HOME AWAY FROM HOME
B&Bs set in rustic old estates are flourishing in the city as more travelers seek an authentic local experience
pay it forward when he rented an apartment, putting his contact details online and offering free stays to people.
He was later told by a friend that he could turn his apartment into a B&B to make a little extra cash. He soon advertised his place on Airbnb and almost immediately received bookings. His first guest was a Chinese couple and the second was a German backpacker.
A constant stream of bookings soon ignited Jiang’s passion for the business. This was when he decided to rent the apartment in a shikumen to kickstart his B&B venture. Because of his love for Japanese culture, he decided to infuse the space with a theme to reflect this. For example, he transformed the 10-squaremeter yard at the entrance into an zen-like space with a glass roof, bamboos, decorative stones and tatami mats. Inside, he added a touch of modernity by using remote controlled lights.
Business can at times get overwhelming, especially when he decides to advertise on multiple platforms.
“If I take nice pictures of the apartment, put the information on several online sites and social networks and offer discounts, the accommodation will be fully booked for a whole month,” said Jiang, who was born in Northeast China and moved to Shanghai at the age of 10.
Jiang said that turning a profit is not the main concern. Rather, the business is more about a sense of sharing and making new friends. Jiang has had more than 100 people, including around 50 foreigners, stay at his B&B since its launch and many have become his good friends. He frequently uses the rental fees to buy additional furnishings for the home, saying that this helps “create a positive cycle”.
Xiao Zaozi, a cartoonist from Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, stayed two nights at this apartment in June. The exterior of a wardrobe in a room was empty during her stay and Jiang had planned to invite an artist to draw a picture of Mount Fuji onto it. However, Xiao offered to fill the space up for free, and she painted an illustration of wind bells, bamboos and cats.
But lodging is not the only service that Jiang provides. The 25-year-old occasionally takes his guests on free tours to the surrounding old communities and bustling commercial districts, letting them taste the local delicacies and telling them about the city’s stories.
“I share my world with others by offering my home for a traveler to stay. I believe this is what a traveler, Chinese or foreign, would like to get from the stay — getting a taste of a local’s life in such a historical community. Hopefully the place felt like home for them,” he said.
Jiang said that this passion for sharing has also motivated him to go the extra mile for guests, such as providing bathroom amenities, a tea set, wine glasses and even a baby’s bathtub.
“I call this a life experience space, which is better than a typical B&B accommodation. I hope B&B is not deemed as another option to hotels because of its price superiority. I hope more people can respect those who are willing to open and share their homes,” he said.
Contrary to how most people perceive the business, those running a B&B business don’t just rent an old apartment, sit back and watch their bank accounts grow. There is often much research and legwork that needs to be done.
“Some of these old buildings may be demolished soon while some of the rooms within may have been illegally expanded. As tenants we have to dig for a lot of information before make this investment,” said Yang Anna, a B&B owner.
Yang had rented six apartments in the former French Concession — a favorite with foreigners because of its history
Barnybas Covey, and the charming architecture of the buildings — and listed them online last December after furnishing each with basic appliances and furniture.
“The profits were considerable in the first few months but it has since slowed down as more people have entered the business and the competition has started price wars,” said Yang, a 27-year-old Shanghai native.
Yang soon realized that she could not handle all aspects of the business alone and decided to hire someone to clean the homes after guests had checked out. She said that the fees she get now can hardly cover the rent and the cleaner’s salary.
At times, Yang also has to deal with negative comments put up on the booking sites by guests.
“A guest once complained that the bathroom was renovated from an attic and the water pressure was too weak. But that is a common thing in the old communities. Any negative comment made online about my facilities may deter future guests from booking,” Yang said.
Chen said that there are several ambitious B&B operators like Yang who invest most of their savings to rent several apartments in hope of a handsome profit. However, when the business gradually expands and involves managing nearly 10 B&B facilities, management becomes a problem.
“When that happens, the only advantage B&Bs have is price, but even so they’ll find it hard to compete with economical chain
hotels,” Chen said.
Although the B&B industry is thriving, such lodging options actually fall within a grey zone in terms of legitimate commercial operations. According to Chinese law, a hotel must be registered with the industry and commerce authorities as well as pass checks in fire safety and sanitation.
Yang said she had consulted the authorities before starting her business but discovered that there wasn’t a business license that applied to B&B facilities. Jiang also hides what he is doing from his neighbors, likening himself to an illegal cab driver.
According to lawyers, problems can arise when such accommodations are unprotected by law.
“If the guest commits unlawful or criminal activities in the residence, the owner of the house will be held accountable,” said Fu Zhongwen, a senior partner at Long’an Law Firm.
Online rental sites also encourage the operators of B&B accommodation and the lodgers not to trade privately as this would make it hard for mediation to take place. “Because both parties have registered their real names on our platform, we can help deal with disputes if any arises,” said Chen.
One of the most common disputes is when a guest realizes that the apartment looks nothing like what was depicted in photos.
“Our solution is to designate our professional photographers to take pictures of the accommodations to ensure minimum difference,” Chen said.
Tourism industry insiders have said the unlicensed operation of B&B facilities is becoming a problem on the Chinese mainland and that the burgeoning sector will actually flourish if it falls under the supervision of the government.
“Before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, nearly 600 households in the traditional quadrangle dwellings of Beijing were designated as special guesthouses for domestic and foreign visitors. There are still 33 of those now,” said Zhang Guangrui, honorary director of the Tourism Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“The tourism authority in other cities can learn from this method and make such B&B facilities a legitimate business to protect the operators and guard the rights and interests of travelers. It also allows visitors to be better integrated into the local community,” he said.
A view of the decorative elements in some of the B&B homes in Shanghai.
Jiang Yuan, who runs a bed-and-breakfast (B&B) establishment, chats with a lodger, Stefan Schmid from Germany, in the home located in the former French Concession area in Shanghai.