Getting savvy for a capital time in historic city

Updated: 2013-08-05 07:17

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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 Getting savvy for a capital time in historic city

Sarah Keenlyside says she founded Bespoke Beijing so people would not have to waste the time that she did learning about the city. Provided to China Daily

Like many newcomers to Beijing, Sarah Keenlyside was intimidated by the size and scale of the capital city and frustrated by being unable to speak, read or write the language when she first arrived in Beijing seven years ago. The picky eater was also wary of the unfamiliar food.

But instead of griping or getting on a plane home, the Briton formulated a plan to build a business that focused on making life easier for new arrivals - whether they were residents or tourists. That operation, Bespoke Beijing, began on a small scale: Clients were issued with a guidebook and a mobile phone that offered access day and night to an individual who knew the city and could speak English and Chinese.

It has since grown into a fully fledged events and travel company that organizes corporate shindigs - usually with an offbeat twist - and tailored itineraries for individual visitors who want to know the real Beijing.

Paradoxically, the once-fussy eater is now something of an expert on Chinese cuisine, able to speak with authority on the different regional styles and recommend the best places to dine.

Keenlyside says: "We live in the city daily and focus only on Beijing, which means we are able to dedicate our time to trying new things out and, when they open, ensuring our clients are the first to know about new and better opportunities.

"We are creative and contemporary, always staying on top of what is new. We are always imaginative, and the way we price it is much more transparent. We don't mark everything up. We always give our clients the honest price of the suppliers and then we charge for our time. I think people like that level of transparency."

A typical Bespoke Beijing itinerary might involve dinner in the courtyard of an ancient temple, a team-building treasure hunt designed to foster company camaraderie, or a tailor-made chauffeured tour to a little-visited part of the city.

"Bespoke Beijing was founded so people did not have to waste the time that I spent trying to know the city," Keenlyside says. "It is tough if you don't speak Chinese. It is a huge city and you are worried about the food. As I discovered later, the best thing about Beijing is the food - one of the great pleasures is showing people how good the food is. If we can send people away raving about the food in China we have done our job."

Staff members pride themselves on being able to respond to offbeat, sometimes bizarre, requests. One client wanted an igloo effect for an event in one of Beijing's hutong (alleyways), which was fulfilled by creating ice sculptures. Another visitor, a beekeeper, wanted to meet a counterpart in Beijing. A request for Japanese sumo wrestlers was met by providing models in sumo-wrestler suits.

There are plenty of less zany requests from mainstream corporate clients who have heard about Bespoke Beijing's ability to come up with interesting options. Beijing staff also try to approach familiar topics in a different way - a recent team-building event for embassy staff took the form of a treasure hunt around the alleyways and galleries of the 798 art district.

Increasingly, Bespoke Beijing is being called upon to organize large-scale events for companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, involving hundreds of people. But creating individual travel programs remains a major part of the business. The capital is such a fast-changing city that it is impossible for guidebooks - and even websites - to be bang up-to-date, a fact that the company emphasizes.

"People don't want to waste time, and with our Savvy City Guide you have flexibility," says Keenlyside, 31. "Part of our unique selling point is that we are nimble. Every week we can come up with something different, put a new restaurant in if we think it is good.

"We want to make sure that people visit really unique Beijing spaces, not just going to the obvious, which is what people automatically do. We have even organized events in private courtyard homes to give people the local experience.

"When we do events we try to include entertainment or something that showcases Chinese culture without it being too cheesy. We did a themed dinner for which we invited our Chinese traditional medicine expert to co-create a menu with the chefs."

For trips to the Great Wall, the company books cars equipped with WiFi, insists that drivers wear smart suits and selects knowledgeable guides with outgoing personalities who can bring the ancient structure to life.

Likewise, a tour of hutong can be much more informative in the company of a Beijing-born guide who can chat easily to locals who live in the courtyard dwellings.

After seven years in the city, Essex-born Keenlyside, who first came to Beijing with her partner, has a firm list of personal favorites. Top of them is Jingshan Park, just behind the Forbidden City.

For China Daily

(China Daily USA 08/05/2013 page13)