A prudent strategy for Airbnb might be to initially partner with an online travel agency in an affiliate relationship so it can access flights for its customers. In that way, Airbnb could test whether its users want to book flights on the site without taking the big risks involved in making a large acquisition, which could always come later.
The day could come when you might receive an email or text like this: “Thanks for booking your flight on Airbnb.com. Your flight booking is confirmed; please keep this confirmation code to reference your booking. Thanks for choosing Airbnb.”
Alternative lodging provider Airbnb opened the cockpit door to such a possibility when it cryptically displayed a reference to “flights” in a presentation about its apps at Airbnb Open in Los Angeles last month.
As Airbnb expands beyond its core short-term rental business into tours and activities, Bloomberg reported this week that Airbnb, with a valuation of $30 billion, is mulling getting into the flights business through an acquisition or building its own product by leveraging data from airfare distributors such as Sabre, Amadeus, or Google’s ITA Software.
Flight online travel agency operators, veterans of the business and an investor were unanimous when approached by Skift that Airbnb wouldn’t likely be entering the flights arena, with its low margins but potentially high volumes, motivated by direct financial gains.
Instead, one Airbnb investor, who has lots of airline experience, speculated that Airbnb could use flights like Kayak does as a lead-generator for its lodging products and as a way to have greater sway over a traveler’s entire budget.
“They [Airbnb] have the wherewithal to do it,” the investor said, referring to acquiring an online travel agency such as New York-based CheapOair or eDreams Odigeo of Barcelona. “The question is: Do they want to do this?”
Based on eDreams Odigeo’s 2017 outlook of $481 million in revenue, Airbnb might be able to acquire the company for $1.9 to $2.8 billion or so. On the other hand, arguing against this candidate, eDreams Odigeo has faced protracted controversies in Europe about its practices.
But an outright acquisition of an online travel agency like this could be detrimental to Airbnb’s valuation if it “slowed their consolidated growth rates,” the investor said.
If Airbnb wants to get into selling flights, it needs the technology and expertise but doesn’t necessarily need to buy another company’s customer base, the investor said.
Hit the Ground Running
Brian Clark, a partner at Hudson Crossing who previously was general manager of Travelzoo’s Fly.com metasearch product, said Airbnb would have to pay a substantial sum to acquire a large online travel agency “but would hit the ground running with a mature OTA with expertise in flights.”
On the other hand, Airbnb is very particular about its company culture and likes to do things its own way so this might argue against a big acquisition.
Still, Clark feels that it would be impractical for Airbnb to start its own flights business from the ground up.
“Building it yourself would be a huge investment, would require the acquisition of a lot of talent/capabilities around OTA/flights that they don’t have, and would be a long, elapsed time to market, at which point they would only start to work out the kinks,” Clark said. “Without the internal expertise to build it, I would not expect Airbnb to pick this option.”
Another argument against a build-your-own flights business is that Airbnb, according to Bloomberg, would like to do an initial public offering within 18 months or so. Building a flight business from scratch would take a lot longer than that and would be a drag on earnings. And there is a huge potential for a loss of focus in Airbnb’s core business, namely short-term rentals.
Another option, Clark says, would be for Airbnb to buy a non-U.S. or regional online travel agency on the cheap, but having no U.S. presence or scale leverage with the airlines would be disadvantageous.
Acquiring a flight metasearch engine such as Skyscanner — oops, Ctrip just acquired it — might be an attractive move, Clark says. After Skyscanner, “Momondo is the next obvious choice,” Clark says. “It would give Airbnb immediate access to functional flight distribution. Meta’s downside, however, is that Airbnb wouldn’t fully ‘own’ the customer and that’s something that should be a key consideration as Airbnb sorts out its strategy.”
On the other hand, lots of metasearch companies, such as Skyscanner, Kayak, and Google Flights are working toward becoming booking sites. Skyscanner now has Ctrip to help but without an online travel agency partner that already has direct airline relationships, this could be a gargantuan task for Airbnb.
Consider that it took Google Flights several years after acquiring ITA Software in 2011 to launch international flight bookings because it took so long to build relationships with foreign airlines.
Hopper Could Be Attractive But Online Travel Agencies Not So Much
A former top official at a U.S. online travel agency said he doesn’t believe that Airbnb should get involved in the flight business as an online travel agency since it is arduous dealing with customer service, flight changes and cancellations.
“The whole process of booking and being on the hook for changes, that’s a lot of work,” the former online travel agency official said. “I guess if they wanted to be an OTA they could do it. They have the resources but it’s a lot of work.”
Then there’s the question of whether the airlines want to see the emergence of another flight-based online travel agency in the U.S., the ex-official of an online travel agency said.
“Delta has pulled out of about 20 booking sites over the last few years but interestingly Airbnb and Delta recently did a tie-up in terms of cross-promotion of each others’ programs so Airbnb could well have the ability to push through that if that’s where they want to go,” the former OTA executive said.
The former official said that Airbnb acquiring a flight-recommendation or metasearch site might be a more practical option and the official cited Hopper “as a good one, nicely executed one. So there are a lot of options there.”
An affiliate business?
Airbnb, of course, could “borrow” a flights business and get up to speed quickly by entering into an affiliate relationship with a company such as Expedia, Priceline, or a metasearch engine.
“The real question is: What is Airbnb’s intent?” Clark asks. “Is this just an aside, or is this a committed, core play on their part? If it is an ‘aside’ and not intended as a core play, then an affiliation would provide the hooks into the functionality. On the other hand, Airbnb is building a global powerhouse brand. They shouldn’t farm out a capability if they are serious about it and intend to rely on it as a key source of growth.”
Asked whether Airbnb could make money on flights by partnering with a global distribution system such as Sabre or Amadeus, or both, Kayak co-founder Paul English, who is the CEO of Lola, an app-centered travel agent, said the incentive payments that global distribution systems pay booking sites can be “insignificant. The only place to really make money on flights is business class and international.”
“I don’t think Airbnb will make any money with flights,” English added. “And I hope they realize this.”
Instead, Airbnb likely would be getting into flights to get more control over customers’ end to end travel experiences, English said.
“If Airbnb is only a bed, they face stiff competition as they scale with Priceline and Expedia, who can get very similar inventory as Airbnb,” English said. “Thus, Airbnb needed to create their new Trips product (very cool but I bet tiny usage) and flights.”
Sam Jain, CEO of Fareportal, which owns CheapOair, said Airbnb’s interest in flights “is great news for the travel industry. It’s important that companies acknowledge the continued importance of investing on the flights product, as well.”
Of course, CheapOair could be in Airbnb’s consideration set if it considers buying an online travel agency. It is probably the only U.S.-based online travel agency left to buy that isn’t owned by Expedia or Priceline.
“What will be great is if companies that are getting into the flight business can provide a human service element to the flights product,” Jain said. “This is still the biggest gap today and a major inconvenience for customers who are not able to be serviced by a human travel agent.”
In addition to acquiring a customer service staff through an online travel agency, Airbnb would get negotiating power and content access, obtain speed to market, and would be able to fast-track access to ancillary services, Jain said.
Like others, a spokesperson for eDreams Odigeo in Barcelona said, “It’s too early to assess Airbnb’s transformation into a travel agency.”
The eDreams Odigeo spokesperson said the company is confident “we will maintain our leadership position in the sector.” There are plenty of skeptics about eDreams Odigeo’s grandiose self-assessment, however.
If Airbnb goes the metasearch route instead, Momondo Group, with offices in London, Copenhagen and Boston, would be among the candidates.
Momondo Group CEO Hugo Burge said he questions the wisdom of Airbnb’s strategy if it merely seeks to add flights to engender “a more seamless experience” for customers.
On the other hand, trying to create a comprehensive online travel agency through a roll-up strategy to compete with Expedia Inc., the Priceline Group and Ctrip “seems possible but unlikely given the big opportunity they (Airbnb) have with accommodation and Trips ahead,” Burge said. “But then they do have a huge valuation and need to think big in order to justify the amounts of money raised.”
Airbnb is clearly thinking big: And its next moves in branching out could be very important for itself and its competitors regardless which options it takes.
Airbnb didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Photo Credit: Does Airbnb, which is scaling its short-term rental business, want to start dealing with the complex business of flight bookings? Pictured, travelers talk on their cell phones as they stand in line at the Delta ticketing counter at Washington National Airport this summer. Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press