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August 26, 2009

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Driving sideways the route to a fulfilling career

IT was a picnic lunch more than two years ago that provided the unlikely inspiration for Frenchman Thomas Chabrieres to ditch the suit and follow his dreams.

The former marketing executive last year started Shanghai Sideways, a company that specializes in taking tours on replica World War II sidecar motorcycles to discover the hidden gems of the city.

While the streets of Shanghai have become his office and he now wears jeans to work, Chabrieres is still thinking business with plans to expand his burgeoning tour company beyond its bases in Beijing and Shanghai.

His latest venture, Sideways Escape, will specialize in long journeys to places around Shanghai like Taihu Lake or epic road trips to places like Yunnan Province's Shangri-la or the port city of Xiamen, Fujian Province.

But Chabrieres' decision to try to make his mark in tourism came from a chance picnic he organized for a boss from France who was visiting Beijing.

A picnic lunch, complete with red wine and a baguette and cheese on the Great Wall, was the finale to a tour of Beijing that Chabrieres arranged with a friend on his Changjiang 750cc motorcycles.

"After taking my boss on a tour, my friend rang me really excited and said, 'we have something here we really need to give it a shot,' and that's how it all started," Chabrieres says.

The friend who ran that first tour, Gael Thorau, now heads up Beijing Sideways. Chabrieres started up the Shanghai arm of the business last October and it has quickly grown from one bike to a network of 60 drivers and sidecars.

He is planning to build a similar network of drivers and sidecars around China for his Sideways Escape, with clients shown around cities by expats who are long-term residents.

Customers include businessmen, couples on honeymoon and even the occasional celebrity.

The biggest tour they have done was in Beijing with 72 people where they organized a drive and dinner on the Great Wall.

"Most of our drivers are expats who have high-level corporate jobs and have lived in Asia or China for more than 10 years," he says.

"My idea is that I want to have the kind of drivers who have broad knowledge and experience. Our drivers aren't tour guides, they are insiders. We want our clients to finish the tour and feel like a friend of a friend has shown them the city they love."

Tours are not along set routes, with drivers capable of tailoring the journey to the interests of clients, whether that be architecture, the city's history or even shopping reconnaissance.

Best shopping

"We get boyfriends who get us to show them the best shopping areas before their girlfriends arrive," he says.

Keeping clients happy was a central part of Chabrieres' previous career, working in the digital marketing and advertising field.

His first foray into digital marketing came in 1999 when he moved to Beijing to work with his sister on establishing a small start-up company specializing in Website design.

He spent two years in Beijing helping build the company from a two-person operation running out of a living room to a company employing more than 30 staff.

After this initial success Chabrieres realized he needed a better grounding in business and he returned to France to study.

He graduated from the American Business School in Paris in 2005 and returned to China to set up the office of a marketing and advertising company.

He later moved to DDB advertising company and headed up their digital arm "Tribal" in China, managing the online marketing for big multinational companies like McDonald's, Yahoo and Volkswagen.

During his time in the corporate world he was also a founding member of the French Junior Chamber, serving as its first president for two years from 2006.

When he moved out of his high-powered job in advertising to start a company running sidecar tours, friends thought he was just looking for a break rather than making a fully fledged career change.

"They thought I would go back to my 'real job' after a year or so," he says.

Chabrieres says his burgeoning business is a seven-day-a-week affair but it is a labor of love.

"Riding the bike is fantastic. I am meeting new people everyday and also hearing their stories while sharing my love of Shanghai."

Anyone interested in more information can visit the company's Website at or or e-mail to

Thomas Chabrieres

Nationality: French

Age: 29

Profession: Entrepreneur


Self-description:Passionate, passionate and passionate.

Favorite place: The next one.

Strangest sight: People sweeping the left lane on Yan'an Elevated Road in the middle of the day.

Worst experience:

Sweeping the left lane of Yan'an Elevated Road (joking). Having my motorbike's rear brake get stuck on the boat which goes from Puxi to Pudong.

Motto for life:Talk the talk and walk the walk.

How to improve Shanghai:

Make people respect traffic lights.

Advice to newcomers:Respect traffic lights! And bring something of value to the city.


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