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Airbnb out to be the Wechat of travel where you can do everything with one app

By the time Lady Gaga appeared on stage on Saturday night as a surprise closing act for Airbnb Open, a three-day festival in downtown Los Angeles celebrating the brand’s values and community of hosts, one thing was clear: Airbnb has joined the league of the world’s most powerful brands — such as Apple, Coke and Facebook — in that decisions the company makes have worldwide reverberations.

By the time Lady Gaga appeared on stage on Saturday night as a surprise closing act for Airbnb Open, a three-day festival in downtown Los Angeles celebrating the brand’s values and community of hosts, one thing was clear: Airbnb has joined the league of the world’s most powerful brands — such as Apple, Coke and Facebook — in that decisions the company makes have worldwide reverberations.

The former scrappy start-up began life offering blown-up air beds out of its founders’ apartment. It is now worth an estimated US$30 billion (S$42.8 billion) and gunning for the entire travel pie.

Last Thursday, its co-founder and chief executive officer, Brian Chesky, announced the company is going beyond homes with its latest innovation, Trips. “Until now, Airbnb has been about homes,” said Chesky. “Airbnb is launching Trips, bringing together where you stay, what you do, and the people you meet all in one place. We want to make travel magical again by putting people back at the heart of every trip.”

Trips is currently made up of Experiences and Places. The former is a collection of activities designed and offered by local hosts and experts, which travellers can book on their holidays. Places comprises a mix of audio tours and guidebooks of suggestions curated by taste-makers and neighbourhood insiders. Trips is now live on the Airbnb website and app; travellers can already book Experiences in 12 cities including London, Paris and Tokyo. Another 38 cities will offer Experiences next year, including Singapore.

Chesky added at his keynote that the company is set to include Flights and Services (think car rentals, restaurant reservations and grocery deliveries) as part of Trips eventually — bringing home the underlying message that travellers never have a reason to use another service or company the moment they book with Airbnb. Every step of the trip will be catered for. Yes, the travel equivalent of the all-powerful Chinese WeChat app, best-known for entrenching consumer behaviour and loyalty by allowing multiple functions, from splitting the bill with friends to booking karaoke rooms.

This is a major development. In fact, “the biggest news in the company’s history” signals Airbnb’s intention to take on travel incumbents such as Priceline Group (with hotel website Booking.com as well as flight search and booking portal Kayak), Expedia Group (Expedia allows users to book flights; accommodation including home rental following its acquisition of HomeAway and tour activities and attractions) and TripAdvisor (which also owns Viator tours).

Game-changing stakes

 

So is Airbnb out to become the world’s biggest travel company?

Its head of Global Hospitality and Strategy, Chip Conley, told TODAY at the Airbnb Open event that the direction stemmed from discussions about Airbnb’s expansion plans three years ago, when he first joined the company. “Brian and I talked about this early on. How do we grow as a company? Where do we go?” said the debonair 56-year-old. “We weren’t just looking at sharing economy — we could have gone into finding office space or sharing conference space, but that would be boring. Both of us believe that the best way to grow is to do it (with) the travel business. We are a travel company and people are passionate about travel. And we want to be the most-loved travel company in the world. If being the most-loved (results in) being the biggest, then that will be the collateral benefit.”

Conley acknowledges that the company is creating a product where travellers can get everything they need, calling it a “one stop shop”. Yet there are some challenges, such as the upcoming flight booking function, which are hardly fun, experiential and universally beloved.

“It is a very commoditised business with flights, but it is just one component (of the bigger product),” Conley explained. “With Trips, we ask, ‘How can we make things better for travellers?’ ‘How can we take technology, design and hospitality, and use our expertise in those three to create a differentiated product that creates a passionate community?”

 

New world order

 

“Passionate” and “community” are words Airbnb uses a lot: “Passionate community of hosts”; “passionate community of travellers”; “passionate about the local communities” are some phrases commonly tossed about. At the Airbnb Open, there was definitely a “passionate community”, an evangelical zeal to these 7,000 or so hosts who came from all over the world to mingle, queue for hours, and listen to addresses by big names such as Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and Hollywood A-listers and Academy Award winners Brian Grazer and Gwyneth Paltrow. What’s more, they got to watch Maroon 5 in concert and learn more about Trips.

Many hosts are already taking up Chesky’s offer when the CEO declared, “If you have a passion, if you have an interest, or if you have a hobby, you can share your community with others in the world.” One such host is Heather Goldstone, a stylist and personal shopper who travelled up for Airbnb Open from San Diego. She shared she hopes to offer a home-cooked dinner at her place overlooking the Pacific Ocean after bringing guests shopping and surfing. Meanwhile, teacher Christine Bruin, who has been hosting travellers at her house for the past four years, said she is looking into bringing guests to the Blue Mountains to teach them about Australia’s unique wildlife.

Airbnb’s Experience Design Lead, Charlie Aufmann, explained, that Airbnb has taken the effort to design tools to facilitate potential hosts’ use of the site and filling out what they can offer. Airbnb would further offer help with professional photos and content to better market them. “We’re thinking what the world of Experiences can potentially be, and how can we scale across different countries and cultures,” Aufmann added.

Scaling initiatives aside, Conley even envisions a future where people have ambitions to become hosts. “One of our goals is to create a whole new career path, for people to say they want to be a host when they grow up — where they can rent out a room, do a sake tour and get income,” he said. “It is a noble career path.”

Lofty? Or shrewd? By building an even bigger ecosystem and laying down the infrastructure for users everywhere to embrace a new world order, the Airbnb-led travel revolution looks to be well on its way.

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