AirBnb CEO on how Covid-19 changed travel and what is going on with the company

AirBnb CEO Brian Chesky had an interview with Bloomberg two days ago. First of all, I think Brian seemed very real and genuine in this interview. Watching him speak didn’t give me a sense that he was a robot reading script or a politician giving all kinds of lip services or false hope. For example, he admitted to being unfocused in the past, working on too many things at AirBnb at the same time. He also publicly committed to publishing data on diversity at AirBnb one year from now. That kind of genuineness and down-to-Earth attitude are refreshing to see. He talked about his commitment to diversity & equality, how he thinks about IPO this year, what mistake he made while running AirBnb, Online Experience, how Covid-19 changed travel behavior and so on. But I will only discuss two topics as follows:

How Covid-19 changed travel

While many people said that travel pre-Covid as we knew it is forever gone and we will never see it again, I am much less certain on that. Humans are quick to forget. Once we have the vaccine or have this virus under control, no matter how many years that will take, I think we can get back to where we were travel-behavior-wise. Things tend to be cyclical, you know. Nonetheless, Brian talked about what he has seen in terms of behavioral changes of travelers:

  • Business travel will take a lot longer to recover
  • EU has recovered solidly from the pandemic. Asia started the recovery path. Latin America hasn’t recovered much. He said that the US “has been really really strong” and it “has seen a temporary recovery”. I am not quite sure how to think about it. The US has repeatedly seen a new high on the number of cases in a day for quite a while now. Even if a portion of the population traveled, what would that do to the full recovery? Would take delay the recovery much longer?
  • Less interest in travel to urban areas with dense population and in cross-border travel
  • Travel will be more local

For the foreseeable future, there will be major changes in how businesses operate in the tourism industry. Attractions will have to take into account social distancing when designing tours. Travel agencies will have to arrange transportation for small groups only and avoid trips to crowded places. Hotels or AirBnb hosts will have to increase the hygiene level and how to communicate that to travelers.

If you look at countries whose tourism plays a huge part in the overall economy such as France or Italy, they were decimated by the pandemic. However, they have recovered since and started to take on tourists. The picture is very different for the US. Not only does nobody want to travel here at this time, unless they absolutely have to, but the people living here are now banned from visiting Europe. The lack of commitment to take on short-term losses for future prospects and, by extension, the absolutely atrocious handling of this pandemic are setting this country back months in recovery and perhaps even longer for the US tourism industry.

Online Experiences

AirBnb launched Online Experiences in April 2020 due to the pandemic. The service allows hosts to craft a unique experience online for a small group of guests. After reservations are confirmed, guests receive a Zoom invitation through which they can live participate in the Experience. For instance, you can book to learn how to cook with this Michelin chef from Italy in a live stream session along with 9 other people around the globe without leaving your home. All you need to do is to make a reservation, prepare ingredients beforehand and join the Zoom session.

Source: AirBnb

Brian Chesky said that it is the fastest growing product of AirBnb, even though he didn’t specify whether it’s the fastest growing product ever or it’s just during the pandemic. He did reveal that the service has had 400 Experiences listed so far and generated $1 million in bookings.

AirBnb is quick to improvise and pivot during this pandemic that severely affects travel. I can see some value in this service. Firstly, for folks who feel lonely during this crisis (and there are a lot of them), this is a great and inexpensive way to meet new people and learn something useful without enduring more risks. The live stream format is key because if this were an on-demand video clip like what we have with streamers like Netflix, it wouldn’t work. There needs to be a real and tailored human interaction. That’s why I think it makes sense to limit the number of participants to maximize the interaction with each person.

Secondly, take Vietnam as an example. Our borders have been closed for months. Hosts can take advantage of this opportunity to offer local tours or experiences and gain revenue that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Regarding the future prospect of this service, I am not convinced yet. Covid-19 necessitates online interaction. However, when this blows over, though it may take some time, how much will people still prefer online interaction and how much time will they have for these experiences? There are many other services that can offer similar online lessons. Once people are free to leave home, they no longer need some strangers on the Internet to bond with to alleviate the loneliness as there are countless distractions. I don’t have any data, but that $1 million bookings in 3 months globally seems a bit soft. Furthermore, the live stream nature and the small group requirement of this service don’t necessarily let host scale their revenue. They are constrained by their time, being the presenter physically and the number of participants. Hence, I suspect that revenue from Online Experiences may just shift to Experiences post-Covid.

In sum, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the tourism industry and AirBnb, in particular. The pandemic threw its plan to go public in the trash bin and significantly altered its business. If you are interested in the company, have a listen to Brian’s talk. Once again, I really like his down-to-Earth tone and genuineness.

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