Earlier this year, Airbnb made an announcement that looked to give its frequent users one of their top requests: Superguest, a loyalty program, was coming soon.
Several months later, the homesharing platform has a new message: Keep waiting.
At Skift Global Forum in New York City Thursday, Airbnb President of Homes Greg Greeley said the company had conducted research and put together a pilot, but that’s about it so far.
“We decided that it wasn’t differentiated enough, we didn’t have enough community involvement for us to launch it,” he said. “So we’re actually back to the drawing board. We have nothing else to share on that, but I can tell you the team is waking up every day thinking about how we can have a great Superguest program for those loyal guests that are asking for it.”
It’s a question Greeley, who joined Airbnb from Amazon six months ago, said he’s been hearing a lot.
“The Airbnb community is very loyal and guests are super excited about having a Superguest or some form of loyalty program.”
The 10-year-old company hasn’t fully detailed what such a program would entail, though CEO Brian Chesky said it would offer “benefits across the entire travel journey,” including homes, transportation, experiences, and other services when he first announced it in February.
At the time, the program was expected to roll out in late summer.
The subject also came up at last year’s Forum in September, when Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk said it was surprising that the company still didn’t have a loyalty program.
“At the very least, I’d love to do more to recognize our loyal travelers,” he said in 2017. “I think they deserve some special recognition. We don’t have it. I think we should.”
Read Full Edited Interview Transcript Below
Skift: Our next speaker might be relatively new to his role as the head of Homes for Airbnb, but he’s definitely not new to the worlds of eCommerce and loyalty. Prior to joining Airbnb in March, Greg spent 18 years at Amazon, where he was most recently leading Amazon’s global Prime program, which he also happened to help invent and launch, back in 2005. It’s been about six or seven months on the new job. What’s the transition been like from going from Amazon to Airbnb?
Greg Greeley: It’s actually been a blast and I am just totally excited to have joined such an energetic company. There’s just so much enthusiasm for what the community that’s been built and the way that the company wakes up every day. They have over 4,000 employees waking up every day thinking about ways they can innovate on behalf of the host and guests, so that’s been really fun.
Obviously, it’s very difficult to leave from Amazon, a truly great company and having been there for 18 years. Airbnb just had its 10 birthday on August 10. On August 11 we welcomed a record number of over 3.5 million guest arrivals. Later that month, we hit 400 million total guest arrivals. And so, it was really fun to be there as part of those major milestones. But it really is a kind of transition point for the company and I liken it to when Amazon was 10 years old in 2005. Airbnb now is like joining Amazon in 2005. There’s this incredible enthusiasm, the first kind of product, the Homes product, the teams hitting their stride. They really have found ways to innovate. The travel industry is a trillion dollar opportunity, much like the retail industry and it really is an Amazon size opportunity available for innovations and travel. And the global community is very open to seeking new ways about traveling and exploring and discovering new experiences.
Skift: This transition point is sort of an idea that I have been thinking a lot about in terms of Airbnb turning 10 this year, being on its road to an IPO, now encouraging hotels to join its platform, launching Experiences back in 2016, launching Plus earlier this year, the collection of vetted homes, and soon adding a loyalty program of its own, Super-Guest. How do you personally view this evolution that the company is going through, this maturation? And do you think Airbnb can grow without alienating the people who really helped it get to where it is today?
Greeley: One of the things I did as part of my transition, the week before I started at Airbnb, I actually took a journey. I went and drove along Route 66 and what I wanted to do was really connect with hosts and hear directly from the hosts. I had stayed along the west coast many times in Airbnbs in many tourist destinations. But I just wanted to hear from the heartland, what it meant to this community that had just exploded over the last 10 years, that were opening up their homes and inviting guests in, what were their needs? And for me, that was really the foundation of what Airbnb is and will continue to be.
Many hosts told me that they enjoy creating new connections. That by participating in Airbnb both as a host and as a guest, it’s creating connections they never envisioned, new experiences. Those new connections, those magical experiences is what has driven us to look for other ways to innovate along peoples travel. And the launch of the new businesses, Airbnb Experiences, was very much from listening to the community. And we found that, just like there are entrepreneurs that were eager to open up their homes and use hosting as an entrepreneurial activity, there are lots of passionate artists and lots of activities in each local community that people were willing to share and excited to share.
The way that Airbnb is thinking about its evolution and the way that we think about it internally, about the different kind of extensions we’re doing, it’s very much by listening to the community, both the host and the guest and tying that back to, are we really driving great, differentiated innovative travel that’s people-powered and centered around just a true great local experience?
Skift: I’m also wondering how long can you sort of rely on the Airbnb community to be the primary distinguisher between you and all the other big online travel competitors with whom you compete in the private accommodation spaces? I’m talking about Booking, and HomeAway, and even other big brands like Google or your former employer, Amazon?
Greeley: In perpetuity, the community really is what has made Airbnb special. You know one of the things as I came on board, we realized we wanted to make sure as there are all these other innovations happening with Experiences, with Airbnb Plus, that we weren’t losing sight of the fact that hosts were really the core to what we’ve built and where our inspiration is coming from.
So I hired Laura Chambers to actually lead that, this is an executive that had led individual merchants at eBay and very much about growing that community and we’re doing all kinds of things to really keep that at the center. And that doesn’t mean that they’re not part of multiple parts of the magical trip, we call it, between experiences and the other type of services that we are looking to attach to an Airbnb trip. There will be lots of community along that entire journey.
Skift: In terms of the Homes space specifically, what do you want to do specifically to make sure that Airbnb retains its leading position in private accommodations?
Greeley: We’re going to continue to listen to our community, listen to the hosts and guests that are traveling, that are using the platform each and every day. Certainly, things like Airbnb Plus was an outgrowth of us listening to our guests and our hosts. Many hosts were saying ‘hey, I would like to find a way where I can differentiate the offering that I have.’ And many guests were saying ‘hey, I would like to make sure I know where there’s a high-quality offering.’
For those of you that don’t know, Airbnb Plus is our special segment on Airbnb that is highly curated, we do a multiple point inspection, all the amenities are going to be similar, and so guests go there knowing exactly what they’re having. We’re finding that’s been performing incredibly well for us. It is significant work to make sure you meet the design aesthetic and meet all of the requirements, but those that do are about nine times more likely to get bookings. And when they do get bookings, we’re seeing about 40 percent more bookings, 70 percent more nights booked for hosts that are participating. It’s been super successful and we’re really looking to scale that across many, many areas where we added three times more cities since we announced that product in February, and even just last week, we announced Airbnb Plus is available in Auckland, Athens, and Bali. So, it’s one of those that really came from listening to our community and listening to what both hosts and guests wanted.
Skift: This is a space that’s also seeing a lot of intense competition. You have hotel companies like Accor and Marriott and Hyatt getting deeper into homesharing with their sort of respective investments in similar types of products to Airbnb Plus. And you also have other brands emerging in that space, sort of like the service department brands like a Saunder or the Guild or Lyric and a ton of others. What do you generally think of that, this growth and interest in this part of private accommodations, specifically?
Greeley: I think it’s super exciting, because, remember travel is a trillion dollar market and there’s going to be lots of winners. And for us we really don’t focus on competitors, we’re really focused on what are we’re doing for that product we have. Each and every day we have these over 4,000 employees waking up thinking about ‘how can we make Airbnb better?’ Listening to the community, listening to our hosts and guests because that’s ultimately what’s going to make sure that we’re successful, is being successful for that growth or for the groups that are using us.
The beauty of Airbnb is it’s been a platform that hotels for years have been using to list individual rooms. In February when we announced Airbnb Plus, we really said ‘our objective is that Airbnb should be for anyone.’ And we made it very clear that we welcome certain boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts and those that are providing a people-powered or local very passionate experience, we would like those on the platform and that’s true of many of the innovators that are out there are finding ways to work with us or to leverage our platform to serve this community in a neat and special way.
Skift: In terms of success for the Homes segment, I know growth is probably a really big metric that you’re looking at and measuring global growth. What kind of global growth are we seeing from Airbnb today and do you think that there are some markets where you’ve reached maybe a bit of a saturation point and as you pursue more growth in terms of more listings, more nights, more rivals, are you going to pursue a more organic approach or grow through acquisition?
Greeley: There is lots of growth opportunity here and certainly, growth is an important metric. The one we actually look at more is the quality, how are guests enjoying their stays, how are hosts growing their business. We want to be a platform for economic empowerment for these hosts and so that’s probably a much more important metric for us.
But we are still growing and fairly significantly, and we’re going to keep investing in those things that are meeting the community’s needs, things we’ll listen to, the host and guests. Again, travel is not just around tourism, it’s also about living. And so, we’re seeing people realizing that they can use Airbnb to support local growth, local activities, including funerals, weddings, high school reunions, I mean there’s all kinds of things that are happening on the local level. And when you look at the numbers, we’re just a small percentage of the population that are actually active hosts. As much as the number is big and as much as it is growing very rapidly, there are a lot of opportunities for people to discover this kind of economic empowerment that, particularly as people are trying to pay for their rent or make their mortgage.
Skift: In terms of your revenues. what share of Airbnb’s revenues comes from Homes today and how much will that be five or 10 years from now?
Greeley: Well, we’re a private company, so we don’t break that out.
Skift: I know, which is why I asked about it.
Greeley: I know you were going to ask, but at one period in time at Amazon I oversaw the media business and it was 80 percent of revenues at the time and I remember telling the team, ‘this is exciting that you’re this big part of the revenue, but we should be happy to keep growing at a rapid, rapid rate, but look forward to it becoming the smallest part of the business.’
And so, I’m actually using that same line to the Homes team. The Homes team is actually motivated to grow and really engage our guests and get more people participating, but our experience is business and some of the other services and the extensions that we’re working on are growing incredibly well. So, as we think about taking every journey that a guest may be going on and thinking about how we can inject some form of a people-powered or local magical experience, there’s a whole bunch of opportunity for us to not only make our guests journeys great, but really unlock a tremendous amount of opportunity for people living in the communities where they’re traveling to.
Skift: Yeah, and you’ve been talking a lot about experiences and you’ve told me that you really hope that more Airbnb Home guests will be booking experiences and even people who may not necessarily be staying at an Airbnb will book an experience on Airbnb. And I wonder, do you think there’s some sort of fundamental change that’s needed in terms of how we as a collective travel industry look at the tours and activities space or how we view package travel? How we communicate that to consumers?
Greeley: I don’t know about the industry, again lots of people are going to take different approaches. I understand you had one in Santiago?
Skift: I did, yeah.
Greeley: Yeah. It’s about having true local people provide their passions, their personal passions and it’s highly curated. There are lots of experiences that are commodities out there that have been around for decades. What you’ll find on Airbnb and Experiences is very much local items you can’t find anywhere. For example, we have a vegetarian taxidermist in London, we have a grandmother that teaches boxing in South Africa. We have somebody that will give you a flight across the desert in Arizona in a World War Two airplane, so these are people’s personal passions. The concerts business or our music business is just taking off. It’s just on fire and it’s because local artists and musicians are pouring their heart and soul into this new opportunity that’s become available to them, hosting a 20 to 30-person musical experience in a private home every night of the week.
And we see lots of people on the experiences side, again because they’re following their passion, we’ve had a number of our hosts for the experiences actually leave their full-time job so that they could pursue hosting and experiences as their full-time career.
Skift: Speaking of your hosts, I know last week Airbnb made some news by submitting a letter to the SEC asking for a mechanism for giving equity to its hosts. I have to admit when I saw that I thought, ‘is this just a marketing ploy?’
Greeley: Oh no, not at all.
Skift: What would you say to that?
Greeley: This is one of those things that has been very much in the core of Airbnb. As I was going through the interview process, it was one of the things that the leadership there was already talking about, it was like ‘we really want to find a way to where we can engage hosts and allow them to be equity owners.’
Now, it turns out with the capital markets, it’s very complicated between the regulation and the tax. There are a number of hurdles that we have, but we’re excited to get that process going. Because as I mentioned, hosts really are the core of everything that Airbnb is, and we really want them to be a part of ownership as well.
Skift: I’m going to switch gears a bit and talk about Airbnb for work, so I have a little anecdote to share with you. A couple weeks ago one of my really close college friends who happens to be an insurance agent, who specializes specifically in corporate insurance for kidnap and ransom, stayed with me and I asked her, ‘do you ever stay in an Airbnb when you travel for work?’ And she’s like ‘no, I’m not allowed to.’ So, how are you convincing companies like hers, that it’s okay to stay in an Airbnb for work?
Greeley: Airbnb for work is just one of those indications of the team listening to the community. I think early on, probably five years or so, the team really started to see this pickup of people that were enjoying Airbnb for their leisure travel and starting to use it for work, and so they started to put more intention in designing the product and meeting the needs of those work travelers. And so, between 2015 and 2016 it tripled, the number of people that were using Airbnb for work and it tripled again last year, and we’re growing at that same or faster pace now.
And so, what we’ve done is one, instrument the site to allow people to indicate when they’re traveling for work. Two, we’ve gone and over 700,000 companies now have employees that are using Airbnb for their work travel, and over 275,000 of them have travel managers directly engaged in booking other people’s travels and managing the process. So, that meant we needed to do some integrations with some of the corporate providers and we needed to rethink the product that we were offering. I mean, it’s been super successful, we’ve been really pleased to see people respond and it’s not too surprising because anyone that travels for work, knows that can be exhausting, particularly people that travel a lot. And so having the opportunity to live where you’re traveling and living like a local, is not surprisingly something that a large percentage of business travelers want to do from time to time and so we’ve been super happy with that.
Now, last week we also announced that we’ve been innovating other ways for Airbnb for work. So, corporate off-sites are one where at times going into yet another conference room that looks boring can be a challenge and so we found many hosts that are opening up their homes where they have special venues, be it a backyard or a special retreat area that people can have off-sites. And we’ve also found that people that are traveling for relocation, of course getting to live with someone in a home or someone that has a second home that, that can be a very pleasurable way to go through what is usually a fairly difficult process when you’re moving from one city to another. And then lastly, as I talked about the Airbnb Experiences, we’re finding that people really enjoy morale events and kind of activities that will bring groups closer together, and some of these unusual local driven experiences can be great for off sites.
You know, there are more than 127 million full-time employees in the U.S. and on average you’re seeing about $400 per employee being spent on morale building and there’s nothing better than going to a local Airbnb experience and tapping into some kind of unique passion, that’s really grounded in your local community.
Skift: Let’s turn to some audience questions. This one kind of sets things up nicely for a question I wanted to ask you. So, Glenn Fogel the CEO of Booking said earlier today about Airbnb, ‘You don’t just get to choose to ignore the law, you need to change the law.’ What are your thoughts on that and how do you feel about the regulatory battles over short-term rentals and a lot of major destinations, New York included?
Greeley: Yeah. It’s interesting to see, because Airbnb started with a community and so, one of the things that our founders have said over and over again is we do want to be a great partner with all stakeholders. And so, in literally thousands of cities, we’re working to make sure the regulatory framework is good and we actually do want to comply. We want to make sure that there are thoughtful rules in place to allow hosts to tap into this entrepreneurial activity to kind of regenerate the extra money they need to pay their expenses or pay for rent or what have you. We’re in over 81,000 towns and cities, and 191 countries and we really are looking at wherever possible to be great partners there.
Skift: Great. How detrimental would it be if you lost your case here in New York City, in particular?
Greeley: Well, New York City is a real edge case, and I think it’s important to recognize again, we’re in over 81,000 towns and cities and we have a big global business. It would be really hard for the host here because 77 percent of the hosts in New York City is using that money to augment and to pay for a very expensive rent and from the standpoint of Airbnb driving up the house and rent, those numbers just don’t pass the smell test. There’s like 0.2 percent of the housing stock is actually in dedicated rentals.
And so, usually you look at the numbers there and you find that most people have indexed back to 2008 at the height of the global, kind of the great recession and when rent and occupancy were at its lowest. So, I’m very hopeful that New York doesn’t punish those hosts in that way because it is really a great opportunity for them to augment their rent.
Skift: And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t ask you, what can we expect from Super Guest?
Greeley: Oh, well I’m getting that question from lots of people. The Airbnb community is very loyal and the guests are super excited about having a Super Guest or some form of loyalty program. So, we actually have put together a pilot, did some research and we looked at that and decided that it wasn’t differentiated enough and didn’t have enough community involvement for us to launch yet. So we are actually back to the drawing board. I can tell you, the team is waking up every day thinking about how we can have a great Super Guest program for those very loyal guests that are asking for it.