Airbnb may have started out as an air mattress rental business, but this hospitality behemoth now wants to be the engine driving a new kind of travel and experiences in modern living. Co-founder and chief strategy office Nathan Blecharczyk tells why Airbnb’s future lies in more than just accommodation
Airbnb has changed and continues to change the travel and tourism landscape. How do you categorise it – rental service, OTA, tech company?
In some ways it’s a lifestyle company. It’s really changed the way people think about living their life. We think that travel should be transformative. It’s really (about) coming away a changed person because you’ve gotten to see how other people live their lives, and based on that experience you might change the way you yourself live.
We hope that when people travel they make long-lasting connections and friendships. That’s the kind of travel we’re excited about, and that’s why I say we’re more a lifestyle than tech or even a travel company. And depending on how you look at it, we can be all those things because we’re tech enabled, and we have a big investment in tech. At the ultimate highest level, what does the company stand for? It’s about people’s lives and helping them to transform.
Airbnb has blurred the lines between homesharing and hotels. What’s next?
Obviously our success has gotten everybody’s attention and so you’re seeing others trying to work from our success; one of the takeaways is that there is an appetite for unique and more local experiences. As you see, hotels are also trying to offer that.
Many entrepreneurs are trying to scale up the home concept so you see homes in some ways becoming a bit more like hotels in the sense that they’re being operated at scale with more consistency and best practices. At the same time, you see hotels being operated a bit like homes in the sense of being more bespoke and boutique, etc.
It’s a very interesting time and we hope to participate in all of that. Through some of our recent investments and acquisitions, we’re now well positioned to work with hospitality players, hotels, etc. who subscribe to our brand values – not all hotels but the ones that really care about providing these local and unique experiences.
We just announced in New York a partnership to develop a very famous building (Rockefeller Plaza) into Airbnb-style apartments on a large scale, whereas in the past it was individuals offering their homes in the marketplace.
Three years ago, we did a research project and followed a bunch of people around to see how they travel, and we realised people were spending a lot of time planning; and yet they were all going to the same places which were not authentic. These were just tourist spots where no locals go, and they (travellers) weren’t connecting with the local people.
Based on that, we had this vision that maybe Airbnb can be a platform for the entire trip, where we help with every aspect of travel and make it all a richer experience. Airbnb’s not just about helping you find a place to stay, but (also about bridging you to the destination).
We’re basically looking at every aspect of travel and we’ve been trying to reinvent them.
We’ve done that with Airbnb Experiences for (the last) two years. There are 30,000 Airbnb Experiences around the world, but now we’re thinking how we might do that for transport and more (new projects) would come thereafter.
What about transport?
When I say transport, I mean all aspects of transport….We hired entrepreneur Fred Reid whose specific background is in the airline industry. He’s done so many things for Virgin America – he created the Star Alliance loyalty programme and more. We’re hoping and expecting him to help us reinvent transportation – flights and beyond. I cannot say much more. You will hear about it when the time comes, I guess within the year. (What I can tell you is we’re) not selling tickets or starting an airline – rather something in between the two that improves the flight experience.
What are your plans for India’s Oyo after investing in it?
We haven’t announced the specific plans there but we’ll just say that they’re a very innovative player in the accommodation space. And as the ecosystem around us evolves, we want to make sure that we have the right alliances and partnerships in place.
There are some observations that safety and security of Airbnb guests are not guaranteed as you don’t fully check the properties.
With Airbnb Plus, these are homes that are inspected beforehand by folks who work for us against a checklist of a hundred criteria centred on comfort and design. And all those standards-like services kind of elevate the experiences that we are now able to provide all around the world.
Not all Airbnb properties are Plus, but if you search for them you’ll be able to find them. Travellers need only to read the reviews to get a very good idea of what to expect. If you don’t and just book it, then expectations might be misaligned. Other than that, the system has worked remarkably as we’re able to serve more than five million guests.
Who are your closest rivals in the industry: Google or Ctrip, perhaps?
We are the largest global travel brand at this point. The other big OTAs and hotels are also fairly global. Obviously we’re very different from those other players so I think we’re unique in what we do and we’re the clear leader.
Where are you in China now?
We’ve managed to stay independent in China and do very well. We started initially focusing on outbound travellers – that’s something we do uniquely well seeing as we have a highly global network of hosts and properties. However as many millions of Chinese got used to travelling abroad and became familiar with the brand and with the app, they now began to use Airbnb domestically. We now have more than 400,000 properties in China and (the domestic market) is now the majority of our business in China. China is the fastest growing country in the world for Airbnb – it’s a remarkable success story.
China is a tough market to crack. How did you manage to win the trust and loyalty of the Chinese?
Everybody said, “you’ll never be able to do that”. How it happened for us was through winning over the outbound market. With so many Chinese travelling abroad for the first time, they are very eager to experience the culture and to meet locals. Herein lies the appeal of Airbnb for the Chinese, plus we have some interesting homes (that make for unconventional accommodation). As they got to know Airbnb, a lot of our guests became hosts in China. It took time; trust and familiarity didn’t happen overnight. Now we’re about five years in the market and more than half of our business in China is purely domestic today.
How do you see the industry evolving 10 years from now?
I mentioned earlier about how hotels are moving more towards bespoke, home-like experiences, so that’s one big trend.
Secondly, there’s a lot of interest in the industry around experiences and that’s a trend we have to kick off. The industry is thinking right now: how do we help guests to have interesting and memorable experiences outside the home or the hotel?
The people want to be able to have something memorable to share online that’s unique to them, so I think that personalisation and technology can really help deliver what guests want. I think that technology should be able to help create personal connections that were perhaps lacking before.
I think the (travel) planning process is still too hard as I still spend way too many hours trying to plan a trip. But that’s where I think technology, specifically AI and social, can better help travellers in their travel planning.