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Hidden Home in the Hutongs

updated: 2011-06-29

By Angela Pruszenski
CRI, June 27, 2011
North of the drum tower in central Beijing is a mass of Beijing's most iconic residential neighborhoods, known as the "hutongs" or alleways. Locals, both old and young, stroll the maze of alleyways, dotted with homes and small local convenience stores and restaurants. A narrow turn from one of the neighborhood's key lanes announces a startling sight: a modern, white hotel entrance with "The Orchid" in bold black lettering peeks out from the end of a narrow walkway. A neighbor's bike and rain boots reside in the passageway only feet from the hotel door.
The Orchid, a new boutique hotel opened in the heart of Beijing's hutongs, is a cozy departure from the city's collection of corporate hotels.
Owner Joel Shuchat, a Canadian expat, is attempting to create an unpretentious environment in the 3-month-old hotel." We wanted this to feel like home in every way," he says.
Home is a good word for The Orchid. The upstairs dining room is more intimate than commercial, and the kitchen's doors were left open, revealing the shiny new equipment for all to see on one warm afternoon. Downstairs is the bar, which stocks a variety of wines and snacks including local cheese platters. The décor is a seamless collision of a hutong home and a zen retreat.
Rooms here aren't large, but the facilities aren't lacking. Shuchat ordered custom-made mattresses, decidedly unlike the hard mattresses that Chinese hotels are famed for, and fluffy down comforters add to the luxurious feeling.
Guests in one of the more upscale rooms can relax in lounge chairs on a little private terrace separated from the rest of the courtyard hotel like a private, open-air tower in a castle.
The Orchid's ten rooms vary in size and amenities and range from 600-1200 yuan per night. Shuchat says the target customers are foreigners, most of whom know someone living in China. Only 10% of his business comes from travel companies, the rest from networking with the community. "People who come here do so for very similar reasons, and they can relate to other guests," Shuchat explains, when discussing his business model.
However, as word spreads, his business is changing too, "About 30 percent of guests now are Chinese," he says.
Word about The Orchid must be good; all his rooms are booked up for the next two weekends, and there are few vacancies open during the week. Shuchat feels that the personal aspect of the small hotel atmosphere helps to feed its growth, "We're pretty hands-on, always there to help, we're always there to have fun with."
In the future, he'd like to hire more staff to help with growing demand. In hiring, he says that character is more important than skills because in a small hotel, guest interaction is important. "You need to treat everyone like it's their holiday," he says of his service model. "It's not just checking in and checking out, they need their hands held for some things and left alone for others. Some hotels don't know when to let go and when to provide real service."
Still, running a hotel is a learning process, and Shuchat admits that he had no hospitality experience before this venture. The 7-year Beijing resident says that he expects the problems in an independent hotel to be endless, but he's tackling them day by day.
However, in opening a small business, he wanted to stay away from the market flooded with expat-owned restaurants, "A restaurant is a lot a work. Here, I have a hotel, restaurant, and bar all in one. It's a better model in my opinion."
Guests staying here surely wouldn't mistake Shuchat or his business for the average expat and his venture; he's building a home in the hutongs.

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