The biggest challenge for Airbnb is the idea that staying with a stranger is strange. So Airbnb is shining a brighter spotlight on its community of hosts worldwide to inject the brand perception with a more familial enthusiasm.
During the annual Airbnb Open 2015 conference in Paris last week, there was a clear shift toward a greater emphasis on the Airbnb host community as the primary value proposition for the brand.
In the past, much of the discussion around Airbnb’s unique selling points has focused on the room sharing model’s affordable price point and direct access to local neighborhoods.
The concept of community, however, connotes a certain level of trust, familiarity and security, which helps allay the uncomfortable nature of the guest experience for more conservative travelers who are unsure of staying with a stranger.
The sense of community surrounding Airbnb is becoming its greatest differentiator in the travel marketplace.
Moving forward, the company is prioritizing its ecosystem of hosts above everything else to both further cement its relationship with those hosts and address the concerns of people who haven’t tried room sharing.
Chip Conley, head of hospitality at Airbnb, kicked off his keynote at the Open by saying Airbnb regards its hosts as partners, and he emphasized how much the company values them. The hosts are the company rather than the listings, he said, which was a refrain repeated often throughout the conference.
Conley then asked two Airbnb hosts in the audience from Queenstown, New Zealand about what Airbnb does well to engage them, and what it could do better.
The hosts answered that they love the website user experience that makes it easy to market their listing and communicate with guests. They would, however, prefer better communication directly with Airbnb corporate for those times when they have questions about how to handle specific situations.
During the Founders Session right after that, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky discussed the ongoing evolution of customer service for hosts.
He mentioned a 2011 incident in San Francisco when a guest trashed a host’s apartment and Airbnb didn’t respond as well as it should have, which spurred a “media storm.” Chesky called it a huge wake-up call for the company, and he said Airbnb now invests heavily in continually upgrading customer service levels year over year.
“Imagine if the phone number was just one click away and you called us and we answered the question within seconds and solved your problem immediately,” he said. That’s something we certainly have a vision to do.”
Chesky added that the company is still very much in its infancy, and quoted one of Airbnb’s early investors who told him, “A startup company is kind of like jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.”
Presently, the biggest cloud raining on Airbnb’s parade is the regulatory hurdles constantly played out in the media. Chesky emphasized that everyone at Airbnb, including Airbnb hosts, want the room sharing industry to be fully regulated, because that will legitimize the industry as an industry.
Before the birth of the sharing economy, he said, there were people and there were businesses. Now that people can be businesses themselves as Airbnb hosts, many cities are unprepared to deal with that in terms of writing new regulatory statutes.
“I think that many of us want to be regulated, because to be regulated is to be recognized,” Chesky explained. “We don’t think home sharing should be in the shadows…. I’m looking forward to maybe a future stage with Airbnb where we can look at the idea of hosting being legitimized in 34,000 cities around the world as a thing of the past.”
Nathan Blecharczyk, CTO and co-founder of Airbnb, added that one of the biggest challenges he sees for Airbnb is expectation management.
“What we do is still relatively new for a lot of people,” he said. “There’s a lot of first time guests, so it’s really trying to understand what is the guest expecting, and also explaining what it is that [we] provide, and making sure that’s a good fit.”
Never A Stranger
So what does the Airbnb host community look like for the travel consumer who has never used Airbnb before?
Or as Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall said during his session at Airbnb Open, “Why would I stay in someone else’s house?”
The uncertainty of sharing a house or apartment with a stranger is the elephant in the room for Airbnb, so the company is tackling that head on by acknowledging it’s a major issue. First, both Mildenhall and Chesky said that Airbnb is reframing the word “stranger” as “simply someone you haven’t met before.”
“Our enemy is actually not hotels, it’s not VRBO, and it’s not bed and breakfasts,” explained Peter Giorgi, global head of advertising & content at Airbnb, during his session at the Open. “Our enemy is actually the idea that strangers exist in the world, and the idea that staying with a stranger is strange.”
With that in mind, Airbnb launched the above “Never A Stranger” video that shows a young woman traveling alone and living with families around the world in places like Rio de Janeiro and Paris. The video is basically the visualization of Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere” tagline and brand mission.
Granted, the video is a highly idealized version of the host/guest relationship. Few of us who have stayed at Airbnb properties are hugged as much as this women by both adults and children, and the listing shown in Tulum runs $1,700 per night.
Giorgi said the listing in Rio was $95 per night, so he felt comfortable showing a range of price points because Airbnb doesn’t necessarily want to be perceived solely as a cheap place to stay.
Expect to see more of this type of brand storytelling as Airbnb narrows its focus on the Never A Stranger theme. The idea of sleeping in alternative accommodations is a hard sell for many travelers, but Giorgi says the strategy is to highlight the transformative nature of the guest’s overall travel experience with Airbnb versus the guest bedroom.
The goal is really to inspire people who haven’t stayed with Airbnb to push past their immediate perceptions and perhaps step out of their comfort zone a bit to try something new.
“We wanted you to see a woman who starts out alone and ends up being embraced by all these people, and feeling like a better version of herself,” Giorgi said. “We wanted to show this idea that you could be transformed by a great Airbnb experience.”
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Photo credit: A screen grab of a scene in Tulum from Airbnb's "Never A Stranger" video. Airbnb