Skift Take

Airbnb sees plenty of money to be made from the growing number people becoming less tied to their place of work. So the company has ramped up its efforts to target prospective hosts and guests, which its top UK and Northern Europe executive Amanda Cupples describes in detail in this video.

Series: Skift Forum Europe 2022

Skift Forum Europe

Skift Forum Europe was held in London, England on March 24, 2022. Find out about future Skift events through the link below.

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Amanda Cupples, Airbnb’s general manager for Northern Europe and the United Kingdom, admitted the path to becoming a host on Airbnb is very much a journey.

But she told Skift Executive Editor Dennis Schaal at Skift Forum Europe on March 24 that the company is helping prospective hosts overcome the hurdles they might encounter through a program called Ask a Superhost. And as the number working remotely work continues to surge worldwide, Airbnb has also launched campaigns in countries such as France, Italy and the U.S. showcasing what it believes are the benefits of staying at one of its properties.

Watch the full video of the conversation, as well as read a transcript of it, below, to hear Cupples address Airbnb’s marketing efforts in detail and other matters, including criticisms of the company.

Schaal: It’s high noon.

Cupples: Lunch time.

Schaal: Thank you for being here.

Cupples: Thank you for having me.

Schaal: Please don’t forget to put in some questions into the app for Amanda. This is your chance. So you are GM of the UK & Northern Europe, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. I love Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

Cupples: Yes.

Schaal: That’s you.

Cupples: That’s me.

Schaal: Some of which has been closed during the pandemic, but opening up now. So update us on the refugee situation and what’s going on there, a lot going on.

Cupples: Yes, thank you for starting there, it’s not a happy place to start, but I think it’s important. Obviously I think most people in this room probably know that Airbnb made a fairly large commitment to help resettle a 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine. That really came from a place of just wanting to do the right thing. We have a sister organization, our better half, Airbnb.org, which is a nonprofit that’s set up to actually to do this, to house people who are displaced at moments of crisis.

And this is a humanitarian crisis, we’re very happy to help. We’re at the stage now where we are working with both international NGOs and other partners to actually operationalize that commitment. So I’ve actually just come back from Stockholm where we’ve just entered into an agreement with Save the Children to provide temporary accommodation in Sweden. The Swedish government has announced they’re expecting up to 200,000 refugees to come into Sweden. So we’re very proud to play a small part in helping those people start a new life. But it’s a very sad time and I think probably everyone in this room has stepped up to help in the way that they best can and their business can. So we’re just so grateful to Airbnb.org owners, donors rather, and our hosts who are just so generous with their time and their space to enable this.

Schaal: Excellent. So beyond what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia, we’re just coming out of the pandemic.

Cupples: Yes

Schaal: Like I mentioned, a lot of places were closed, they’re just starting to open up. So what are you starting to see now?

Cupples: So a couple of things, I think first of all, and very happily and encouragingly, travel is coming back. I think when we were in the depths of the pandemic, there are a lot of conversations around, is this going to be U-shaped? Is this going to be V-shaped in terms of recovery? And I think what we’re seeing pretty consistently is that when people are allowed to travel again, they want to do so, that pent up demand is really, really there. And I think bookings for Christmas December 2021 were up 40 percent on 2020, and that was against a background of kind of Omicron uncertainty and worry. So I think the demand is definitely there. I think the more interesting question is not is travel coming back, it’s how is it coming back?

And I think for us, we really see the pandemic as having sort of kickstarted really the biggest travel revolution since the invention of commercial flying. And for us, the biggest thing that you can point to in what’s driving that change is this idea that for the first time, people are becoming untethered from their place of work. So this model where you kind of live in an apartment in an urban location, you go into an office five days a week, and then you have a block of vacation time. If you’re American, you get 10 days, if you’re French, it’s eight weeks, but whatever that time is, you have a period of time that you think about travel is this kind of discreet thing that you do in those moments. And we really see that changing quite fundamentally, both in terms of willingness to disperse and to go to new places, and really just that integration of being able to travel with the rest of your life, be that working or living.

Schaal: Right. A lot of people though, or most people are still tethered. I mean, you have young kids.

Cupples: Yes

Schaal: I also, I saw that… So Airbnb has a work from home or work for anywhere policy and that is being extended till September.

Cupples: Yes

Schaal: So after September, if it goes away, then people will be going back to the office, right?

Cupples: So let me take both parts of the question. So I think in terms of not everyone can do that. Look, our CEO, Brian Chesky is currently having a year of living on Airbnb. So he’s obviously at one end of the spectrum where he’s spending literally a whole year living there. Can everyone do that? Absolutely not, and we would never suggest that. But I think there’s a version of it that’s resonant for some people. So for me, for example, I do have two young children, one of whom is in reception here in London. We’ll probably go somewhere for a month in the summer. We wouldn’t have done that pre pandemic. It might be, you are a 25 year old who works in investment banking and you have been called back to the office for five days, but maybe you go on holiday for a week and actually you work out of a different office for a week.

And I think there’s an acceptability to that. And that is a structural change that just wasn’t there pre-pandemic. Just a note, Airbnb took a call in terms of our employees quite early on to stay fully remote until September 2022. So we made that decision actually in May last year. And the reason we did that was because we weren’t sure what was going to happen. And you saw that with a lot of companies extending it by three months, extending it by four months. And we wanted to give employees just the ability to, actually it was largely driven by the school year that you could go a full school year and put your kids in school somewhere else, if that’s what you wanted to do.

We are currently working on long term plans for the future of work. I think I’m probably not letting any cats out of the bag when I say that it is vanishingly unlikely that we will be back in the office five days a week. We don’t know exactly what it looks like, but it will be, we will walk the walk on the talk that we’re talking. And as I said, we’re led by example there with Brian, really leaning in to spending his year on Airbnb and really discovering what’s going to make that experience better for everyone who follows him.

Schaal: So look for some kind of hybrid arrangement coming up.

Cupples: I hope. We’ll see.

Schaal: We’ll see.

Cupples: We’ll see.

Schaal: We have a short video. Can we roll it?

Cupples: Roll the tape.

Schaal: It’s so nice to see some non supermodels in a commercial.

Cupples: Well, they’re real guests. They’re real guests. And that was the point of the campaign. So this is the 2022 version of our Made Possible by Hosts brand campaign. And this is obviously the second iteration of this, it started last year. But the idea was very much to show real guests on real trips experiencing the magic of what happens when you get hosted on Airbnb. So this couple, a French couple, Valenti and Maria Louisa, they’ve been married for 57 years and their grandson, Danny took them on this trip to Emmanuel’s Villa. And you saw what happened, they hung out, they drank wine and they put laid Ping-Pong. And I love this one because it’s just about, it is about that magic and that inspiration of connecting through the power of travel. And that was really the aim of what we were trying to do with the brand campaign.

Schaal: So this ran in the U.S., UK, France, in different languages.

Cupples: So this is live now actually. So it’s now, some of you may have seen it depending on where you live. But yes, obviously, if it runs in France, you’ll see the French version of it, if it runs in Italy, you’ll see the Italian version.

Schaal: So it was mostly aimed at guests, but a little bit towards hosts, Made Possible by Hosts.

Cupples: So we actually have Made Possible by Hosts and Made Possible by Hosting, which is the way we distinguish between the guest and the host side campaigns. But again, I think the core idea is the same, which is it’s about what are the benefits of traveling and hosting on Airbnb? And it is about what are those unique, magical experiences that either hosting or traveling on Airbnb can provide? And so we always expect there’s a little bit of a network effect, regardless of which side of the platform the ad is aim at.

Schaal: One of the complainers like me will sometimes say, yeah, but that guest host connection is being lost because there’s so many big property management companies like Sonder distributes through Airbnb and you text the host, you never meet the host, so some of that is being lost.

Cupples: Well, it’s a little bit of a myth actually of Airbnb that it’s all about big property management companies, around eight out of 10 of all of our hosts have one listing. So it’s still very much a business that is based on everyday people opening up their homes and using the money that Airbnb provides to make ends meet, to do something different with their lives. So it’s a little bit of a myth. I think the other thing I would say is that we do have property managers on the platform and we welcome them. We have a very high quality bar and we’re constantly kind of innovating around what does quality mean for Airbnb? We’re not in the business of volume plays on low quality accommodations. So we work with property managers, we appreciate having them, and we welcome them onto the platform, but it has to be Airbnb type accommodation.

Schaal: Right. I’ve had some not so good experiences on Airbnb, just as an individual, but I have to say Airbnb customer service really helped me out.

Cupples: And again, I think one of the things that we pride ourselves on and we’re constantly working to improve and you’ll continue to see this through 2022 is, it is about that trust in the platform. Things do go wrong, unfortunately, we are a platform where we’re not providing the services ourselves. And what’s really important is that help is there when things go wrong, when occasionally unfortunately they do.

Schaal: Sure. So Vrbo was very public about a campaign to woo Airbnb super host. They ran it in the U.S., I believe UK and France. So are hosts leaving Airbnb in droves because of this?

Cupples: Well, I mean, look, the statistic is our active listings have increased consistently quarter on quarters since Q1 2021. It’s very hard for us to know.

Schaal: I think, 6 percent globally.

Cupples: So, no, I mean, I think what’s interesting for us and sort of coming back to where we started on marketing is, I think historically Airbnb has been very focused on organic traffic and sort of really focused on driving people to the website. We’ve now started to go into the marketing, starting at the top of the funnel with the brand, but you’ll increasingly see us moving down and we’ve been really encouraged by the results of that. We see traffic to the list your space landing page, which is the host side landing page up around 40 percent in countries where we’ve done the marketing campaigns versus where we don’t put advertising in. So I think all we can say is we’re happy that our supply is growing. We’re happy that the marketing that we’re doing is having a positive impact and on we go kind of thing.

Schaal: So what do you mean that you’re going to be increasingly moving down the funnel?

Cupples: So I think if you think particularly about the host side of things, we see the path to hosting is very much a journey, right? Starting with, I have no idea what hosting is and ending with here’s my space listed on Airbnb. And as you move through that journey, there are a number of blockers, obstacles that you will encounter on your way. And we’re doing something quite structured at the moment, which is to really map out that journey using a lot of user research, a lot of insight and methodically going through and really trying to figure out how can we help prospective hosts get over that obstacle or remove that blocker?

And part of, as we go through that journey, I think will be at appropriate points to put some marketing in country to kind of make people aware. One example that we have live in market at the moment is we have a program called Ask a Superhost so that if you are thinking about listing, you can actually talk to someone who’s doing it right now, and they can talk you through. We’ve started testing some marketing around that particular topic. And those of you who live in the UK may have heard some of the radio ads we’ve started to do there. So it’s things like that that are less about brand awareness and more about more specific parts of the journey.

Schaal: Right. So this week is your one year anniversary at Airbnb joined.

Cupples: Was last week. But pretty much one.

Schaal: Joined during the middle of the pandemic, what’s that been like?

Cupples: Well, I moved from digital health to travel, which some people sort of said was slightly counterintuitive in the middle of a pandemic, but look, it’s been a ride and I joined in the middle of the UK being in the absolute depths of a never ending lockdown. But Airbnb is an amazing company, it’s wonderful to be under the hood and be able to be crunching on all the innovation. I think the thing I love the most about it is Airbnb is one of those companies where you go out to dinner. I started as a structured finance lawyer. If you tell people you’re a structured finance lawyer at dinner, they either run away or like swiftly move on to the next question. If you tell them you work at Airbnb, they do what you do. They say, well, I was a guest and I had a bad experience or I love Airbnb, I use it all the time and what you should do to make it even better is this.

And I think that really to me speaks to the sense of community and that’s guest side host side. I spend lots of time every week with our hosts. We just really do have the most phenomenal community, whether it’s the Ukraine response or whether it’s day to day, just those little moments. We actually had a few hosts come into the London office last week and do a bit of a thing for women’s history month. And we had one of our hosts from London, an 80 year old woman called Jean and Jean bit of a living legend, and she said, “Look, I host on Airbnb because I can’t travel anymore.” She’s a widow. She said, “So I can’t go to the world, so the world comes to me through Airbnb.” And I just love that. And I love being at a company that can make that happen.

Schaal: On the other hand, as you know, it’s not going to be a shock, there is a lot of resentment against Airbnb and cities around the world. There’s lack of affordable housing. I have people knocking on my door where I live, is this place for rent? And I say, no, next door, there are Airbnbs. So how do you feel about that?

Cupples: Well, look, I think we acknowledge that there are parts of the world where cities have concerns about housing, they have concerns about nuisance. From our perspective, we want to be a responsible partner to cities. I think Airbnb’s grown up a lot, over the 14 years it’s been around. And we really are working now in quite a sophisticated way with local authorities to think about appropriate forms of regulation. We’re very pro regulation that surprises people about Airbnb, we’ve entered into over a thousand regulatory agreements with cities around the world. We take in over $4 billion of tourist tax a year that’s associated with Airbnb guests and travel.

So we’re very prepared to work on regulatory interventions where it’s appropriate. We’re very, very, very happy to work on non-regulatory things like noise and nuisance interventions. And again, we’re innovating on reservations queue technology to block party guests. We’re working on neighborhood support lines to allow, you can ring up if the Airbnb next door is becoming a problem. What that means for any particular city is obviously different, but we’re very open to it. And we want Airbnb to be good for the whole community, not just for the people that are traveling on it. And we really mean that and take it quite seriously.

Schaal: I have to ask a question about the Host Endowment fund. So that was started with nine million shares of Airbnb to get it going. And then Brian mentioned he got 120 million in stock options. He mentioned that he will get a plan in place to contribute a hundred million in stock options. So what’s the latest in those things?

Cupples: So I’m not Brian’s accountant, so I can’t give you the chapter and verse, but it is in progress the way just for people who don’t know what the Host Endowment is. The Host Endowment is a way for Airbnb in quite a long term way kind of contribute back to our hosts. So we don’t actually manage it. We have something called the Host Advisory Board, and we’ve just announced the 2022 board, it’s 24 hosts, they’re real, everyday Airbnb hosts, they are seven Europeans. And the Host Advisory Board is the manager of the endowment fund. This is the first full year of it, so it’s on the agenda to figure out what to do with it. We don’t have any prescriptive sort of requirements as to how it should be used. There are the nine million odd shares in there at the moment. Brian’s contribution will… The plan for that is the plan for that, you’ll see that sort of start to trickle in over the coming months. And we’re excited to see what the Host Advisory Board will actually do.

Schaal: So it’s not really, not a lot of has been given out yet.

Cupples: No, I mean, look, this was always intended to be a long term investment, this wasn’t a sort of operational thing to quickly push out grants. I think the types of things that the hosts board are thinking about things like is there something structural they can do in host education? Should it be a fund to provide relief to hosts that are in crisis? It’s things that require a little bit more structuring and thought. And as I said, you won’t see any kind of sudden moves on this, but over the coming months and years we’ll start to see that being given out.

Schaal: Audience question, Airbnb initially had a reputation as a cheaper alternative to hotels, now it seems many Airbnb stays can be more expensive. Is that something you’re concerned about?

Cupples: I mean, I think we’re always concerned that Airbnb is seen as a value additive option. I think probably that change is the archetypal and sort of origin Airbnb use case was a cheaper room in a large urban center that wasn’t a hotel. I think as the platforms grow and the type of supply has grown and where people are traveling to have grown. So, sorry, there’s a rogue fly. As we were talking before about travel trends and sort of changes, we really see this in our non-urban business, which has gone from pre pandemic, it was 40 percent of booked nights, now it’s 60 percent of booked nights. We see no reason to believe that won’t continue. And with that comes different types of supplies. So it’s not just private rooms, now we have whole holiday houses, we have castles, we have yachts, we have some hotels.

Schaal: Hotels.

Cupples: We have some hotels on the platform. And we also own a hotel platform, which is Hotels Tonight. So I think, with that, the pricing will change. We continue to believe that Airbnb is competitive, but at the end of the day, our hosts set the prices and they’re the experts and we try and help them out in making sure that they get booked.

Schaal: Amanda, thank you very much.

Cupples: Thank you for having me.

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Tags: airbnb, future of lodging, sfe2022, skift forum europe

Photo credit: Amanda Cupples and Executive Editor Dennis Schaal on stage at Skift Europe Forum

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