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Asia travel

Cycle tour start-up’s personal touch drives 12,000pc growth in first two years of its companion service for independent travellers

Bikego started two years ago in one city with five staff; today it serves 13 and has 600 staff. Its mission to provide authentic experiences led by local guides who treat customers as friends resonates with domestic Chinese tourists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 8:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 7:29pm

Good food, friends, new experiences and interaction with local people: these are the ingredients for a worthwhile holiday, according to Bi Sheng, founder of a young Chinese online travel company called Bikego.

And it would seem he is not alone – domestic Chinese tourists are no longer content to take the traditional tour bus approach, with 97 per cent of them choosing to travel independently in 2017, according to a report conducted by Mafengwo Travel Research Centre and China Tourism Academy.

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Sensing a demand for more in-depth travel experiences, Bi Sheng started his own cycle tours company in 2016 in Dali, Yunnan province. At the time Bikego had five staff – now it has expanded its services to 13 cities across the country, with more than 600 staff, of whom 100 are full-time.

“When I went to Hong Kong, my friend took me to these food stalls where people were lining up to buy their wonton noodles, and to the seafood market to taste the freshest seafood and experience the local lifestyle,” says Bi, citing it as an example of the type of authentic experience he wanted his company to provide.

In Chengdu, for example, clients (most of whom are domestic travellers) are taken to a historic teahouse inside the People’s Park, where residents spend their time having tea and playing cards. Here they can learn some Sichuan dialect while enjoying a brew in the afternoon sun.

I know all the places in the city – the history and the interesting stories behind them
Qiu Chi, guide

“We want to include places that have some cultural content,” says Bi. “The park is not a tourist attraction at all.” Bikego guides are referred to as GO (‘giving organiser’), meaning a travel companion who is always willing to share.

“They know the city well, and have a strong emotional attachment to it,” he says. “They carry a sense of pride when they introduce the city to the travellers.”

Hu Die, a Chinese businesswoman who runs a trade company in France, chose the company’s service when she travelled in Chengdu with her mother. “We had the sort of fun that no other travel agency could offer,” says Hu. “Since we could enjoy the trip from a local perspective in the company of our GO, we were shown a very special side of the city.”

“I know all the places in the city – the history and the interesting stories behind them,” says Qiu Chi, a GO that works in Chengdu. He finds visitors are touched to hear about how people from around the country helped rebuild the city after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake tore the city apart, and to visit the places that were affected.

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Bi advocates a “friendship culture” inside the company, matching the same hospitality a visitor would receive from a friend. Qiu says that customers can usually sense sincerity when you are paying attention to what they need.

“Sometimes even when the tour is over, I will personally take the tourists somewhere else for dinner, hot pot and even some beer,” says Yang Yi, another Chengdu-based guide.

Once in a while, acquaintances made become a long lasting friendship, says Qiu, who has stayed in touch with one client – a history professor who used to work in the Shanghai History Museum.

Most of the tours which are sold on Bikego’s website last for a day, and are priced at between 200 yuan (US$30) and 1,500 yuan depending on the activities included. The company hires guides from a diverse range of backgrounds – businessmen, photographers, university professors and even poets.

Qiu, for example, is a professional photographer, so his clients get the added benefit of having some great holiday snaps taken by him. Yang, on the other hand, runs a retail company selling sautéed crab in hot spicy sauce, so shares his food knowledge with visitors.

The concept is not unlike Airbnb’s “experience” service, launched in 2016, which allows ordinary residents to act as guides, and share their favourite activities or places with guests. However, Bi says Bikego’s is a different business model, in that guides are recruited through a top-class headhunter and a careful evaluation process is used to determine suitable people for the job. Guides are then offered training for them to maintain a high level of service when taking people on tours.

“When people share their travel experience with others, they will be able to tell their friends not only about the interesting places they went to, but also about the interesting people they met,” says Bi.

Last year, Bikego had 70,000 customers. Bi hopes to raise this to between 300,000 and 500,000 customers. He is optimistic this can be achieved, as Bikego is already 40 per cent of the way to meeting this goal and expects a surge during the summer holidays.

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Meanwhile, the company will continue to expand its services to more across China, especially those that are popular among young people.

“To travel is essentially to have a better understanding of your destination,” says Bi. “More and more young people in China are seeking this kind of experience now.”