Business or pleasure? What makes a successful homestay brand

Golden Week is approaching, and the popularity wave of homestay/B&Bs is once again in our focus. Let’s look at these homestays in Moganshan, the birthplace of the market in China, from the branding perspective. 

Over the past 5 years, along with emerging ‘boutique accommodation’ represented best by Moganshan’s Naked Stables, the tastes of Chinese millennial travelers has changed dramatically. The market is entering a new stage—when simply relying on location is not enough, branding comes in.

Competition in Moganshan intensifies and for homestay owners, it’s not a question of raising the number of guests anymore, it’s about survival during this new market shift. Homestays, that enjoy a certain level of brand awareness, go further creating chains. What should smaller players do to leave the market battlefield as winners?

• A good brand name is half the battle

If you want your brand to resonate deeply with the audience, a good name is a must. This task is even harder than picking up a catchy slogan: in several characters or words, the name must transmit brand character and message. It means that a brand name must be loaded with something more than essence and values of its founders to stay viable when there’s a management change.

When you first hear the name Naked Stables, it sounds like there’s a story behind. And there is one: founders Grant Horsfield and his wife Delphine Yip hoped to make it into a place where a handful of people could enjoy quite retreat immersing in nature. Having a meaningful name is a trend—according to the ‘2017 rating of China homestay brands’, made by a platform Jiesu ((借宿), the majority of brands which made it to the top 50 list chose intriguing names.

• Know your audience

Moganshan, the birthplace of ‘boutique homestays and hotels’, represents a mind shift of consumers. The new generation of well-off customers, still consider five-star hotels like Shangri-la or Hilton the first choice, but for different reasons. To them, the prestige of a five-star hotel doesn’t seem as important, as aesthetics, brand story, and lifestyle that comes with it.

For millennials, traveling brings a sense of a ritual. It’s like when you’re swamped with work, but still insist on making yourself a cup of hand-drip coffee, the post 80-90s travelers want to have a room for things that make travel a bit more special. An urban dweller, dealing with complicated information, stress, and anxiety on a daily basis, desperately needs a place where they can flee the routine landscape and dive into experiences of a different lifestyle. Unique experiences, not the price and prestige symbols—that’s what drives their choice of a homestay.

• Create and tell a brand story

A brand story is a powerful tool to engage with customers. Take a look at this homestay, settled in a small village in Jiangxi. The owner didn’t make it into a fancy five-star hotel, but opted to preserve its 100 years-long history, that traces back to the late Qing dynasty’s merchant home. The brand story is expressed in everywhere: from rooms, named after the ‘five constant virtues’ of Confucianism, to the initiatives like the revival of Hui ink stick artisanry. This way, the company’s mission goes beyond the guest lodging, and takes on partly the task to protect the cultural heritage.

• Don’t ignore the power of social media

Traditional marketing methods are losing its effectiveness for the traveling industry, a branding columnist Lu Linzicun notes. Homestay brand owners are aware of the situation but react slowly. Take Naked Stable, for instance, a name which is on everyone’s lips, started with soft marketing at foreign editions of Vogue and ELLE. Now they are actively promoting through Weibo, Wechat, and other social media.

For brand owners with a mission, homestay is not only a matter of business, it is an opportunity to bring life to the desolate villages. In words of Linden Centre founder: “Homestay is more than just a hotel, it helps people explore and experience local lifestyles”.

Disclaimer: all the brands mentioned in the article are used for case study purpose.

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