Will Airbnb be able to break through in China and other parts of Asia Pacific where other Western companies have fallen off their scooters? We'll discuss these issues with Siew Kum Hong, one of Airbnb's earliest employees in the region, at Skift Forum Asia in Singapore.
Hundreds of the travel industry’s most forward-thinking executives will gather for our first Skift Forum Asia in Singapore on May 27. In just a few years, Skift’s Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Focusing on top marketers, strategists, and technologists in the APAC region who are defining the future of travel, Skift Forum Asia 2019 will take place at Equarius Hotel in Singapore.The Forum will feature speakers including CEOs and top executives from AirAsia, Booking.com, Genting Cruise Lines, Jumeirah, Oyo, Rakuten, and many more. The following is part of a series of posts highlighting the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Asia and beyond.
Siew Kum Hong, Airbnb’s regional director for Asia Pacific, was one of the company’s first employees in the region in 2012, and he has seen the focus in China transition from promoting homesharing to Chinese traveling abroad to supplementing that with substantial investments inside the country.
In fact, China, Kum Hong said in the interview below, is the only country outside of North America to host an Airbnb dedicated product and engineering team. And he predicted that China will be Airbnb’s top origin market by 2020.
Kum Hong will appear at the inaugural Skift Forum Asia on May 27 in Singapore. There he will discuss Airbnb’s varied approach to widely diverse APAC markets, as well as the synergies and differences he sees with Oyo hotels, which recently picked up an Airbnb investment.
We did an email interview with Siew Kum Hong as a warmup for Skift Forum Asia. See the Skift questions and his answers below.
Skift: What’s Airbnb’s plan for the Asia-Pacific region overall?
Siew Kum Hong: Global tourism is growing rapidly. The UN World Tourism Organization reports that international tourist arrivals increased 6 percent in 2018 to 1.4 billion arrivals worldwide — two years ahead of projections. The same report shows that much of this growth has been driven by rising demand for travel destinations in emerging markets, and many countries in APAC are leading the way.
These emerging markets are also leading our growth. I joined Airbnb in 2012 as one of our first employees in APAC. Five years ago, thanks to the power of global network, our APAC community had grown organically to just 100,000 listings, accounting for a small fraction of our overall global business.
Our APAC community has gone from strength to strength since then. The region includes some of our fastest-growing markets, like China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In the first four months of this year, cities in APAC accounted for half of Airbnb’s 20 most-visited destinations globally. At the beginning of 2018, Experiences was available in only 10 cities in APAC. Today, we have Experiences in more than 500 towns and cities across the region.
As we look to the next decade, we know that the APAC region is going to be the engine that drives much of that growth. We’ll continue to make aggressive investments to grow and build our community here and help travelers experience the incredible hospitality the region has to offer.
Skift: And for China specifically?
Kum Hong: I had the privilege of leading our China business for 10 months and know firsthand that it is a unique place to do business. We had initially focused on promoting Airbnb to Chinese travelers going abroad, and we’ve had great success. China is on track to become our top origin market globally by 2020.
China has also become one of our fastest-growing and most-popular destinations. The number of guest arrivals in Airbnb listings in China in Q1 2019 increased by 200 percent, year-over-year. The number of Airbnb listings in China also doubled during 2018.
We’re succeeding in China because we have a relentless focus on quality, and we’ve been focused on hiring strong local talent from the get-go. We were excited to have our China President Tao Peng join Airbnb last year.
We’ve also invested in a local product that meets the needs of Chinese hosts and guests. China is the only country with a dedicated product and engineering team outside of North America. We support local payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay, and we also have China-specific features like WeChat login and a WeChat mini-app. We will soon release a series of new tools to better serve our Chinese community, including a new Host Storefront where hosts can more easily share all of their listings and improvements that make finding the right Airbnb listing even easier.
We’ve also worked diligently with community leaders to promote responsible homesharing in China. To date, we’ve signed more than a dozen MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) with governments and community organizations, and we’re working with a variety of NGOs to ensure diverse communities are able to benefit from the growth of tourism.
We’re incredibly optimistic about our future in China and we’ll continue to make investments to support our local community and help more guests experience this incredible country.
Skift: What’s driving Airbnb’s investment in the India market and what, if any, synergies do you see with the company’s recent investment in Oyo?
Kum Hong: Obviously, there are a lot of differences between what Oyo does and what Airbnb does, but we have a common dedication to giving people more accommodation choices at a range of different prices. We have been impressed with Oyo’s ability to quickly deliver quality accommodations to consumers in some of the most important and rapidly growing markets in the world, so they are a logical partner for us.
We have had great success in India and are optimistic about our future there. At the same time, we know that travel and tourism is a large and growing industry — there are going to be a lot of winners here, and we think Oyo is one of them.
We are now exploring a range of ways to work together, and we’re excited to partner with Oyo as we work to make travel more accessible to more people.
Skift: What are your biggest challenges going forward as you focus on growing Airbnb’s business in Asia-Pacific?
Kum Hong: APAC is home to an incredibly diverse range of countries with distinct cultures, languages, histories, economies, and political systems.
While our community is growing rapidly in APAC, with Australia and New Zealand among our most-penetrated markets globally, in many parts of the region homesharing is still a new concept.
Around the region, we’re partnering with governments and a range of organizations to educate communities about the transformative power of the Airbnb community model, which we believe can be a part of the solution to a range of local priorities and challenges, from revitalizing rural economies through tourism, to utilizing the millions of unoccupied homes across APAC, to supporting aging populations in the region.
We are also launching locally relevant strategies here. Last year in Japan, we launched the Airbnb Partners program. This world-first initiative sees more than 70 local companies, including major blue chips like Mizuho Bank and All Nippon Airways, across a wide variety of industries coming together to better serve hosts and guests, and to help towns and cities across the country benefit from healthy tourism.
APAC today accounts for approximately 60 percent of the world’s population, and with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, a rising middle class and hundreds of millions of millennials. We know we can make travel transformational and magical for both experienced and new travelers, while opening up new opportunities for local hospitality entrepreneurs and established businesses alike. We are excited by the progress we’ve made so far, and we look forward to continuing this amazing journey with our growing community.
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Photo credit: An Airbnb homeshare in Shanghai. Airbnb