China Tourist

Love thy lodger

Airbnb has a new name and a new growth strategy in China


Airbnb’s boss: Brian Chesky

It’s typical for students at American colleges to display their names outside of their dormitory rooms. In February, a vandal roamed the corridors of one dormitory at Columbia University and removed only the name cards that had been written in Chinese. It was a peculiar act, but the Chinese community was concerned by the prejudice it implied, and responded by releasing a video explaining to their Western classmates the meaning and significance of their birth names.

The significance of a Chinese name is not something that has been lost on international companies (see WiC283 for our backgrounder on the topic) and recently Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has had to explain the meaning behind his company’s newly-coined Chinese name: Aibiying.

“To welcome each other with love” is the translation he offered on Twitter, as he announced that Airbnb is “committed to succeeding in China”. As per that commitment, CNN reports the home rental firm is doubling its investment and tripling its staff in the country this year.

But Airbnb’s new Chinese name hasn’t had a successful start. Creativity Online, a blog run by marketing magazine Advertising Age, writes that it prompted a small backlash online, with netizens denouncing it as hard to pronounce and nonsensical.

One internet user wrote, “The name looks like some cheap Chinese mattress or clothing brand,” with another remarking more crudely that it read like a “copycat porn company”. But before Aibiying was selected, consultancy Labbrand, which has created Chinese names for Marvel, LinkedIn and TripAdvisor, tested over 1,000 possibilities. The ensuing criticisms only underscore how tricky it is to come up with a good Chinese name.

Unfortunately, Chesky also seems to have blundered during a recent speech at Shanghai’s Fudan University. When he was asked about the infamous case of a group of students trashing a house they rented through Airbnb in China last year, the CEO drew a blank.

The incident occurred last December, and was exposed online by the property’s landlord in a weibo post that has since gone viral. The tenant had asked to rent the space in order to do some film work. He had assured the landlord that he would compensate her for any damage. But after he and his team left the house in a mess, with the walls scratched and scuffed, the renter ignored the landlord and then blocked her number.

Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter thinks incidents like this lie at the heart of “why Airbnb won’t conquer China”. Minter argues that the Chinese are generally too distrustful to let strangers use their homes. Similarly, renters are too sceptical to trust unknown home-lenders. But Minter concedes that Airbnb’s local rival, Tujia, has tackled this issue by providing management services – such as providing cleaners – for many of the 400,000 properties listed on its site.

This is something Airbnb does not do but, in response to the case above, it reminded customers that it provides an insurance policy for its landlords, offering compensation of up to Rmb5 million ($724,000) for damaged property. However, when asked Airbnb what specific measures it had taken in light of this landlord’s experience it received no response.

For Airbnb it seems that the domestic rental market hasn’t been the real focus of its China push anyway. Instead, spreading brand awareness amongst China’s outbound travellers has been the main goal. Its local competitors already dominate the China region. And though Tujia does have an overseas partnership with Expedia’s rental project HomeAway, Airbnb is still the leading force internationally.

“There’s a whole new generation of Chinese travellers who want to see the world in a different way,” comments Chesky. “We hope that Aibiying strikes a chord with them and inspires them to want to travel in a way that opens doors to new people, communities and neighbourhoods across the world.”

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