Why Amazon Fresh stores will likely rock a few boats. As its competitors do more shipping from their own stores, Amazon can get on level terms in that sense with having more stores of their own in strategic locations. Plus, if they can get these cashierless stores to run properly, they will be able to cut back a significant line item on the Income Statement, paid employees!
AirBnb recently filed its S-1 as an important step before soon going public. Finally, the curtain on one of the household names and one of the most anticipated IPOs is now pulled back a little. The filing is pretty long. I stuck through it, well most of it. Here is what I found
Unless you have lived under a rock for the past 4-5 years, you should be familiar with AirBnb. It’s that website where you can book a spare room, an air mattress in somebody’s house or the entire house for a period of time. In 2007, two of the founders were trying to make more money to cover the expensive living cost in San Francisco. One time, there was a popular conference in town and all the hotels were booked. So they quickly came up with a website that could let people book for an air mattress at their place. The seed for AirBnb was planted on that day. 13 years later, they are on the verge of going public.
The problems AirBnb solves are two fold. 1/ They increase the efficiency of the travel market. Hosts, whether it’s an individual or a professional management company, have spare resources (rooms) that can be exploited while guests can have an alternative choice in addition to traditional hotels, often at a cheaper price. 2/ Trust. Guests come to stay at traditional hotels because they somewhat trust the safety there. Imagine that you are an individual host. How could you trust a stranger enough to let him or her in your apartment, let alone sleeping a few feet away from you? At its core, AirBnb operates as a middle man between hosts and guests, and facilitates the searching and booking of travel products.
Who does AirBnb compete with? Here is the list of competitors AirBnb detailed in the filing
Online travel agencies (“OTAs”), such as Booking Holdings (including the brands Booking.com, KAYAK, Priceline.com, and Agoda.com); Expedia Group (including the brands Expedia, Vrbo, HomeAway, Hotels.com, Orbitz, and Travelocity); Trip.com Group (including the brands Ctrip.com, Trip.com, Qunar, Tongcheng-eLong, and SkyScanner); Meituan Dianping; Fliggy (a subsidiary of Alibaba) Despegar; MakeMyTrip; and other regional OTAs
Internet search engines, such as Google, including its travel search products; Baidu; and other regional search engines;
Listing and meta search websites, such as TripAdvisor, Trivago, Mafengwo, AllTheRooms.com, and Craigslist
Hotel chains, such as Marriott, Hilton, Accor, Wyndham, InterContinental, OYO, and Huazhu, as well as boutique hotel chains and independent hotels
Chinese short-term rental competitors, such as Tujia, Meituan B&B, and Xiaozhu; and
Online platforms offering experiences, such as Viator, GetYourGuide, Klook, Traveloka, and KKDay.
The order of this list should tell you which AirBnb considers their fiercest rivals. Not only do those incumbent OTAs offer a marketplace for room nights at traditional hotels, but they also have their own homestay marketplace offerings, similar to what AirBnb is. With an esteemed competition like this, how well has AirBnb performed in the past few years?
Incredible growth in the past 5 years
According to the filing, the number of Nights and Experiences (like a virtual cooking session or a tour to a sight nearby) booked grew at a CAGR of 46% from 72 millions in 2015 to 327 millions in 2019. Meanwhile, the gross booking value (the dollar amount of all Nights and Experiences booked) grew 47% every year from around $8 billion in 2015 to $38 billion in 2019. Those are impressive numbers. Put it this way, in the first 9 months of 2020, 6 of which were amid Covid-19, AirBnb booked more Nights and Experiences and dollars than they did in the entire year of 2016. On this note, I wish AirBnb were a bit more transparent. I’d love to see a breakdown of booked room nights and booked Experiences. Booking.com breaks down their bookings for accommodation, flights and car rentals. I don’t see any reason why AirBnb shouldn’t do the same to help investors understand more the dynamics of their business.
Before the pandemic, AirBnb’s revenue grew 51% every year, from $919 million in 2015 to $4.8 billion in 2019. The first 9 months of 2020, despite the deadly Covid-19, saw the company book almost as much revenue as the entire year of 2017. If we look at the take-rate which is the ratio between revenue and gross bookings, it has been flat at around 11-12% every year between 2015 and 2019. The commission in the first 9 months of 2020 is 14%. Given that AirBnb pushed for virtual Experiences during the pandemic and saw their rental bookings demolished, that’s why I argue for more transparency in the way AirBnb reports their numbers. To really understand the dynamics of their business. Even at 14%, it’s still a bit lower than what Booking.com has globally on average at 15%.
Covid presents a massive challenge and a silver lining
Covid-19 is perhaps the biggest and most damaging crisis to the travel industry. AirBnb isn’t immune to it. Bookings (Nights and Experiences Booked) were up 25% and 17% year-over-year in January and February 2020, before the bottom fell off under AirBnb’s feet. Covid-19 hit. Bookings dropped by 114% and 103% in March and April, respectively. The situation recovered as folks travelled more after April, but as of September 2020, bookings were still down 28%. The decline in bookings leads to a drop in revenue in the first 9 months of 2020 of 32% YoY. Operating loss is almost 4 times bigger than the loss of the same period last year. The damage was so devastating that the company even considered not going public this year.
But why do I say that Covid-19 presents a silver lining?
Before Covid-19, AirBnb showed signs of inefficiency. After being profitable in 2018, every cost item as % of revenue increased in 2019, in comparison to 2018, resulting in the company’s operating loss of 10% of revenue. Even though it still suffers loss in 2020 due to a rise in costs, the cost mix is different. What AirBnb expensed in 2020 is mostly related to Covid-19. The growth in G&A, Operations and Product Development is offset by the decline in Marketing expense. Specifically, the company didn’t spend as much money on marketing, particular online ads as it did a year ago. In fact, for the nine months ending on September 30, 2020, only 9% of their traffic came from paid marketing channels. In an interview a few months ago, CEO Brian Chesky revealed that the company had the same booking in the US market in 2020 up to that time as they did in the same period in 2019, despite NO spending on paid marketing, to the tune of a saving of $1 billion.
Despite all the damages Covid-19 has caused the company, the pandemic looks to be an opportunity for AirBnb to recalibrate and refocus. They might have got carried away with expanding too fast without a tight control of the expenses. At least, they now learned that they could still keep the business in a good shape without wasting money on paid marketing. Whether they can apply the same lesson to other expense items remains to be seen, especially when Covid-19 is still engulfing us around the globe.
Moving forward, I hope that AirBnb will be more transparent with regard to the breakdown of their online and offline marketing expenses. Booking.com did a very good job on that. They have a specific section dedicated to online marketing spending while AirBnb mixes it with brand marketing; which doesn’t let investors and analysts have a true feel of how much the company spends on paid performance marketing, in comparison to its rivals.
Like many other companies, AirBnb has a couple of looming legal threats on the horizon. One significant threat comes from possible restricting local regulations. In their filing, AirBnb wrote:
For example, listings in New York City generated approximately 2% of our revenue in 2019, and when new regulations requiring us to share host data with the city are implemented, our revenue from listings there may be substantially reduced due to the departure from our platform of hosts who do not wish to share their data with the city and related cancellations. A reduction in supply and cancellations could make our platform less attractive to guests, and any reduction in the number of guests could further reduce the number of hosts on our platform.
To be honest, I never understand the beef between local authorities and AirBnb. If it’s about tax, then just raise taxes on the company, but I don’t fully support passing regulations that restrict its business and by extension, individual hosts that operate on its platform. Nonetheless, it’s the reality that AirBnb has to deal with. There are a host of legal issues in various forms that AirBnb is encountering. Even though they don’t necessarily threat its existence, it may harm the top and bottom lines.
The second threat comes in the form of a $1.35 billion tax bill. According to AirBnb, they were served in September 2020 with a notice that they would need to pay $1.35 billion in taxes, plus penalties and interest related to their alleged failure to pay enough of their dues in 2013. That figure can amount to 30-33% of total revenue in 2019; which is a significant sum.
My thoughts on AirBnb
AirBnb is a spectacular story in a sense that it opened up a market that had been there before. Before AirBnb, no company had been able to take homestay rentals to the level that it did. Would there have been another company that achieved the same feat? Possible, but the fact and the matter is that it is AirBnb that revolutionized this market and has grown to be a multi-billion dollar company. It warrants nothing but praise and admiration. However, from a financial perspective, the last 18 months haven’t been great. Even before Covid, AirBnb registered a loss while they should have made some profit.
At its core, AirBnb is similar to other OTAs. The difference is that while the incumbent OTAs, the likes of Booking.com and Expedia, rule the world of traditional hotels, AirBnb dominates the homestay world. Yes, the incumbents have their homestay offerings too, but is Vrbo a verb or as popular a noun as AirBnb? Not even close. While the OTA giants are making inroads into AirBnb’s territory, AirBnb also starts to have some hotels listed on their platform. I think in the future AirBnb and OTA giants can co-exist together and thrive in their respective stronghold. AirBnB understands how to manage homestay, but doesn’t have the expertise to deal with hotels, especially chains like Booking.com. On the other hand, OTAs don’t have the brand name in the homestay world like AirBnb nor the expertise.
In the near future, here is what I think will be AirBnb immediate priorities for the next one or two years
Recover to the pre-covid level of business. Even after travel is opened up again, it won’t be the same as it was for a while. Would travelers be comfortable in a stranger’s house without knowing if it’s clean enough? How about traveling internationally to somewhere that still struggles with Covid? Would business travel recover fast enough?
Deal with the legal challenges as I mentioned above
Get used to the scrutiny that comes with being public
Keep control of the costs. 2019 wasn’t a great example of cost management. Would AirBnb keep up the lesson it learned during Covid?
What’s next for Virtual Experiences?
In short, once travel industry recovers, however much, from this deadly pandemic, AirBnb will no doubt increase its bookings and revenue. I do have some confidence in their adapting to the new style of travel. What they will be more judged on is their profitability and that remains to be seen. 2019 wasn’t great. 2020 so far has been a year of exception because of Covid-19. Their performance on the stock market will be much affected by whether they can stay disciplined with their expenses.
I do want to make a point about my personal experience with AirBnb. The site is helpful, but it is annoying. What bugs me is that AirBnb isn’t upfront with all the fees. Once you settle on a listing for $100/night, by the time you get to the checkout page, it will be already $150/night with service and cleaning fees. It feels like you were duped, cheated or fooled. I’d much rather know all the fees up front, from the very beginning. I do believe that my experience isn’t unique. Many others share the same view on this issue. Hence, I hope AirBnb will fix it soon.
Interesting facts about AirBnb
Besides the main points above, there are a few other statistics that I think are pretty interesting.
As of September 2020, AirBnb had 4 million hosts over the world, 55% of who are women and 86% are outside of the US
In 2019, 23% of new added hosts were guests first. 50% received a booking within 4 days of becoming available and 75% within 16 days
During 2019, 69% of revenue came from repeat guests
AirBnb’s debt as of September 2020 stood around $2 billion
AirBnb committed to $1.2 billion for a single cloud vendor (AWS, I think) through 2024
Twelve months ended September 30, 2020, the average annual earning per host with at least one check-in was $7,900.
As of September 30, 2020, 21% of all hosts were Superhosts
In 2019, 68% of guests left reviews
Chargebacks in the year ended December 31, 2019 and nine months ended September 30, 2020 were $92 and $95 million respectively
By my calculation and data provided by AirBnb, their average merchant fee rate was 1.85% in 2019 and 2% in the nine months ended September 30, 2020
Nights and Experiences booked in the Top 20 cities made up less than 5% of the total every month
Nights and Experiences booked for 28 nights or longer made up between 3.5% and 6% of the total every month
As of December 31, 2019, 90% of all hosts were individual and 72% of bookings were with individual hosts. “Of the reviews they received in 2019, 83% of ratings for individual hosts and 75% of ratings for professional hosts were 5-star.”
“In 2019, the average number of guests on an Airbnb stay was 3 people, and 77% of nights were booked for entire homes”
“14% of nights booked in 2019 and 24% for the nine months ended September 30, 2020 were for long-term stays”
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.
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.
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.
IEEE has an article outlining the role of mainframes even before the crisis. I am always of opinion that mainframes aren’t going anywhere soon. The legacy system has its strengths that work in favor for data-processing companies such as financial institutions. I had a professor in Omaha before who was an executive at Mutual of Omaha. He told me in 2018 that one of the important applications at the insurance company is still on mainframe and they fly periodically a mainframe developer from Chicago for maintenance work.
In the last 70 years, the physical size of Kansas City has quadrupled while the population has remained relatively stable. (Put another way, every resident of Kansas City is on the hook for maintaining four times as much of the city as his or her predecessors.)
A damning report on Bird. I haven’t been a fan of the company or products. I get its value proposition, but coming from a country where scooters are the primary transportation method, I am as enthusiastic about Bird scooters as others. Plus, the high valuation in a short period of time, despite an unproven unit economics, always feels wrong to me.
I am not a fan of the tipping culture here in the US as I wrote about it before. I find the pricing practice in the hospitality in the US equally annoying.
I was trying to book a place in Chicago for an upcoming trip. Here is how a room’s price looks on AirBnb:
The initial listed price you see is just 66% of the final price you pay. All the fees make up 33% of the final bill. Wonder what it’s like on OTAs such as Booking.com?
After everything is added, the final price is 25% higher than the advertised price. Resort fees are basically what hotels charge you for the use of amenities and facilities on top of the base room. Think of it this way, instead of pricing everything (base room + facilities) together, hotels break them out in order to charge more. It’s worth noting that not every hotel charges resort fees.
I am not saying that the properties have to eat up the taxes themselves. Nonetheless, I would feel more comfortable if they could just advertise the final prices, including everything. The prices will be higher, but so will be the competitors. So relatively speaking, there won’t be any loss of pricing appeal, but the consumers such as myself won’t feel deceived.
Charlie Munger, Unplugged. I try to read as much as possible about Charlie Munger. This is a great interview with him. The part I like most about the interview is when Charlie talked about how he read till he slept.
In News Industry, a Stark Divide Between Haves and Have-Nots. An insightful and fascinating piece on the struggle of newspapers as a whole to generate digital revenue to offset the loss in ads dollars. Only a few exceptions and the Big Three (WSJ, The Times and The Post) seem to have managed reasonably well.
Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit? The “we are going to be the Amazon of transportation” narrative will be used a lot ahead of Uber’s IPO. I can see some value in that, but frankly, I don’t believe that is the case at the moment. The level of competition that Amazon had to face back in the day and Uber has to face now is likely different. I doubt Amazon faced a lot of legal challenges as Uber has had up to now. Plus, the economics of the two companies aren’t the same. Look at the chart below and see if there is any similarity between the two
Ilargi: Renewables Are Dead. I find renewables polarizing as a subject. There are fans on each side of the argument. No matter what, I guess if we hadn’t tried, we wouldn’t have known what we know now.
New Data: The Airbnb Advantage. According to AirBnb, New York, London and Paris make up less than 3% of its total listings and no city makes up more than 1% of the listings.
The bitter truth behind the Nutella economy. If you care about the ethical aspect of business, you may want to read about this. I understand that there are a lot of products or services that we use everyday come from organizations with a record of questionable ethical practices. However, given that Nutella is pretty popular around the world and in America, you may want to know a bit more about it. And it’s not good for your health!
IHG Sees Room for Improvement in Hotel Revenue Management. The article discusses mainly the attribute-based booking trend in the hospitality industry. Attribute-based booking refers to the model that allows guests to choose from a room level such as number of beds, view and room type to amenities inside the room. Everything is a la carte. It can create the maximum personalization and excitement for guests, but it will require a totally different operations from inventory, marketing to housekeeping and revenue management.
The 2019 Drunk Shopping Census. An interesting piece on drunk folks’ purchase behavior. It must be tough for one to recall back the purchases made when drunk when one participates in the survey. The folks at The Hustle are good with words and sometimes have pretty good content. Give them a follow if you want daily email with overview of what happens in business and tech.
AirPods. I totally agree with the author of this post. AirPods are truly a massive success. Since I bought them last May, I have used them at least 6-7 hours a day every day. Sometimes, I don’t even feel that they are in my ears. Convenience goes up significantly. The sound may be not as good as power users of wireless headphones would want, but it is good enough for average users like myself. The design is just right. You can exercise without worrying about losing them. (Follow Horace Deliu if you are a fan of micro-mobility and Apple)