Maurice Li clearly got the post-demographic-consumerism memo. When it comes to CHAO, the Beijing-based hotel and workspace he co-founded and opened in July last year, he’s ignoring age brackets in favour of psychographics. “We affectionately label [our customers] as ‘the new hedonists’: this group of people are international-minded, individualistic and diverse, unconventional and ambitious, creative and positive in their outlook. They share very similar aspirations and demand more quality in their lifestyle.” Sound familiar? You might know them as the creative class.
The creative class isn’t strictly a new concept in China; in fact, a 2007 Fast Company article entitled ‘China’s New Creative Class’ introduced the concept way back, profiling nine innovators leading the way for the country’s emerging “dynamic business-savvy generation”. Since then, hospitality behemoths such as Hyatt, Aman, Starwood and Marriott have moved east, sensing an opportunity to colonise the fastest-growing travel market in the world.
Consider Li’s ‘new hedonists’ as the creative class version 2.0. That China’s creative class is less established than in the West has been their advantage: while the Western faction blazed a trail with a trial-and-error, party-and-latte approach, the new hedonists are refining the blueprint, emerging with a more sophisticated set of values and ideals. In response, China’s homegrown contemporary travel offerings have been forced to be more innovative from the beginning.
The result is that while Western high-end contemporary brands were applying their tried-and-tested formulas on Eastern soil (albeit with locally inspired tweaks), Li was busy reimagining what the new hedonist actually wants. “We saw an emerging group of people who are redefining what it means to live ‘the good life’… CHAO was created to allow this group of people the opportunity to come together and share ideas, to build things together, to help each other’s development, to contribute to meaningful social causes and to enjoy a quality lifestyle.”
As such, CHAO was created as much for locals as travellers – which distinguishes it not only from other hotels in Beijing, but also from the original instigators of the contemporary travel movement (many of which confusedly prioritised style over substance). “We believe that a hotel should facilitate social connections; we provide our house guests with a temporary subscription to our Clubhouse membership so they can engage in cultural events, learn new things and make meaningful connections with our local community of members. This helps create more social and professional opportunities, and this is why we very much look at ourselves as a platform more than a traditional ‘hotel’”, explains Li.
Proving he’s well aware that self-optimisation (becoming the best person you can be) is the new badge of luxury, with CHAO Clubhouse Li is tapping into the trend for creating informal, informative, inspiring spaces, events and channels that blend work and play, putting the consumer in control of their own personal and professional journey. Like Summit, Stream, Google Camp or Founders Forum, CHAO aims to bring together a community who can, according to Li, “work free and live full, connect with like-minded people, all the while enjoying their life responsibly and positively.”
But, unlike Stream and the rest, ideas and connections aren’t CHAO’s only currency: they also deal in cold, hard practicalities – the less glamorous “Move Fast with Stable Infra” that even Mark Zuckerberg had to face up to eventually. Thanks to its Work Club, CHAO is unique in embodying not only a high-end travel offering, but also a fully functional co-working space – which makes a lot of sense when you hear that Li’s influences include citizenM and Mandarin Oriental, alongside co-working space WeWork, creative business development agency Generator and global content platform Monocle.
“Creative and talented people who are independent often lack the energy and infrastructure that larger companies have to complete basic administrative functions; we believe they should rather focus their energy and efforts on creating their best work, while we help them handle all the rest”, says Li, by way of explanation. “Additionally, we want to offer a better lifestyle to these entrepreneurs and workers: we offer them hotel-standard services – from a fully equipped gym, housekeeping and 24-hour security, to courses and community events. Finally, we also want to discover and support talented people and teams in the Work Club that we can collaborate and create interesting projects with.”
Despite its membership-by-recommendation model – which, after all, is an important component for any offering purporting to be exclusive – it’s this two-way exchange of ideas and services that makes CHAO feel altogether more forward-thinking than other outwardly similar concepts in the industry (though Li is keen to point out that they don’t look at other brands as competitors, at least in the traditional sense). “Being entrepreneurs ourselves…”, he casually riffs, yet I get the feeling he’s making a point: beyond curating an aesthetic environment and intellectual context that encourages others to thrive, then disappearing into the woodwork like elves, job done, CHAO actively participates in its own community.
It’s true that, as a recently formed, innovative company, the CHAO team has a wealth of valuable insights and skills that could well empower other start-ups. “We made a conscious decision to do everything in-house, because we thought that was the only way to properly manifest our vision”, recollects Li. “It also allowed us to utilise all of our individual expertise as a collective whole – from the development of the business model, branding concept, interior design, construction to management processes and operation teams, all the way to media content and events programming.”
Refreshingly, though, he admits that the process of finding team members, suppliers and partners on the same wavelength who could positively contribute was a challenge. “We also made things difficult for ourselves because we’re always finding new ways to challenge the industry conventions and standard practices”, he continues.
So what does it mean to Li to be a rebel? “It’s constantly swimming uphill. We are an independent Chinese brand in the lifestyle and hospitality industry – a unicorn, more than a rebel, if you will. High-end travel is filled with established practices and it’s hard to disrupt this massive industry and the related supply chains; but it has been a very fun process to constantly reimagine and question how things ‘should’ be done, in order to create a more contemporary and relevant experience for our guests and members.”
When I ask what ideas Li predicts will shape the future of hospitality, what’s interesting is that for him travel done well means feeling at home. “Experiencing a destination as a true local is becoming the ultimate luxury experience – whether that involves connecting with a local community of people, or getting access to events and venues that are hard to discover”, he explains. “I think more people will continue to choose independent and boutique products that can provide them with this new type of luxury.”
Back in that 2007 Fast Company article outing the Chinese creative class, Philip Dodd, founder of creative consulting agency Made in China, made a prediction of his own: “The last 20 years have been about the West moving East. But the next 20 years will be about the East moving West.” High-end hoteliers, take note: there’s a new type of luxury in town and, if Maurice Li’s efforts are anything to go by, China’s contemporary travel scene is one to watch.
[Images are courtesy of CHAO]