With over 20,000 properties across 100 Indian cities ranging from a single room to a penthouse, a villa or a heritage home, Airbnb’s Amanpreet Bajaj speaks to BrandWagon’s Shinmin Bali about the growing potential of the Indian market at a time when the company is looking to become a one-stop shop for varied travel needs. Edited excerpts:
Is the partnership with Andhra Pradesh’s Tourism Department, a government body, reflective of the company’s learnings from run-ins with the law in other cities across the globe?
What differentiates us is that we have all kinds of properties on the platform; what people come looking for from Airbnb are unique experiences. India is so culturally diverse and there is a lot of heritage that needs to be showcased to the global audience. We wanted to ensure that as a global platform, we are able to enrich experiences of the people that want to visit India in addition to shining the limelight on various regions of India.We do not want to follow the prevalent homestay method in Andhra Pradesh.
We want to make sure that artisans there get a digital and global platform to reach out to more people. It is driven more by our desire to have a larger footprint in India; a footprint that is unique in nature bringing to life everything India is known for. From the government perspective, we have had great partnerships with multiple governments globally. In India, before this, we have signed an MoU with the government of Gujarat.
Has Airbnb, so far, managed to change consumer behaviour in India?
At the end of the day, we want Airbnb to be in the consideration set of more and more people that are planning to travel. We want people to understand the unique properties that they can stay at by experiencing our platform. The main aim of the partnership last year with Thomas Cook was to address the fact that people were still approaching travel agents to have everything booked under one roof. Apart from the accommodation, they want the forex, air bookings, on-location travel arrangements — all to be handled under one umbrella.
Increasingly, many people are coming on to the app by themselves. Booking a property on Airbnb is an experience in itself.
How is the trust factor being addressed in the Indian market?
Culturally we are very different. We tend to go by what has traditionally been done. Having said that, we must not forget that hospitality is an intrinsic part of Indian culture where we have grown up seeing our homes being opened up to welcome friends, family, friends of friends, relatives of friends and so on. What Airbnb as a platform does is to provide the host and the traveller with the comfort they are looking for. Trust is critical to our business and it is core to the way we think as a company. There are global tools also available to the community in India that help people gain more trust. Central to that is our payment system. For example, if you make a booking on Airbnb, we hold the payment until the guest checks-in to the home and only when everything is found in order by the guest is when the payment is released.
We also have a very robust review system. The guest and the host both review each other. Over a period of time, both guests and hosts build a reputation on the platform. We track that reputation very closely based on certain parameters such as hospitality, cleanliness, etc. If found in violation, we take action immediately. To ensure the peace of mind of our hosts, we have a Rs 6 crore guarantee programme to compensate the host for damages to their property caused by guests.
Has Airbnb passed the mass awareness stage in India?
What we are seeing is that more and more people are now coming online to make travel plans. More and more people are into the DIY mode. We are focussed on the 270 million urban millennials in India. They are very tech savvy and use the internet to do everything from discovering new places to finding recommendations before planning a trip on their own.
Is the commission structure for Airbnb in India different from other markets?
We follow the global structure. We charge a 3 % fee from the host in India, which is the lowest when compared to other markets. From the 3 %, we provide the host with support, insurance, etc. We do not dictate pricing to hosts. The host decides what a property would be worth. We have tools available to guide the host to determine pricing which depends on the type of property, if there are interesting events set to take place near the property and so on.
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What is the company’s marketing and advertising strategy for India?
If you look at our marketing campaigns from last year, given the mindset of the affluent users from India, those campaigns were a good fit. All the locations — London, Paris, LA — shown in ad campaigns witness a lot of traffic from India. We understand the local dynamic of this market. But the global messaging is very well received in India and we will continue to use the global framework.
We tied up with the movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil last year. The local play allowed us to tap into the market very effectively. We ran a contest on social media giving people a chance to stay in London like the actors of the movie. We did multiple local partnerships last year with banks as well. If we think the global messaging is relevant to a market and if it works, we will continue to use it.
Airbnb recently launched Trips. What was the idea behind it?
The launch of Trips is the most significant development in the company’s history, as we expand beyond accommodation and take this same people-focussed approach to the entire trip. Trips has been launched with three key areas — experiences, places and homes, with flights and services to be added in the future.