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December 24, 2009

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Once upon a five-star mattress

TRAVEL agency bed testers get a free night in a fancy hotel. They can sleep, read, cavort, watch TV and do anything to their heart's content in bed. In exchange, they write a travel report. Chen Ye tests the mattress.

Young people are becoming food testers, drinks testers, online game testers - and now bed testers - testing fancy hotel mattresses for a free one-night stay.

All they have to do is spending a lot of time in bed - sleeping, romping, watching TV, whatever - to judge the quality of a five-star hotel mattress. Then they have to write a detailed report on hotel facilities and travel.

But qualifying to be a bed tester, and thus reducing travel costs, takes some effort, involving an application, sending travel photos and articles or blogs.

Some overseas mattress companies hire bed testers to evaluate mattress construction for comfort and aid in getting a good night's sleep.

Two Chinese online travel agencies, Ctrip and Elong, launched bed-testing activities early last month.

According to Ctrip, China's biggest one-stop online travel service, the Five-Star Hotel Bed Test is part of its 10th anniversary activities in Shanghai, Beijing and 15 other Chinese cities.

The bed-testing event will be held in the best domestic five-star hotels, says Tang Xiaofeng, advance director of Ctrip.

Ctrip had planned to recruit 200 testers, but it turned out more than 5,000 people applied. It's the same with hotels. At the very beginning, only 10 five-star hotels were willing to provide one-night free accommodation, but now over 50 have joined the campaign.

Selected testers can choose the hotel they want to stay at and will get a 500-yuan (US$73.50) coupon to use at the hotel.

Getting a free bed test involves several steps. First, candidates should enroll on the Ctrip Website and become a member and then collect a certain number of points.

To earn points, they should upload travel-related pictures (at least 500 pixels by 300 pixels) and write a travel blog of at least 600 words.

After a long and strict selection, finalists are chosen.

The same goes for eLong. Interested travelers should sign up as a member and upload travel pictures and a story.

Elong's first-round bed testing will run through March 31.

In November and December altogether 140 testers were recruited.

Beginning from the new year, every month 100 people will be selected.

A Shanghai white-collar Zheng, who declined to give his full name, was a five-star bed tester last month for Ctrip. He's a travel addict and applied to a local hotel.

He saw an advertisement for bed testers on the Internet and uploaded travel photos and stories. "I was excited. The bed-testing experience was great. I'll try again."

Becoming bed tester reduces travel costs by one overnight stay and that, combined with cheaper online booking, represents a big saving.

"I planned to travel to Sanya (Hainan Province) for a long time, but the expensive hotel made me put it off for a long time," says Lisa, a Ctrip blogger.

"I can save a lot if I win the bed-testing competition," she says.

But bed testers have to do more than just sleep or romp in bed for one night. They are required to write a detailed report about the hotel's facilities, service, citing strengths and weak points and making personal comments. Photos of the hotel and their stay are also encouraged.

"I hope we can attract more customers through bed-testing activities and get more suggestions," says Tang.

Ctrip, the biggest domestic hotel- and flight-booking Website, also provides analysis and comments by travelers who stay in various hotels.

"Bed testing is a great chance for people who like to travel, especially when most people can't afford costly hotels," says Ctrip employee Chen Zhengyao.

Bed testing is clearly a smart business promotion and advertising.

"It is a kind of business speculation aimed at catching more public attention," says blogger Mr X, a travel industry professional. "For hotels, it is better to join the activity than just leaving their expensive rooms empty."

Dr Qin Yu, dean of the Hotel Management Department at the Beijing International Studies University and a member of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agrees.

He considers such event more like a chao zuo (stir-frying), or a carefully planned scheme.

"For many independent travelers, comments and reviews from professional travel services are becoming more and more decisive when they plan to book a hotel," says Qin. "But these bed-testing reports are mostly the testers' own opinions. They are not objective, and sometimes even misleading."


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