Hosted stays and couch-surfing have changed the travel game, with an Asian start-up redefining the boundaries.
The charm of the panda, who can resist? So it was a smart move when long-time buddies, Singaporeans James Chua, 33, and Lester Kang, 31, decided to name their business venture – which they started in July last year – PandaBed! According to the duo when met in Singapore recently, their focus is Asia so it was apt that they settled on an Asian animal known for choosing comfortable places to sleep in.
“Our society perceives home-sharing with stigma filled with fear, lack of understanding and negativity. We knew this general perception was incorrect because of our first-hand experience with peer-to-peer (P2P) home-sharing.
“We wanted to create a brand, and image, that counteracted the negativity. The symbol of PandaBed represents a friendly, approachable and non-threatening symbol that illustrates our vision for what the P2P home-sharing economy could one day be,” explains Chua.
The duo – who met in 2002 while studying in California – gave up their cushy jobs to start up their business. Chua used to work in the investment sector while Kang, a qualified aerospace engineer, was in
marketing and then banking.
Eventually they became regular travelling partners, and they preferred to stretch their budgets. They got their first taste of hosted stays on a trip in Europe.
Chua (“the business guy”, according to his name card) bills the business as Asia’s trusted alternative to hotels. Most people compare it to Airbnb, arguably the world’s largest short-term rental travel site.
So if Pandabed (www.pandabed.com) is like Airbnb, why bother with an Asian version? Kang (the marketing guy) says they try to differentiate themselves from Airbnb.
“We think Asians have not yet come around to the concept of opening up their homes to travellers and are probably two steps behind the West. It will take a lot more to convince Asia, and it will take a separate brand, a separate engine from Airbnb,” he points out.
Chua does note, though, that it is relatively easy to convince professional managers and service apartment companies to list their properties, but it’s a totally different ballgame trying to convince “average Joe” homeowners to list their homes.
One of their biggest drawcards, they think, is that they do not charge the guest any booking fee (as opposed to the 10% some of their competitors do) outside the rental. “We believe the guests shouldn’t be made to pay additional booking fees.” However, Kang says, they charge the hosts a 10% fee.
In their website, it is claimed that their properties are 50% discounted compared to hotels of the same range. Their properties include serviced apartments, villas, bed-and-breakfast establishments and private homes. They cater for budgets that are just as varied.
Another option that only PandaBed has, which they launched last month, is the PeerMatch (sometimes tagged as Culture Match). Kang says it allows homeowners to indicate their preferences, indicating criteria like religion, nationality and age group. Likewise, guests can also state their preferred accommodation.
“For example, Muslim travellers can now stay in a Muslim-friendly home that has a halal kitchen, when using PandaBed,” he adds.
Chua is quick to point out that while some Westerners might think of this as racial or religious profiling, it is about practicality and the reality of two unknown parties being asked to share living space. For many people, especially in Asia, he adds, those cultural and community concerns like being halal, meat-free or beef-free, for instance, are part and parcel of the decision-making process for their lodgings.
Kang says PandaBed properties have a few distinctives. One is PeerMatch, the other is Property Managed (where a company, rather than an individual owner, manages the property). Very much like the property I stayed in while in Singapore – a one-room studio apartment located a few minutes’ walk from the Farrer Park MRT and five minutes from the famed 24-hour Mustafa Centre in Singapore’s Little India.
Sites like PandaBed give travellers the option of staying in good locations outside the usual touristy areas and comfort zones. As I found out, there was much to see and do at the location, too. Despite it being in Little India, it also had some noted culinary spots serving non-Indian fare like dim sum, curry laksa and bak kut teh, to name a few.
The apartment itself was quite secure – safety is a concern for many travellers – with a card access to the lift and a password entry to the unit itself. It had everything that matched a hotel room, and more. A kitchen, with an electric stove and a microwave oven; a washing machine; a TV; a balcony (to be a nosey parker ... um, I mean, to take in the views); even three umbrellas (the unit was meant for two people but a third person was allowed if need be; there was also a spare mattress).
So if you’re the type who wants some space and no “stranger” (aka the host) around, something from the Property Managed listings would be ideal for you.
Obviously, you can opt for hosted properties or one room in a rented property. All properties are verified in one way or another.
As with their competitors, both host and guest need to go through a verification pro-cess by PandaBed. Points are given for various forms of documentation and proof of identity.
“Building trust between the two parties is very important for our concept. The host is opening up his/her place to a complete stranger, and a guest is going to be staying with a stranger, too,” explains Kang.
Hosts have to give photos of their properties and are encouraged to give as much information as possible about them, such as
the amenities available. Chua concedes sometimes it is not as descriptive as they want it to be, partly because the hosts might not have a good enough command of the language. “And that’s where we try and help out – to make it as comprehensive as possible.”
Home-owners can also opt to have on-site verification. Those who pass it, says Chua, are given the “Hand-picked” designation – PandaBed’s highest endorsement.
There is also another feature called WebCheck that allows hosts to submit reviews of their properties by third-party travel websites. If they garner positive reviews, they will get a WebCheck badge.
On-site verification is done by what they call Home Scouts or Homies. These Homies are paid on a project basis to verify the properties at certain destinations using a stringent 10-step checklist.
A request for a look at the checklist was met with: “We’d rather not, as we don’t want our properties to realise how we do it. In a nutshell, what we ask our Homies before they give a property a pass is, would they send their mothers to stay there?”
My response of “But what if they don’t like their mothers?” elicited laughter.
They recently ran a competition to find an intern to travel across Asia documenting PandaBed.com properties and their hosts for a month. As the number and quality of respondents was good, the duo picked two winners.
After a stay is completed, PandaBed asks the guests for a review of their hosts and the properties they stayed in. Hosts are encouraged to review their guests, too. This is then shared with all PandaBed users.
What if there are negative reviews? Are the properties removed from the listings or the guests banned from using the booking site?
“We leave it to the market forces. We think both parties are intelligent enough to draw conclusions from the reviews and then choose (whether or not) to stay at the property or to accept a guest,” says Chua.
PandaBed started off with 500 properties and now they have 5,000 homes across Asia, with the majority in South-East Asia, Hong Kong and South Korea. Kang says that they plan to double the numbers by the end of this month.
They have 10 full-time staff and four customer service managers in the Philippines, China and Indonesia. Chua is aiming for the website and booking process to be multilingual to accommodate the various guests’ mother tongues.
Looks like this Panda will not be slumbering!