Feature: British expat turns wanderlust into entrepreneurial success in China

Source: Xinhua| 2018-08-10 15:13:55|Editor: Liangyu
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by Xinhua writers Zhou Xiaoli and Zhang Jianhua

BEIJING, Aug. 10 (Xinhua) -- Beijing-based British entrepreneur Sarah Keenlyside has designed thousands of trips for celebrities, senior business managers worldwide, and international visitors to China.

Her clients include famous American singer Katy Perry, actor Matt Damon, and board members of WPP, a well-known advertising company.

As foreigner, Keenlyside's knowledge about Beijing and China may surprise many local residents.

It's been eight years since Keenlyside founded the Bespoke Travel, a travel company that offers customized touring services to international visitors in China.

The company received more than 260 bookings from overseas visitors last year. Keenlyside is planning to expand her business by establishing a branch office in Japan soon.

Before coming to China, Keenlyside was an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times newspaper in London. Born and raised in England, she knew little about China in her early years.

On her first trip to China in February 2005, she was overwhelmed by the surroundings and found it difficult to even order her meals.

"My first impression of Beijing was wonderful. It was a real feast for the senses. Everything was so different from things in England and anywhere in the west," she said.

Eight months after the trip, Keenlyside decided to quit her job and move to China.


The first job Keenlyside got in China was an editor for the city magazine Time Out Beijing. This gave her plenty of opportunities to explore the Chinese capital, discovering new shops while testing out new restaurants and bars.

"It forced me to really learn about the city. I had to go all over Beijing, to every corner, and really know everything about it. I really started to love this city," she said.

Keenlyside recalled that Beijing underwent rapid transformation before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Changes were taking place so quickly that many foreign visitors found it difficult to navigate their way in the city if they religiously followed guidebooks which were published only the year before.

"Many contents in the guidebooks were getting irrelevant, the subway lines weren't right, the venues closed down ... A lot of foreigners using the guidebooks were getting lost and struggling." Keenlyside said.

As Beijing's rising reputation led to a flood of international visitors post-Olympics, Keenlyside saw an increasing demand from independent overseas travelers for up-to-date information and timely assistance in the travel industry. She thus came up with the idea of establishing Bespoke Travel.

"There needs to be something in the middle of the useless guidebooks and the package tour," she said. "I decided to seize this opportunity, try to start this company and see what happens."


Since setting foot in the travel industry, Keenlyside and her company have designed tailored tours for a large number of international visitors to China. Among her clients, Keenlyside found Hollywood star Katy Perry very impressive.

In 2014, Perry came to perform at the Infiniti China Brand Festival at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, and she set aside time to see the city with her family and friends, Keenlyside recalled.

"We took her to the Great Wall, Nanluoguxiang (a traditional alley in downtown Beijing), and a Chinese boutique at Panjiayuan Antique Market," Keenlyside said.

During the trip, Perry posted a photo on Instagram of herself doing a split on the Great Wall and the photo received more than 360,000 likes.

Thanks to the creative tours arranged by Keenlyside and her team, many overseas visitors were able to not only visit the famous tourist attractions, but also explore some hidden-gem sites in the city, such as the White Stupa Temple and the Temple of Ancient Monarchs.

"China is one of the most misunderstood countries on the planet," she said, adding that the one thing Bespoke Travel has done is showing international visitors what a modern China really looks like. "There is much more to see than the panda, the Terracotta Army and rice paddy."

"You don't really have the right to have an opinion, unless you see it with you own eyes," Keenlyside said, adding that her aim is to help her clients form their own opinion about China based on reality.


Keenlyside said that alongside the rapid transformation in the city landscape, people living in Beijing tend to hold a more proactive and optimistic view towards the future, and that she was able to absorb this positive energy through her interactions with the people around her.

She said there is an entrepreneurial spirit and optimism among the Chinese people that she has not seen back home. "As China is rising, people tend to think they can do something, or at least give it a try."

Keenlyside was amazed by China's high-speed railway technology and the flourishing digital economy. "Beijing is now a really exciting place where technology is booming. There are lots of first-time things here," she said.

According to a report released by the China Tourism Academy (CTA), foreign visitors to China topped 29.1 million in 2017, up 3.6 percent year-on-year and bringing in 69.5 billion U.S. dollars of revenue. China is the world's fourth largest destination for inbound tourists, receiving 139 million inbound trips in 2017.

Also, according to preliminary statistics from the CTA, the tourism industry contributed 9.13 trillion yuan (1.33 trillion dollars) to China's gross domestic production in 2017, accounting for 11 percent of total economic output.

"I think people's interest in China will only continue to grow," Keenlyside said, adding that an increasing number of people are now aware of the significance of understanding China.

"If you don't understand it, you are going to be left behind, because what's happening in Beijing and Shanghai now is what will happen in America in two years' time," she said.