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.

Colors of Vietnam

I came across arguably the best promotional video about my country I have ever seen. The video was excellently filmed and edited to capture some of the best that my country can offer. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks a lot to Pau Garcia for the great video.

Source: Pau Garcia

I truly wish Vietnam can produce more of these videos to advertise the country to our international friends

How Vietnam fares in terms of inbound travel, compared to its peers

In this post, I will do a quick comparison in terms of inbound travel between Vietnam and other Asian neighboring countries. Data is from United Nations World Tourism Organization. To simplify the calculations, I used a static exchange rate of 23,100 VND/USD.

I was a bit skeptical about my country’s appeal to international guests, but as it turned out, Vietnam does pull in more than 15 million international visitors in 2018, a quite respectable.

However, we slip backwards on the receipt scoreboard, behind countries that have fewer visitors.

As a consequence, among the 12 countries surveyed, we pull the third smallest receipt per arrival.

It’s quite disappointing to see the receipt figures. Vietnam has a lot to offer. We have an amazing cuisine that was revered by the late great Anthony Bourdain. We have beaches throughout the country and untouched mountainous areas, including some famous sites.

Trang An
Ha Long Bay
Ma Pi Leng Pass (Source: Indochinatravel)

We should develop our service offerings even more to increase the receipts. We already manage to pull in a lot of visitors. Now, it is a matter of making those visitors come back and/or spend more money while in Vietnam.

Travel to Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Trang An is where the movie Kong was shot. I had long been interested in seeing the place in person, but could only do so this year. Below is my experience in this largely untouched and breathtakingly beautiful place

I had limited time left in Vietnam. So I only did a day trip to Ninh Binh which could only allow me to visit Dance Cave and Trang An. If you want to visit Bai Dinh and Tam Coc, 2 days will be a better choice.

I took a limousine to Ninh Binh and a train back to Hanoi. The limousine ride was comfortable and the trip took 1.5 hours. If you intend to ride a limousine back to Hanoi, it’s highly recommended that you make a reservation in advance. My friend and I couldn’t find any available seats on our way back so we decided to go by train. A limousine seat for one person on way is around 130,000 VND.

The train takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes from the gas station in Ninh Binh to Hanoi, a bit longer than a limousine ride. The ticket is more or less at the same price. The train wasn’t the best in my opinion, but it did the job.

Dance Cave

The attraction is a cave called Dance. However, the main point is the 400-something-step climb to a small mountain that stands next the cave. It’s highly recommended that you go there early in the morning to avoid the heat, wear sports clothes for easy movement and bring water!

Trang An

Our next stop was Trang An. If you are not with a tour operator, you can go from the cave to Trang An by taxi. It cost us 80,000 VND. Do bargain to avoid being ripped off.

Trang An is a marvelous place. It looks surreal and untouched. Just like Halong Bay, Trang An is proof of how remarkable Mother Nature is with her creativity and patience to produce such a beautiful painting over thousands of years.

A boat ride lasts 3 hours and costs around 200,000 VND per person. There are three different routes to experience Trang An. Route #3 is the latest one. The construction for Kong movie was removed in September 2019. So don’t expect to see any of it.

I learned from the trip that local farmers were allowed by the government to carry passengers on boats once every two days in addition to their farming work. They are paid a meager amount of 200,000 VND for their ride, a ridiculous sum for 3 hours of physical work and some more idly waiting time. As a consequence, it’s expected that passengers tip the women around 50,000 VND per person.

The start of Route #3 in Trang An
Boat rides in Trang An
Magnificent Green
Space opening up
The entrance to a 1km-long cave
Not a friendly cave to tall people
A typical rural house in the past
Entrance to a pagoda in the middle of Trang An
Right at the exit of another cave, to the eagle-shaped moutain
Eagle!
Ninh Binh Train Station

My photos don’t do Ninh Binh enough justice, not even close. I urge that you visit the place soon as it is still in an excellent shape with little human impact. To feel the might of nature and the beauty that it brings. To feel humbled. To feel alive. I never got enough of that green color on top of the grey of the rocks.

Travel to Halong Bay

Two weeks ago I visited Halong Bay. Here are a few tips I learned from the trip and some photos for your reference

There are different types of tours to Halong Bay: within the day, two days and one night or three days and two nights. The cruises vary as well. You can have your pick from a litany of three-star, four-star and five-star ships that offer more or less the same activites but presumably different levels of services.

There are two ways to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi, the capital. The highway is significantly faster and takes roughly 2.5 hours, compared to 5 hours taken with the usual heavily-trafficked roads. You can choose to travel in style with limousines which offer limited yet comfortable and spacious seats or go with a normal coach that doesn’t cost much less, but offers far less comfort.

There are two harbors in Halong Bay where the ships usually leave to start a tour. The old harbor has far more traffic than its newer counterpart. So, it’s worth asking your tour operator about this point.

For reference, I booked a two-day-one-night tour on Athena cruise with Vietravel that included all meals (no drinks included), limousines from and to Hanoi, my own cabin, a visit to a cave, kayaking in the bay on a less busy route and cost approximately 6 million VND.

The first stop of the trip was to a pearl farm. At the farm, you can listen to the staff explaining about how pearls are formed and what they do on a daily basis. There are some live demonstrations of how a pearl is retrieved from an oyster and how a pearl “seed” is planted in an oyster. The following videos are for your reference

The next activity on the card is kayaking around a local community. You can have a local operate the boat for you, but if you are physically fit enough, I highly recommend that you kayak yourself. One thing I learned from this activity was that kids in this community attend a floating school till they are 18, old enough to attend a university in Vietnam. They then come back to the mainland for college.

Halong Bay is magnificent. It’s humbling to be in the middle of this remarkable creation of Mother Nature. It’s highly recommended to watch the Bay during sunrise and sunset

Halong Bay during sunset
Halong Bay during sunrise
Sunrise in Halong Bay

The last activity on my trip is to a 200,000 year old cave. It’s mind-blowing how beautiful a cave created out of erosion can be. It is just impossible not to be impressed by Mother Nature and her imagination

a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay

All in all, the tour to Halong Bay is worth the time and money. I was struck from the very first moment by its wonderful beauty. Kudos to the local government for keeping this attraction in pretty good shape. I didn’t see trash during my trip. If you visit Vietnam and have two days to spare, do consider Halong Bay.

One more thing before I end this entry: do get yourself a good mobile data package. There is no Wifi. So your phone’s mobile connection will be the only way to keep in touch with the modern world: a.k.a your Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook and so on!

Women suffrage and what’s happening with abortion bans

I came across a lot of materials in Washington DC’s museums on women suffrage decades ago. The movement is really inspiring and stunning to see. Inspiring in the sense that these women did everything they had to in order to get what was rightfully theirs, in the times that were hostile to women’s rights.

Stunning in a sense that almost 150 years later, women are still battling for the right to do what they want with THEIR OWN bodies. We cured a lot of diseases that were fatal years ago. We got close to Mars, put men on the moon and went beyond what we had imagined. We have been talking about autonomous vehicles for years. We make content instantly available almost everywhere on small devices that are much more powerful than computers 40 years ago. Yet, the basic rights of women are still a fight.

Years from now, museums in the US will store evidence of how women still didn’t have this basic right and how they fought to eventually secure it in 2019, won’t they?

I learned new things about Rwanda today

I came across two cool videos on Bloomberg YouTube channel on Rwanda, a country in East Africa. The first video is about how Kigali in Rwanda is nowadays. It’s surprising and cool to learn about a city where there is no plastic bag, coffee is good, cleanliness is prioritized and economy is throwing.

The second video is about how drones produced by Zipline, an American country, are used to aid doctors and patients in Rwanda. As the road infrastructure in the country is in so bad a shape that it’s challenging at times for doctors and hospitals to procure blood. The drones alleviate such a problem. This is one of the best examples of how technology can be used to save lives. The part where the drones are stopped and grounded is awesome. Such precision.

Initiatives in the Tourism Industry in Vietnam

First of all, if you are looking for a website to learn more about Vietnam and particularly Saigon, I highly recommend this website – Saigoneer. Its section on street food is a great start. It’s in English and has lots of details.

There are a few upcoming initiatives announced recently in the industry:

  • There will be bi-weekly direct flights form Zurich to Saigon
  • Vietnam Airlines will soon operate direct flights from Danang to Japan
  • Vietnam Airlines is exploring the possibility of direct flights from Vietnam to America
  • Vietnam Tourism Association will soon carry out exams to classify tour guides in the country. Tour guides will be given 3 to 5 stars based on the results of the exams which will be free of charge and voluntary. Also, freelance tour guides are now mandated to be under contracts with authorized tour companies in order to do business
  • BBC Sport reported that a 2020 race in Hanoi, Vietnam was now secured barring an official announcement

Three points here. First, the tourism industry brought in $13 billion in the first half of 2018, an increase of 22% compared to last year. It is huge for a country like Vietnam. We have a lot to offer. A long coast throughout the country. An authentic and exotic cuisine. We have beaches, mountains and Mekong Delta, everything that a tourist can hope to experience. But our tourism has been plagued by the lack of standards in services leading to the poor return rate of guests. Our country is pretty much a myth that is worth exploring once and no more. In business, it costs 6 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain one. This is the same case. Even though the tour guide exam’s effectiveness remains to be seen (we Vietnamese are not known for world class execution), it is a small step towards the right direction. If we want to compete and have more guests return, maintaining high service standards is instrumental.

Secondly, having more direct flights is huge. Thailand and Singapore have two airport hubs in the region and look what the airports have done to their tourism. Direct flights will reduce the hesitation from guests when they have to make a decision on where to visit. Vietnam’s two biggest airports sorely need major upgrade. It’s a pity that some bureaucracy red tape has prevented the expansion of the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. We have the land to do so and the airport is ridiculously right next to the city center. I have been to quite some airports and I haven’t seen one that close to a city center. Nonetheless, having more direct flights will increase our appeal as a destination.

Lastly, I have been hoping for annual international event in Vietnam for years. Singapore’s F1 Grand Prix has been a remarkable success since its debut in 2008. Otherwise, Singapore wouldn’t keep hosting it. A race is usually a combination of music concerts, press conference, other activities and of course the racing itself. With the reach of Formula 1, Vietnam’s brand awareness which has been under-marketed due to lackluster branding and marketing efforts will hopefully be boosted.

McDonald’s and Burger King’s failure in Vietnam

CNBC released a short video clip on McDonald’s and Burger King’s failure in Vietnam despite glowing success in other countries and particularly other Asian countries such as China and Japan. While McDonald’s and Burger King have struggled in Vietnam, Pizza Hut and KFC have managed to attain some success in the market.

The video mentioned the following as the main reasons for the failure:

  • A lot of substitutes at a much cheaper price from street vendors
  • Burgers don’t fit Vietnamese cuisine preference of sharing food during meals

Personally, I have lived in the US for more than two years and I can count on one hand the number of times I have been to chains such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King or Chipotle. All of them were with friends or on our way back from trips. Burgers don’t appeal to us. We have a quite similar dish in Banh Mi, which is very delicious, quick to prepare and significantly cheaper. I lived in Danang for a year, the 3rd biggest city in Vietnam. It is half an hour of a scooter ride from Hoi An, where you can find some of the best Banh Mis in Vietnam. The price for local is about 50cents (maybe 1 dollar for foreigners), but the price at McDonald’s or Burger King’s restaurant is several times more expensive.

travel.anandi

Banh Mi Hoi An (Credit: Hoi An Fun Bike Tours)

banh-mi-KHanh-3

This is how Banh Mi is prepared and delivered, in about 1-2 minutes maximum. (Credit: Hoi An Tour Food)

I still remember the buzz when McDonald’s came to Vietnam the first time. People lined up to experience it. Nonetheless, when the hype wore off after a while, it comes down to whether McDonald’s offerings are competitive and whether they fit the culinary buds of the Vietnamese people. Apparently, they don’t. This is a failure of not understanding the end users’ preferences.

Towards the end of the clip, it was mentioned that McDonald’s is trying to localize the menus with Pho and Broken Rice. Well, I am not sure that will work because the same thing will happen. There are hundreds of street vendors whose product is so tasty and much cheaper than the well-known chain’s.