Boutique Chic Hits Mainstream Peak

Faced with a rapidly changing consumer, the biggest hoteliers are changing their approach. In doing so, however, they threaten to almost entirely alter the hotel industry.

The hotel industry is not usually one known for innovation. In the last 40 years, hoteliers have introduced only minor changes coming few and far apart: Holiday Inn debuted the Double Queen bed room, someone painted a white wall grey, and a few have finally managed to add Wi-Fi. But a new wave of guests, the oft-discussed millennial generation, is demanding a new type of hotel that poses to fundamentally alter the industry. Initially dismissed as outlandish, the boutique hotel model is entering the mainstream, falling into favour with the latte-and-laptop generation over the carbon copy boxes championed by brands like Hilton, InterContinental, and Marriott. But responding to these needs is more than a momentary race for market share. As the big hoteliers move into the boutique game hoping to recapture the modern-day traveller, they are altering the industry at its roots, and perhaps unknowingly, sowing the seeds for a whole new way of doing business in the hotel space.

Traditionally the major players in the hotel industry left innovation to avant-garde boutique hotels. These city-based concepts that rose to prominence in the 1980s were viewed largely as fads. Hotels like the Bedford in San Francisco and The Blakes Hotel in London catered to an insignificant group in search of a sophisticated, unique, and off-beat hotel experience. For these people the boutiques acted as a counterweight to the unchallenged standardisation of the bigger chains. As the New York Times’ David Brooks explains in the The Edamame Economy, “instead of offering familiarity, they offered difference. Instead of offering beige, they offered edginess, art, emotion and a dollop of pretension.”

Avant Garde: Boutique hotels reimagined the guest experience, but most took it too far for the average consumer

Standing strong behind staggering economies of scale and multi-brand loyalty programs, the larger hotel groups did not consider the forward-thinking boutiques a threat. This belief was reinforced as they expanded globally throughout the 1980-90s. The chains employed a growth model that demanded the standardisation and commoditisation of their products, giving rise to what is now known as the ‘box hotel concept.’

Not exactly something to rave about: Box-like hotels offering a consistent and uniform experience can be found all over the world

All around the world, hoteliers adhere to cookie-cutter methods that centre on a number of familiar core products and capabilities. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) delineate exactly how hotel staff must behave to maintain the brand’s image. A 2010 Hilton manual outlines how a caller’s name must be used twice during a call. Housekeeping staff at Marriott famously follow a 66-point checklist for guest room servicing and ensure the sheets in Kuala Lumpur have same specified thread-count as those used in London.

While the consistency of these brands is a remarkable accomplishment, the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the hotel experience has made the experience what The Economist calls an “emotional failure.” Inherently, the model continues to see economic success due to its established reliability and worldwide network. After all, the familiar red Marriott logo remains one of the surest signs of comfort and a decent night’s sleep. Undeniably however, there is a  growing segment of travellers looking for more. Currently only serviced by boutique hotels, more and more big hoteliers are looking to tap into this market of affluent, trendsetting travellers.

The Modern Guest

As the larger hotels look to the boutiques for their pioneering insight, the greatest difference is surely the type of guest. The modern traveller, who is as likely to step out of a sleek black Uber wearing a tailored suit as arrive in a t-shirt and jeans after using the Tube, is one of the most significant changes in the hotel industry’s recent history.

Unpredictable: The millennial generation is one less characterised by age than by style, interest, and diversity.

“Guests used to come for one of two things: business or pleasure,” says Patrick Tan, a student at Cornell and front-office supervisor at the school’s esteemed Statler Hotel. “Now it’s a mix of work and play that involves everything from business meetings and art gallery visits to city tours to drinks at the city’s best bars”

Tan’s statement is supported by market research. A 2013 survey conducted by a Hilton Garden Inns saw 45% of respondents cite new experiences as the best part of business travel. For 65% of the survey-takers exploring a new city was the number one motivator to extend a business trip.

More than ever before, the hotel guest has transcended the confines of their hotel. Keen to explore, curious, social, and often combining work and weekend trips, the modern traveller and guest no longer looks for the uniformity offered by the larger business chains.

“People are seeking unique experiences. They are seeking hotels that are distinctive from others in style, design and service.” writes Veronica Waltdhausen in a study for leading Hospitality Consultants HVS.

In the golden age of hotels, people came to be pampered and surrounded themselves with luxury. It was under this model that the star system, where the number of stars equates to higher price point, came into being. But the modern-day traveller is no longer looking for a money-driven experience. Instead of status symbols they seek experiences.

“Do they really want a Nespresso machine in their room (the proud new addition to most hotel rooms),” Waldthousen asks. “Wouldn’t a guest be much more likely to relax in a bar in the hotel’s lobby lounge and drink a coffee surrounded by other people?”

This movement away from the tangible product to an experiential one is complemented by a change in what millennial consumers look for in hotels. Rooms at CitizenM, the contemporary Dutch hotelier that was one of the first players to act on these new demands, feature plush beds, high-powered rain-showers, and free WiFi and movies. Advertisements for the hotel, however, centre on the actual guest experience, highlighting “a great night’s sleep” and “a love for free movies on demand.”

The lobby of CitizenM’s Bankside property in London features contemporary art and furniture, a happening bar-scene, and some of the capital’s coolest meeting spaces

The company’s mantra – affordable luxury for the people – does away with unnecessary luxuries over which many hotels compete. The hotel’s lobby swapped out doormen and luggage carts, favouring automated check-in kiosks that set room temperature and mood lighting to a personalised preference upon a guest’s arrival. A buzzing bar and eatery is complemented by sharp but inviting italian furniture, contemporary art and books, as well as dynamic meeting spaces right off the lobby-floor.

“The lobby is more like a living room than anything else,” says Noreen Chadha, CitizenM’s Commercial Director. “The room is the place to sleep and relax while the lobby is the perfect place to work, meet, eat, and drink.”

As Chadha explains, the physical boundaries that once distinguished hotel lobbies, bars, and restaurants are blending together. The open-space lobbies of hotels like CitizenM or the Ace Hotel simultaneously entertain an array of work meetings, lunch dates, happy hours, and even musical performances. For the hotels, the lobby’s transformation works to bring in both guests and city residents. Whereas the typical hotel bar and restaurant sits mostly empty, these venues hum and buzz, drawing in both the hotel guests and local crowds. For these kinds of hotels, the restaurant can move from being a money-losing nicety to a key asset. According to a Business Journals report, hotels that share their vision and values with restaurants can see up to 20% of revenues coming from food and beverage operations.

The hotels also benefit by being able to generate more revenue per square foot. While the larger corporate hotels may have higher occupancy levels and even feature several restaurants, a comparably-priced boutique hotel that optimises its space and plays host to more guests and visitors in its bar, restaurant, or lobby will have greater revenue per square footage. So while it is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison, the boutique model almost certainly presents a better deal.

Historically, the big hoteliers looked on passively on from the sidelines. Business guests and foreign tourists built work trips and holidays around the reliable and consistent nature of the big chains. From Caracas to Mumbai, a Hilton was a Hilton.

But as the millennial generation approaches its peak, a new type of guest is emerging. No longer impressed by turn-down service and trouser presses, they seek unique experiences and interactions. Generation X and Y already make up more than 50% of hotel bookings. And with the boutique industry expected to increase at 6.5% annual rate between 2014 and 2019 according to an IBIS World report, each of the major chains is now keen to capitalise on this growing industry.

Bringing in the Big Boys

With the hospitality industry continuing its post-recession recovery, the large hoteliers are looking to diversify their portfolios. Though boutique hotels took a 12.7% hit in 2009 with revenue per available room (RevPAR) falling as much as 30%, the segment typically yields high profit margins. During times of economic upswing, boutique hotels are more attractive than ever. Generally low-cost investments, they attract an affluent customer and offer an exciting opportunity for brand building. Among the hotel industry’s largest operators, these projects are being fast-tracked by forecasts about the vastly different needs of the rapidly expanding millennial segment.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 14.17.49

Source: IBIS World

Besides the substantial research pointing to the millennial opportunity, one of the industry’s largest players, Starwood, is already knee-deep in the boutique world. The company, whose 10-brand portfolio demands about 12% market share in the boutique industry according to IBIS World, owns some of the industry’s leading names. Its W, Aloft, and Element hotels and franchises have proved to be  “game-changing” for the company and continue to lead and “disrupt” their respective industries, according to Starwood’s 2012 report. In each market, these Specialty Select Brands (SSBs) continue to drive growth*. In Canada, the hotelier’s Element brand debuted just last year but has already overtaken its competitors on the popular comparison website TripAdvisor.

Early Adopters: W Hotels have brought the boutique model to a global audience

Given Starwood’s demonstrated track-record, more and more of the major players are launching brands into the space. Next year, Marriott will debut its Moxy brand in partnership with the Swedish design giant, IKEA. Despite it being the world’s largest hotelier’s first foray into the millennial space, the hotels feature a now-familiar model of design, approachability, and affordability. By a similar token, the parent of the normally no-frills Radisson brand plans to spend $140 million building or acquiring the first five properties of its new, daring Radisson Red brand. The hotel, which channels the concrete, loft-like feel of a modern art gallery joins Starwood’s Aloft, Hyatt’s Andaz, and InterContinental’s Hotel Indigo brands .

Carlson Redizor’s new Radisson Red concept brings a boutique-element to its normally no-frills approach

It goes without saying that the entry of the larger players has dramatically increased the size of the boutique industry. As explained by IBIS World, the industry is “on its way up to the penthouse,” with industry growth expected to surpass pre-recession levels before 2019. Fielding heightened demand from a 3.1% and 2.7% annualised increase in the number of international arrivals and domestic trips respectively, hotel operators will see a surge in demand in both domestic as well as foreign markets.

On the rise: Domestic trips and international arrivals are driving up hotel occupancy numbers

A Boutique Bubble?

While the numbers point to a triumphant ‘go,’ questions remain about the viability of this new model. For one it seems as though both boutique and big brands occasionally lose sight of the purpose of this modernisation. From a literal standpoint, critics of Marriott’s upcoming Moxy brand claim the brand’s fast-paced rollout – which hopes to build 150 Moxy hotels in Europe over the next 10 years – may be too ambitious. Others cite the location of its first property next to Milan’s Malpensa airport as too far removed for the economically-minded millennial.

In a 2007 article for The Wall Street Journal, Darren Everson highlights some of the industry’s more fundamental issues. Everson sketches the stay of a University of Southern California graduate student staying at the W Chicago City Center hotel, citing confusion and discomfort.

“There is a backlash brewing against boutique hotels,” Everson writes. “[While] W’s are still thriving, the…segment is finding that some customers – even once loyal ones – are getting tired of their tragically hip ways.”

Indeed, as the industry giants skip from baby steps to a full-steam sprint, they risk alienating their newest customer before they even arrive at the hotel’s doorstep. In the age of cut-throat competition and review sites like and TripAdvisor, just a few negative reviews can result in being crossed permanently off the list.

So, while the millennial guest has almost certainly swapped room service and bidets for contemporary design and free Wi-Fi, certain elements remain, and are perhaps more relevant than ever. Though veterans of the old-model, consistency, loyalty incentives, and good service remain at the top of the list for many consumers. The form follows function principle continues to reign supreme (as this author found out when water from his shower spread cooly across the entire bathroom floor at The Standard Hotel).

Form over function: The Standard Hotel in NYC features some of the industry’s coolest, and most inconvenient, designs

For the boutique industry, the entry of everyone from Hyatt to Hilton ushers in an unprecedented era of competition. For the full-line producers however, the move into the boutique space may be the first step to fundamental change the hotel industry as a whole. While currently still limited to one or two brands in the portfolio, the tenets driving the change: change in the core customer, promises to revolutionise the field.

As Jeffrey Catrett points out in his article for Hotel Business Review, similar changes to the retail and other service sectors have forced industry-wide overhaul. For the standardised hotel industry, the costs of changing thousands of properties around the world seems almost unimaginable. The ageing core products of these hotels – behemoth conference spaces, spas, and other amenities – may soon be more or less obsolete. While the luxury segment, particularly resorts, will be sure to carve its own niche, the mainstream hotels may soon face something of a crisis. Indeed, changing consumer trends sometimes stirs trouble. For the hotel industry and the biggest players in particular, however, they just might change the way they do business entirely.

*Starwood’s Annual report does not provide a financial breakdown of each brand, making it difficult to quantify how much each contributes to the company’s overall profitability and growth.

How Did It All Go Wrong For Best Buy?

Oh how times have changed. Best Buy, the consumer electronics company once renowned as one of the best companies in the early 2000’s, has gone from record growth to huge declines and stagnation. When one of its biggest competitors fell off in 2011, Circuit City, experts following the company have accused the company of lazy tactics, as well as a lack of innovation in order to stay ahead of the times. However, despite all of the talk of doom and gloom for the company, there is still belief that Best Buy can still turn things around as its share price hit $44 last November, a new high for the company. Sure, your neighborhood Best Buy may have closed in the past few years but that does not mean the company won’t see a brighter future.

But first, in order to properly understand how Best Buy can thrive in the future, we must examine how it got to where it is today. It all started in 1966 when founder Richard Schulze and his business partner opened an audio specialty store, with no emphasis on consumer electronics, yet. The first stores were all in Minnesota, where Shulze was from, and in 1970 Sound of Music, the name of the company, had made its first $1 million and had opened 9 other stores within the state (Wall Street Journal, 2013). Fast forward to 1983, and the board of directors of the company had decided to rename and rebrand the company as Best Buy, with the purpose of putting more of an emphasis on consumer electronics. This year was the turning point for the company as it also opened its first “megastore” that we have begun to know over the years. After this, the changes begin to steamroll quickly because is 1985, the company raised $8 million on its initial public offering on the Nasdaq (Wall Street Journal, 2013). Along with its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in 1987, the company sought to transform its stores by having stores that were not cheap and dimly lit. Along with this change in the nature of their stores, the company did away with the practice of paying their salespeople on commission, in an attempt to rid the work environment of questionable sales tactics like we see at car dealerships across the country. Just five years after the company hit the New York Stock Exchange, it made its a first $1 billion in annual revenues (WSJ, 2013.) Fast forward to 1999, and we see the successful partnership with Microsoft that saw the two companies cross-promoting products, and just a year later Best Buy was added to the S&P 500 index.

As 2000 came, the company began to see many changes that began with the succession of Richard Shulze, the company’s founder and long time CEO. He was taken over by Brad Anderson who had been apart of the company for many years. Along with this theme of change and reaching new heights, Best Buy opened its first international store in Canada, along with their acquisition of Geek Squad in 2002 (TWICE, Alan wolf, 2002). Another international acquisition took place occurred in 2006 when they bought the Chinese based appliance retailer Jiansu Five Star Appliance, and the company opened its first stores in China the year after (Businessweek, 2007). Before most of these acquisitions of international companies and their subsequent emergence in the international market, in 2004 Best Buy was named “Company of the Year” by Forbes, a recognition that this was once one of the most well run companies in the United States (Forbes, 2004). In 2009 Best Buy became the first third-party company to sell Apple’s iPhone as well as its purchase of Napster in 2008, as the company was thinking of entering the music selling market, as it had already begun to sell musical instruments (Reuters 2009). But in 2010 is where things stet to get tricky for the consumer electronics giant.

In 2010 Best Buy had opened 11 store in the United Kingdom to further their goal of having an international presence. But in a bizarre move in the following year, Best Buy closed those “U.K. big-box stores and paying $1.3 billion to buy out its partner in U.S. mobile-phone retailing as the electronics giant retools its struggling business to focus on smaller shops” (Bustillo, Wall Street Journal, 2011). At this point in time, the company could be described as having a “recession”, if it were a government, instead it is a mightily struggling company trying to figure out how to turn around “five consecutive quarters of sales declines at stores open at least 14 months, already closed big-box locations in China and Turkey earlier this year as it reins in capital investment” (Bustillo, Wall Street Journal, 2011). But this was just the beginning of the avalanche of bad news that the company had yet to announce. The next year, 2012, Best Buy announced a “$1.7 billion quarterly loss and outlines a plan to move away from the big-box strategy. The company says it will close 50 large stores in 2012 and test remodeled store formats in San Antonio and Minneapolis, while adding hundreds of small stores focused on selling cellphones. It also discloses plans to lay off 400 workers as part of a plan to trim $800 million in costs” (Wall Street Journal, 2013). For whatever it’s worth, as a resident of San Antonio during the years of their “remolded store formats”, I have yet to step foot in the store, and I’m not sure if any of my generation have been frequent visitors either. But we’ll get to this later on.

In his 3 year reign as CEO of the company, Brian Dunn had experienced both some of the best and worst times of the company’s history, but to add to his misery the now ashamed  Dunn quite possibly took the company to a new low. When Dunn first joined the company as a salesperson, he slowly moved his way up the corporate ladder for 28 years until 2012 when he resigned due to the criticism that he was “not moving quickly enough in the face of online competition” and as a result, “Director Mike Mikan is named interim CEO until a replacement is found” (Wall Street Journal, 2013). However, the controversy did not stop there. In internal investigation was released later that year where “an internal probe finds that he [Schulze] didn’t alert other directors that his handpicked successor as chief executive, Mr. Dunn, was allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a female employee” (Wall Street Journal, 2013). Over the next year Shulze, who was still the company’s biggest shareholder, looked to buy out the remaining shares in the company in an attempt to take the company private, but newly appointed CEO Hubert Joly nixed the deal and the company remains in a struggle to find itself in an ever evolving marketplace for big-box retailers.

But how did it all go wrong for the “ultimate showroom” electronics retailer after many years of sustained success? First of all, many of its products that it sells are easily bought online with the click of a button, which further curtails the company’s pride in their showroom experience and excellent customer service track record. Some experts who have followed the company over the years that, despite its success against its former competitors like Circuit City who have gone by the wayside, the company has struggled to innovate and too sure of its own position in the marketplace. With the emergence and growth of Amazon, who sells essentially the same products as Best Buy and then some, Best Buy hasn’t coped with this evolving and changing scenario. As Al Lewis of the Wall Street Journal aptly states, “the electronics retailer’s critics have been calling this a deadly idea for years: Customers go to its giant stores to play with its toys, then they buy them somewhere else, sometimes using a smartphone before they even leave the floor” (Lewis, WSJ, 2014). Recently, after a dismal holiday period for the company resulted a whopping 28% slump in the stock price after they reported total revenue had slid 2.6% (Lewis, WSJ, 2014). This should not come as a surprise as a company the way Best Buy is structured would see its employees working more hours during  the holiday period, but still not seeing more sales. In essence, a higher operating cost with no benefit in terms of more sales of products.

But just exactly how Best Buy crawls out of the dark hole of irrelevancy that it is currently is a more difficult question to answer. One idea that has been tossed around is the idea of irrelevancy in terms of the number of stores. For example, Best Buy currently “maintains a total of 1,512 in the U.S. and another 489 around the world” (Rosenblum, 2013), which is an astonishing number when you think about the cost of overhead in maintaining these stores along with the employees. But its not just a fewer amount of stores that could help alleviate the company, they also need to invest in their website so that it can compete with the likes of Amazon in regards to its ease of interface navigation. After going to the Amazon website all it takes is a few clicks, sign into your account, and your package will arrive in the next three to five business days. But the investments should not stop there. Along with fewer stores and a better website, Best Buy has to capitalize on its physical advantage that it has on its competitors rather than simply try to be like them, because you are not Amazon. Meaning the company has to multiply its efforts in offering the customer the best experience possible, and that does not just entail great customer service. It means hatching out a store layout, something they have toyed with over the years, to where people know where they can easily find the product they are looking for compounded with a knowledgable employee who can tell them about the shiny new gadget that you absolutely have to have.

Sure, there is a lot of work to be done for Best Buy but that does not mean big-box retailers like them cannot survive in today’s world. The good news is, there is a lot of room for improvement and that it should maintain the stance that the company has already seen the worst of it and better times are to come. All of the listed improvements for the stores certainly are not too much to ask for, and despite the tribulations with the scandal, and cover up with former CEO’s, Best Buy can play an important role in the future as it tries to find a balance between the likes of Wal-Mart and Amazon.




The Problem with Venetian Independence

A good while back, in March, an informal online plebiscite was held asking residents of Venetia, the Italian region in which Venice is situated and the core of what was once the Venetian Republic , whether or not they wanted to become independent from Italy.

Lots of people together waving flags always bothered me on some level.

A fairly misinformed article in the Atlantic blew this even way out of proportion. You can read it here:

However it was enough to get my attention. When I found that the Italian media had completely ignored the plebiscite – which a significant number (several million) of Venetians participated in – I decided to investigate a little.

What I found was that this plebiscite was largely populist political move by the separatist Lega Nord (Norther League) neo-fascist xenophobic party. A party which has a large base of support in Venetia where there are many wealthy but relatively uneducated business owners.

I recruited a childhood friend of mine who attends Bocconi univerity and native Venetian to write an article explaining this Byzantine situation to a foreign audience — which he did quite brilliantly:

The problem is that this story hasn’t gone away. In fact it’s gotten more coverage in the foreign press. Not surprisingly The Scotsman published this article claiming the Venetians are inspired by Scots and Catalans:

And then there’s this sensationalist fool:

Both these articles really use the same arguments all of which are refutable.

“Venice would be the 7th largest economy in Europe” Really? As a part of Italy you can measure it that way but to claim that Venice would just chug along if it were separated from Italy… considering that Italy’s Infrastucture is national!  Furthermore an independent Venice would be dominated by far right political parties that would wreak their own political havoc on the new republic which would soon translate into an economic mess.

“Venice pays 1 billion euros in tax revenue to Rome” Yes, Venetia is an economically dynamic region of Italy — it has more economic activity so there is more activity to tax — this seems like more of indicator of an economically successful region.

“Venice would still be in the EU and NATO” Because an independent Venice gets automatic access to two of the most exclusive and powerful clubs in the international system? I think not.

Basically, Venetian Independence is political and economic suicide and should remain as the thought at the bottom of your last Spritz of the night.

I was surprised to find that this Italian Daily ran the following post with such a title: “Venetian Independence No Joke” – the article doesn’t really back that claim:

This is the problem when wealth, stupidity and power conspire. There’s a lot of stupid people who don’t know what’s good for them. You can’t just quit on your nation because you’re richer — you’re richer because of your nation. I feel that this is a really obvious truism that “the rich” have forgotten in the globally increasingly polarized political-economic environment that separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots.’

A look into what links education and the economy

Is France’s stagnant economy due to an education system that is training students to be robots?

Several times during this course we have pointed to how the American Economy’s greatest asset is unparalleled innovation. When Japan was poised to surpass the US by the 90’s they didn’t in part because of demographics and in part because their growth was due to optimizing rather than creating new technologies. US innovation is often attributed to two major factors that are linked: the quality of US higher education and government investment in fundamental science research.

However it may not be simply the quality of Higher Education that is important. Perhaps the style of education is the key variable. A higher education environment that promotes divergent thinking may be measurably better for an economy than one that simply promotes the retention and replication of preexisting knowledge.

For the past 30+ years France has been in a prolonged recession, worsened only by the 2008 global recession. People have attributed France’s historically stagnant economy to a myriad of factors: Poor leadership, inflated bureaucracy, high tax burdens.

Most foreign coverage of French economics I have come across re-iterates these points year after year. These articles are just a sample of what I am talking about:

However, austerity, an economic prescription that ought to address at least a few of these issues seems to have failed to do so.

An argument to explain France’s woes that I had not yet heard, until reading a recent article in the french press, has thought to look at Les Grandes Ecoles as the problem. After all, these elite public universities are a point of considerable national pride as some of the most prestigious institutions in the world.

This article reports on a book written by Mr. Saby, a graduate of the premier school that trains France’s bureaucrats, the ENA (Ecole Nationale D’Administration | National School of Administration). The article suggests that it is the learning environment within ENA that is the principle cause of France’s decline. Principally the problem identified is the suppresion of innovative, creative and open thought.

I have translated the following descriptions of French Education from the article:

“Pour réussir l’épreuve, pas besoin de réfléchir: vous devez connaître le format et le remplir avec les mots-clés adequats”

To pass the exam, no need to think: you need to know the format and complete it with the correct key words

“En cela ils suivent le conseil que leur a donné un tuteur de l’école s’ils veulent des bonnes notes: apprendre par cœur règlements, directives, décisions de la Commission Européenne et avis du Parlement européen.”

And they [the students] follow the advice to get good grades given to them by a tutor of the school: learn by heart the rules, directives, and decision of the European Commission and Parliament

“La crainte de toute initiative, chez les maîtres comme chez les élèves, la négation de toute libre curiosité, le culte du classement ( Bloch dit « succès ») substitué au goût de la connaissance”

The fear of any initiative, among the professors as well as the students, the refusal of any free curiosity, and a culture of classification have replaced the very taste knowledge.

“On a l’impression à lire Saby qu’à l’ENA, les élèves sont infantilisés, effarouchés, lobotomisés.”

Reading Saby’s book, one gets the impression that ENA students are infantilized, taught to be skittish, and lobotomized [metaphorically].

When I read the descriptions of French Higher Education recounted in the article I recognize similar disturbing traits at USC. Often my fellow Trojans have described USC as “a Disneyland of a university.” Others confess that they feel they are being treated the same way they would in high school. Some students I have spoken to point to the ridiculous lengths to which the university goes to suppress activism on the campus as a suppression of independent thinking.

That being said, while living in Paris I spent 4/6 of my middle school and high-school years following the French National Curriculum. While I can attest that the quality of my education was very high (although an intervening factor here may be that the school I attended is ranked #1) I rarely was asked to create presentations, design experiments, or answer open-ended essay questions. A key reason for wanting to do the IB (International Baccalaureate) diploma for my last two years and attend and American university was not wanting to be stuck in a system that I considered to be mind numbing.

Uber in China, A Great Opportunity or A Tough Challenge?


Uber is a technology company based in San Francisco that provides customers with private car services on demand with its smartphone app. Basically, with only one tap on its smartphone app, Uber will connect a customer with a Uber driver, and the customer can enjoy a reliable and safe ride experience. Everything is done through the app, so it’s totally cashless and convenient. Since its founding in 2009, Uber service has expanded to over 70 major cities around the world. While its revenues had grown more than 10 times in 2013, Uber continues to seek out for larger markets. And recently, in February 2014, Uber officially launched in China. As China has the largest population as well as the largest smartphone market in the world, Uber considers its expansion into China as a greatest opportunity for the company ever in terms of the size of the market and potential customers, but maybe it should be prepared to face its toughest challenge while performing in China.

FP_2Hiring local staffs will be a starting point for Uber’s localization. Uber needs to hire the right team in China in order to succeed in the country as a foreign company. For example, one of Groupon’s biggest mistakes which led to its failure for expansion in China is that it failed to hire local staffs for the right management positions. Right now, Uber is still actively hiring management roles in China, as well as drivers in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, to join its ride-sharing community. Besides this, Uber has made some important decisions in terms of localization, including creating its Chinese name “You Bu” to target local customers and build up its brand image, and supporting online payments via Alipay, which is one of the most popular e-payment services in China. And instead of owning all its cars in China, Uber forms partnership with local car rental companies to rent the cars.

FP_3One existing opportunity for Uber to grow in China is that many Chinese people in major cities have already accepted the idea of giving rides to strangers, so it won’t be difficult for Uber to fit in the culture with its ride-sharing app. As a consequence of the increasing number of middle class in China who can now afford taxis as their daily transportation options as well as the fact that the number of taxis in urban centers hasn’t kept pace with the increasing demand, it now has become extremely hard to get a taxi in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, not to mention the time during holidays and rush hours. Thus, as a result of the high demand of taxi services and the lack of enough supplies of taxis especially in major cities, there have been a growing number of “black cabs” in the cities. Black cabs refer to those private cars that the drivers make money on their own by providing rides to people in need of cabs, without any proper taxi licenses. It’s an illegal service, but somehow becomes acceptable in China due to the high demand by customers and as it’s hard to regulate by the government as well.

It’s quite normal for people in major cities to hop into a black cab when they fail to catch a taxi but in need of a ride. I personally do the same thing. Sometimes I need to get to somewhere in hurry, and I can never make it if I take the bus or subway as it takes too much time. But I just cannot catch a taxi nearby. When I call the taxi company to ask for a cab, they usually tell me “There’s no available taxi around your place. Please wait for a few minutes and try again.” It’s really frustrating. However, the good thing is that there are always a couple of black cabs waiting near our neighborhood. When the black cab drivers assume that you are trying to get a cab, they will approach you and ask where you are heading to. If you accept the price based on the distance, deal! It’s usually cheaper than a taxi and much more convenient to get one especially during rush hours or holidays, so such illegal service is somehow quite popular in China. Of course, safety will be a concern, just like people’s concern for Uber’s safety control when it just launched in the U.S. as a ride-sharing app connecting drivers with customers. But many of the people in China actually accept such ride-sharing concept, which creates the potential for Uber to expand in China.

FP_4Besides the opportunity, there will also be competitions, accordingly. The biggest challenge for Uber will be the fierce competition in the Chinese market. Interestingly, even though Uber has benefited greatly from its innovative and successful ride-sharing model, its presence in China doesn’t seem to disrupt the taxi cabs industry in the country. Actually, according to Quartz, “the market for taxi services has never been bigger in China”, especially in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. I interviewed a taxi driver, Hailin Wu, in Shanghai, and from his perspectives, he didn’t even take Uber as a competitor. “There had been competition over the past few years, when it was quite easy for people to catch a taxi and we as drivers needed to compete for customers.” Wu said, “But now, the demand for taxis is always higher than the actual number of taxis available in the city.” Wu shares his taxi with his friend and does one shift per day (for approximately 10 hours), and he usually has customers from the start to the end of his shift. He barely has the time to grab a meal during work. According to Wu, there are some apps doing the same thing as Uber, but they don’t seem to affect the business for taxi drivers. In cities like Shanghai, there is always more demand than supply in the market. So for taxi drivers like Wu, there will always be enough people looking for taxis, even when there are those black cabs all the time, as well as those emerging apps. It’s even usual for drivers to “select” their customers in these major cities. For example, if the distance to your destination is not far enough or the route to the destination is with heavy traffic, it’s very likely that a driver will refuse to provide the service to you.

FP_5Thus, from Wu’s point of view, Uber’s major competitors should be those similar apps in the market which already have their customer bases as well as large amount of drivers. Uber’s biggest competitor as a smartphone app should be Didi Dache. It has been the most popular ride-sharing app in China since its launch in 2012. Users can use voice messages to contact drivers nearby and can even pay a small fee to let the drivers wait for them for a while. At the end of February 2013, Didi announced to have 600,000 subscribers and 12,000 drivers in Beijing only, not to mention the number of drivers it has around the country. Other competitors include Dudu Jiaoche, Yaoyao Dache, Kuaidi Dache, and Dache Xiaomi. All these apps provide services in a similar manner. But compared to Uber, they already have a steady and even growing user base to maintain stable revenues. More importantly, many of these apps have seen growing investments from outside. For example, the E-commerce giant Alibaba has invested nearly $1 million in Kuaidi Dache in April 2013. As a result, when expanding into China, Uber really needs to find out its competitive advantage in order to attract customers and succeed in the market.

FP_6Moreover, how to maintain a competitive price is also a question. Initially, Uber positioned itself as a premium or even luxurious riding option in China, in order to differentiate itself from the so-called “crazy cheap” taxi market in the country. However, there isn’t such high demand for riding services that come with a premium price. Those who can afford such services on a daily basis usually already have their private drivers. And the competition still exists. For example, Yongche is a famous web-connected car rental company in China, offering limo rides with drivers at a competitive price. Yongche’s price is 300 RMB for driving you in an Audi A6 from central Shanghai to Shanghai Pudong International airport, while Uber charges approximately 350 RMB for mid-range to high-end cars for the same distance. In order to be more competitive, Uber has adjusted its position and strategy. Now the base fare to use Uber service in Shanghai has dropped to 30 RMB, compared to double the price (around 60-70 RMB) when it started its test run in the city in summer 2013. However, the price is still not quite competitive in the market, especially when you take into consideration all the similar apps, black cabs, and the already affordable taxis. After all, a price war won’t help Uber succeed in the Chinese market.

I consulted Uber’s issue with Carl Cai, a senior consultant at PwC Beijing. He told me that Uber approached a famous consulting company in the industry to take care of its localization in China. However, according to Carl, “Whether Uber can succeed or not in China fully depends on how soon it can figure out its competitive advantage in the market.” Now Uber has its Chinese name, convenient payment options tailored to Chinese customers, and it is actively building up a outstanding management team as well as a welcoming community for both its drivers and its customers. But this is not enough. They still haven’t figured out their “fit” strategy to perform in the competitive market in China, and to differentiate itself from competitions. Uber should take a close look at itself, take approaches to performing that are suitable to the given situation in China, and build on their strengths based on their success in the United States. For example, instead of lowing the price and starting a price war, maybe build on their innovative idea not just as a ride-sharing app, but as a ride-sharing community, which is a fairly new and unique concept in China.


It’s difficult to judge Uber’s performance right now as it has just launched officially in China for few months, and the company didn’t want to mention the actual numbers of its performance in China so far. Yet, Uber is still optimistic toward its expansion in China despite all the challenges. Actually, Wall Street Journal reported based on the interview with Allen Penn, Uber’s head of Asia, that the number of trips booked in Shanghai through the Uber app since the test run in August 2013 even exceeded the number of trips made in San Francisco or New York during each of their first half year. “The company prides itself on being a premium service and, perhaps crucially, a “safe” option that includes a high level of customer service.” said by Sam Gellman, head of Asia expansion at Uber, “Our focus is on delivering a great experience, and numbers so far have shown great initial results and we just want to keep building it up.” Maybe we just need to wait a few more months to see Uber’s results in the following periods, and to find out whether its future in China is as promising as it has expected.






Interview with Hailin Wu, taxi driver in Shanghai

Interview with Carl Cai, senior consultant at PwC, Beijing.