun, who received the pink cushions from Xiaozhu, said he had also come to enjoy the company of his guests and the income he received from them, which totals about $300 to $600 a month. One was a Sichuan cook brimming with gossip about the entertainment business. Another played mah-jongg.

"Mah-jongg is my hobby," he said. "If the guests want to play mah-jongg, I get pretty excited."