The Biggest Surprise
Unless you have been in a coma for the past month - you probably noticed the announcement from Airbnb of the launch of their new Airbnb Trip Platform strategy at the very Apple-esque Airbnb Open conference on November 17th, 2016.
To recap, Airbnb is boldly expanding its platform to offer other experiences and components of the trip to guests - in addition to just rooms. Its plan is to go from short term accommodation provider to fully fledged travel agency.
The most eye-opening aspect of this was not that they plan to bundle car rentals, flights and other services into the platform. After all, that makes perfect sense and is not technically or logistically difficult for a company with deep pockets.
No - the real surprise from Airbnb was their "Experiences" component which is where Airbnb connects guests with local people offering unique experiences such as truffle hunting, ramen making or astral photography.
These experiences might be in the form of services, tours, classes, workshops or anything else left up to the imagination of its creators. It is important to note that these "Experience Hosts" are not neccesarily "Airbnb Hosts".
What is remarkable about this is the fact Airbnb has completely eschewed the normal city or local physical attractions that might appear in Tripadvisor for these very personal, people powered experiences.
Watch the full presentation below for more context:
So we now have three categories in the Airbnb app - Homes (Accommodation), Places (Host curated local recommendations) and Experiences (offered by locals).
But Wait - That's Not All...
Airbnb sees these Experiences as all part of a "magical journey" where the experiences along the way are critical. By adding these local Experiences they hope to offer their largely young and adventurous guests something they can't get anywhere else.
They also announced another category is just around the corner - Flights. Brian Chesky the CEO of Airbnb even joked that there was obviously room in the app for many more icons in addition to the Homes, Places and Experience that are now live.
This isn't just about Airbnb offering add-ons for their guests, it is about providing a complete, integrated and "holistic package" of all the components necessary for a so called "magical journey".
Let's Break it Down
Still confused? Let's break down each aspect of this strategy for Airbnb with our take on how it affects hotels and motels, and how you can meet this challenge head on.
Homes is the broad Airbnb category for its accommodation, which is rather confusing in itself considering many Airbnb properties are actually holiday rentals or dedicated accommodation. I wonder why they didn't go for something more generic like 'bases' or 'stays' that might actually better capture the range of different accommodation available.
The recommended counterstrike for dedicated hotels and motels is to continue emphasising the benefits of staying at a hotel over an unknown Airbnb host.
The fact you might have late check ins, a location that local taxi drivers can actually easily find and most likely a much better base to explore local attractions are all things your marketing communications can mention.
There is also a unique opportunity here for small, boutique bed and breakfast type establishments who can offer the best of both worlds - a secure, safe and reliable experience with elements of the personal touch.
The challenge for these type of operators is to appeal to the younger "free spirits" who normally book an Airbnb while also catering for the more traditional older generation.
Airbnb describes it as this:
Discover thousands of secret spots, recommended by local insiders and our community of hosts.
Places is the somewhat confusing name for what is actually their curated, local recommendations provided by Airbnb hosts. This really just seems to be a spin on their existing guidebooks.
Why its not a Game Changer
While I love the concept on the face of it - I am somewhat sceptical about the usefulness for guests. It sounds intriguing but how does it actually work in practice? Without great photography of these local places, you are putting a lot of faith in these guides who have recommended places which may not actually be what you expect.
I am reminded of an experience I had on the Gold Coast where my cousin had recommended a local Thai restaurant and swore it was "the best Thai food I have ever had". Well I blindly booked this place on his recommendation and took my Mother and partner along.
Not only was it nowhere near the best Thai food I had ever had - it was bordering on the worst! After this experience, I vowed never to rely on the personal recommendations of one "member of the public" - because the wisdom of the crowds always seems to be more reliable. I guess that is why TripAdvisor is still relevant, despite its shortcomings.
Counter with Location Content Marketing
As a hotel or motel owner or manager, you have an enormous opportunity to "one up" Airbnb by carefully developing a "location marketing strategy" which involves making exactly the same 'secret spots' information available to your guests throughout your online presence and content marketing (blogs and articles etc).
This is definitely an area (local recommendations) where your hotel should be able to provide a richer, more accurate and better presented list of local "secret spots" whether they be restaurants, bars, parks, quaint shops - or just great places to take photographs.
That's because its just worth your while to do so. We all know content is king on Google and what else are you going to blog about on your hotel website?
Airbnb describes it on their website in December 2016:
Book hundreds of experiences designed and led by local experts, like chefs, street artists, and sumo champs.
Now this in theory sounds like a wonderful idea. Offer true local experiences across a range of interests and hobbies by connecting guests with people offering these services.
A Mammoth Marketing Effort
But I was stunned when I dug a little deeper and discovered how Airbnb has been creating the marketing content for this. According to the Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall - they have a team of 55 Directors of Photography all running around taking the photographs and video required to market these experiences.
They are creating these original artworks in the style of classic cinema posters for each experience commissioned in the city where the experience takes place. These look absolutely incredible, but all of this is super labour intensive and hard to scale.
Safety Concerns will Slow its Growth
The potential safety concerns about meeting a stranger who is going to lead you down a back alley to show you that "secret local sight" is something Airbnb must be very worried about. Thats why they have declared the application, vetting and approval process for these experience providers is much more involved than for "Home Hosts".
Then there are other problems I see with the appeal of this to younger millennials. It is my assessment that most people that say in Airbnb accommodation primarily do so to save money. While there may be many extroverts who love to meet hosts and like a dose of unpredictability with their holiday - there are many, many more who aren't wired like this.
Airbnb seems to be assuming that guests booking a "home" will like relish taking more risks by trying these unproven and very personal experiences with locals (and all costing probably more than the accommodation itself!).
Will it Work in the Real World
The logistics and practicality of being able to book these experiences as a guest, actually navigate your way to the location (safely and on time in a foreign city) and have it all work out just seems a little optimistic to me.
There are logistical issues such as the booking process, refund considerations, public liability insurance and safety concerns and just the fact I bet many hungover young guests will think twice about that "Truffle Hunting expedition" when they wake up to a rainy day and a hell of a hangover.
It All Seems Too Good to be True
In the conference video there is the story of "Francisco" which was actually created by the cinematographers that have produced film for Apple. It tells the story of a gay man from Chile who just didn't know what to do when he first arrived in San Francisco. But alas, along came "Airbnb Experiences" where he instantly made new friends and everyone held hands and sung Koombiyah as the sun rose.
I would suggest that the perfect tool for meeting up with locals already exists for gay people and its called Grindr. Its also free.
In any case, the experiences depicted in the film seemed to be dinners, parties and other get togethers - which aren't actually what Airbnb experiences would be in the first place.
Sorry but for me, the notion that you can "buy" friendship and "authentic local experiences" is a pipe dream.
It's Just Too Hard
I also struggle with the idea that people with obscure interests such as Astral Photography or Truffle hunting will travel to a foreign city to experience these specific things they could probably just do in their own diverse city.
The same cannot be said for actual local tourist attractions, which just have to be experienced in person.
There is also the added cost and inconvenience of having to travel to these locations for the experiences on strange subways, trains, buses or rogue taxis. This cannot be stressed enough because it is always daunting getting around a strange city.
It is very easy in a city like Bangkok for example, to see that 3km on a map as "just up the road" when in fact its a 1.5 hour bumper to bumper taxi ride and you end up missing the experience!
As far as I am concerned, these "Airbnb Experiences" just sound like extra stress I don't want on my holiday or vacation - and certainly wouldn't pay for.
Based on Absolute Faith in Humanity
The whole premise of Airbnb is based on optimism and faith in humanity. That everything will work out and everyone will get along just fine. Airbnb has found out the hard way that not everyone thinks this way after receiving recent negative publicity about the problems African-Americans have had getting approved by Airbnb hosts.
For a hotel or motel to recommend a local attraction, experience or so called 'secret spot' it really has to be something that is proven and reliable. That is what matters most here. Not that the experience is "out of this world" magical, just that it does what it says on the can.
The only experiences that fall into this category in my opinion are established tourism oriented operators with regular office hours, an accompanying website with further information and existing rave reviews online.
Your Hotel Experiences
The most sensible way to compete with Airbnb in this field is to offer experiences inside your hotel or at your suppliers or local partners.
Here are some ideas for unique experiences offered directly by your hotel that can be integrated into your marketing:
- Cooking classes inside your hotel kitchens or poolside/outside on a bbq.
- Fitness or group fitness classes that include visiting interesting local sights.
- A behind the scenes tour of the hotel including the kitchen.
- Local walking tours with an historic or other theme such as photography.
All of these experiences could be offered either free of charge or for a small fee and may involve an external contractor/partner to provide them. The key here is to ensure they are unique to your hotel or motel and that guests can only experience them by booking your hotel.
And because your guests are already staying at your hotel, there is none of the anxiety associated with the Airbnb experiences - and you get to keep all the profit.
Airbnb is on the right track about many assumptions in its presentation and vision behind their new Airbnb Trip platform. But Airbnb only appeals to certain types of people, and the vast majority of people wisely prefer the predictability, practicality and comfort your hotel can offer.
As a hotel or motel operator, we strongly recommend checking out What is the Locus Focus Hotel Marketing Strategy because it is the most powerful and effective strategy to square up with the new Airbnb Trip Platform.
Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.