Opening up your home to strangers and travellers for a short time is becoming very popular. First, Couchsurfing aimed to foster a community of travellers who could find someone to ‘crash’ for free with while they travel. AirBNB is now revolutionising short-term rentals by allowing anyone to convert a sleep-able space into a place to rent.

Since 2009, TourBoarding has taken a new twist on the short-term stay model by allowing travellers to stay at someone’s place in China for free and experience its culture through services such as learning Chinese, Chinese cooking, calligraphy in exchange for speaking English or other in demand languages for at least two hours a day. That seems like a pretty good deal to me! I’ve always enjoyed meeting and interacting with locals to truly experience a new country.

I interviewed Cathy Tao, Chief Evangelist of TourBoarding to find out more about this interesting new travel concept.

Do you believe the service is really for Chinese to learn a language or is it to make friends?

Both.  It is also about building bridges between people that otherwise would not meet, interact, or learn from one another.  Given that we are creatures of habit, TourBoarding has created a workable framework that gives people of diverse backgrounds the strong incentive to come together and have a meaningful, educational experience that could really change their lives.  Even in an international city like Shanghai, you will see that people mostly stay within their comfort zone: Expats hang out with expats (especially with those from the same originating country), local Chinese hang out with local Chinese, returning overseas Chinese hang out with their own kind, and so on.  This type of clustering behaviour exists throughout the world and is so limiting, and frankly speaking, rather dull.  We want to change that.  A common language is of course, a prerequisite for any meaningful communication to occur between people, and that’s why the sharing of language or language currency is the cornerstone of our travel model.

What is the structure of your team?

We are based in Shanghai. The size of the team fluctuates depending on work required, but the team has always been less than ten members.  We are using our own funding, so we are very cautious about how the funds are used.  In terms of the co-founders, Nuno Zhang is in charge of programming and technical development of the site, Ken Chen is the captain of the ship and in charge of growing the domestic market, while my job is to grow the international market and be the chief English speaking evangelist.

What does a VIP member get?

At the present time, ordinary members have access to the same features as VIP members, but VIP members have access to many more hosts and travellers, and thus have a higher chance of finding the ideal host or traveller to match up with. VIP membership is achieved through a donation of a minimum of US$25. Part of this donation is given to help poor students in remote areas of China.

Is it tricky getting foreigners to register with local police stations since it is not a normal custom?

We were required by the local authorities to post a notice on our home page informing members that foreign nationals staying with Chinese citizens must register with their host at the local police station.  We are not required to enforce this provision.  I think that complying with this requirement helps to keep travellers and hosts safe, so it is a good precaution that also happens to be the law.  So far, not a single member has complained about this requirement.

Do you think language currency barter for free rent disrupts the Couchsurfing model?

TourBoarding is different from CouchSurfing.  It is a new peer-to-peer travel barter model with a social mission that hopes to serve an important, lasting niche in the sharing or collaborative consumption movement; I call it “collaborative tourism.”  With CouchSurfing, you are essentially relying on the generosity and goodwill of the host to nab a free home stay, so things tend to unravel last minute at highly desirable locations, such as New York City or London. At TourBoarding, travelers don’t just receive a free place to stay; they must commit to speaking two hours of their native language daily with their host.  We are not running a popularity contest where people must know how to write fancy cool profiles to get “chosen.”  Chinese members of CouchSurfing who attract a lot of views and friends are not representative of the vast majority of Chinese. They are in a sense the cultural elite who have already been educated or immersed in a foreign setting.  At TourBoarding, we impose low barriers to entry so that those people who can benefit from our service most can actually use it.  A low barrier to entry creates an inclusive atmosphere and does not equate with low quality.  We hope to replicate TourBoarding in the rest of the developing world.

How do you view the positioning of TourBoarding versus CouchSurfing and AirBNB?

CouchSurfing is a non-profit organization, while TourBoarding can earn profits for its shareholders and investors.  We want to be a profitable, self-sustaining organization that does not have to rely on donations, a social enterprise that produces wealth for the long-term by delivering extraordinary, rewarding experiences and value to customers.  Happiness comes from accumulation of positive experiences, from feeling connected to those similar and dissimilar from us, and not from owning and consuming.  Ken, Nuno, and I are idealistic experimenters that want to help people come together and get ahead.  Money is a wonderful asset that can produce lots of innovation and progress, but we are not solely motivated by it.

AirBNBbasically extended the vacation rental market to include a wider product offering including any space that is rentable, such as a private home or boat.  With Airbnb, you pay cash for the use of a space, but with TourBoarding, you “pay” with your language skills that are valued by the host. With TourBoarding, even if our Chinese members don’t have a presentable home to host a traveller, they can still find many traveller members who would value their tour guiding services, Chinese fluency, or knowledge of local customs and culture.

How many members do you have now and what is the growth rate?

We are revamping the site and I don’t have the current membership numbers, but I approximate our membership growth to be about 1100% from the time we officially launched last year.  We have worked with a very modest advertising budget, and we won’t ramp up marketing at full force until we have tweaked the model to our satisfaction.  We have an advantage of being first at what we do, but we also have the disadvantage of not being able to study other similar models and learn from them.  In certain areas, we operate in a vacuum, and have to rely on research and academia to know what to do next.  But this is also what makes what we do super exciting, pioneering, and rewarding.

What is the vision and long term plan for TourBoarding?

Our goal is to become the “Kleenex of language-financed travel.”  We don’t want to just be in China, but also other developing countries, such as Russia, Brazil, Vietnam, etc.  And we will never forget our Chinese roots.  We won’t pursue westernization or copy western formulas for the sole purpose of raising capital or getting listed on a stock exchange.  A formula works until a new one takes its place.  The best way of doing something is a continually evolving concept.

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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