Airbnb started in 2008 and got its name when its three founders rented out air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment during a conference.  

Since then, the company has come a long way.

It’s been disrupting the travel industry by understanding, and moving with, shifts in consumer behaviour.

Despite the fact my family have booked our last seven holidays with Airbnb, I still think it is one of the internet’s best kept secrets.

Here’s how Airbnb is shaping the future of the travel industry: 

It's aspirational

Remember the saying, there is no place like home?

The rise in popularity of boutique hotels proved that there was a growing segment of travellers who wanted a more varied choice of accommodation; an experience characterised with personalised touches and the chance to be immersed in the local culture.

Essentially, Airbnb is a boutique hotel on steroids.

With a homepage headline of “live there”, Airbnb offers the chance to stay in (sorry live in) aspirational, unique homes.

The whole idea is that staying with Airbnb is more than just a holiday, you get to experience new places just like the locals do, which appeals to people who don't like to see themselves as normal tourists.

Offering some really unique properties for rent, in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, you'd expect that when you first land on the Airbnb website your emotions will be stirred.  

Whether it be excitement, amazement or belonging, Airbnb captures these emotions with carefully chosen imagery and background videos

Yes, there is the search facility layered on top, but first and foremost it has focused on connecting with visitors on a more personable level than any travel agency website I have been on.

I was recently in one of my local travel agents to exchange some money.

While scanning over the shelves of brochures, I couldn't help but wonder what the cover of an Airbnb holiday brochure would look like.

Brochures

It's built on pure trust

The only part of the whole customer experience that Airbnb has full control over is the website.

This means that the brand has to place complete trust and faith in the people from around the world who choose to rent their properties on the platform.

It also requires the people renting out their houses to place trust in their guests (who they have never met before), not to mention the trust the holidaymaker or business traveller has to place in their host, with the hope that "what they see online, is what they get."

As expected, social proof plays an integral role in building that trust.

For people to spend money on their holiday, weekend getaway or business trip with no physical interaction and no “credible travel agent” behind the booking, requires great levels of transparency and confidence.

Don’t forget, you are not getting an ATOL protected holiday through Airbnb. 

 

As you can see, Airbnb is definitely the best when it comes down to harnessing the power of genuine social proof. 

It's price sensible 

Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point.

For all those millions of people with children who have to go on holiday in school holidays, Airbnb is perhaps the biggest secret they are waiting to discover. 

 

My family and I have booked our last seven family holidays through Airbnb, genuinely saving hundreds of pounds compared to what we would have paid booking through traditional channels.

It's personable

From the copy used on the website, through to contacting Airbnb, you always receive a very personable experience.

Very often when you arrive at your property, hosts will leave a small welcome note or present to welcome you on your arrival.

Note  

You may even get a welcome message on the chalkboard of your new home… 

Chalkboard note  

The biggest success that Airbnb delivers in this area is that 99% of the time you never actually interact in person with another human. Now that is a special user experience

It's innovative

Airbnb isn't standing still.

I love how the company is now harnessing its community of hosts around the world to provide unique and memorable experiences for travellers whilst staying at their property.

This really helps Airbnb customers to ‘live like a local’.

 

It's memorable

Whether a flat for a night, a castle for a week or a villa for a month, Airbnb connects people to unique and inspirational travel experiences.

With property type search filters including Tipi, Earth House and Treehouse, you know you are on to something quite unique.

 

For all us business travellers, Airbnb also provides us with unique opportunities at competitive prices.

In 2015, myself and two colleagues spent five days in central Vancouver staying in a luxury penthouse apartment worth over £2m.

The cost to us? £130 per person, per night.

 

It's responsive

As a brand, Airbnb can provide lessons in responsiveness to many larger, and more experienced businesses.

In my seven family holidays through Airbnb, there was only one occasion where we were let down and when it became clear that we needed Airbnb to resolve our issue with our host, they got on to fixing the issues straight away.

Airbnb recognised the opportunity to turn a potential brand detractor into a brand advocate, by simply being responsive and respectful.

I, for one, gained increased levels of respect for their brand following this.

How many brands are truly responsive and respectful to customers when they have a negative user experience?

Messages

It's beautiful

From the brand logo, through to the app the Airbnb design and user experience is quite simply beautiful.

I will hold my hands up and say, the Airbnb digital experience played a significant role in a current re-thinking of one of our client’s online experience.

Beautiful  

It's relevant

Small things throughout your stay show you how Airbnb is all about ensuring that customers truly enjoy their experience.

For example, when arriving at your destination Airbnb offers helpful directions to your accomodation.

Welcome  

It's human

In summary, Airbnb is human. Browse around and you see people like you and me who are a part of this unique, growing community.

The people who are taking a different path to experience more memorable, unique and personable travel experiences than we have ever had before.


 

Conclusion

To me, Airbnb is one of the most inspirational and progressive brands in the world, regardless of industry.

This is mainly due to its forward thinking and absolute focus on the customer experience. 

The question is, will the Airbnb experience become the future of the travel industry?

And what can travel agents do to start offering their current customers some of what Airbnb have made central to their overall customer experience? 

For more on this topic, see:

Paul Rouke

Published 12 October, 2016 by Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke is Founder & CEO at PRWD, author, creator of the CRO Maturity Audit, and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up with him on LinkedIn.

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Vicky Smith, Consultant - Online, Responsible & Volunteer Tourism at Freelance

Hi Paul, I agree with what you say. But there's also a few things missing and it's not all rosey. Disruption is an interesting concept when it comes in a sector which has rules and regulations for certain reasons, and there's some interesting precedents occurring which existing government and legal systems around the world are having to address.

From a customer protection standpoint, there's no ATOL bonding as you rightly pointed out, but also thus not the same health and safety standards tour operators are held accountable to and customer service policies should things go wrong - this isn't surprising but some guests do expect that. There's also been instances of assault. A single woman staying in a property does not mean she's expecting or open to sexual advances, not always understood everywhere. And then there's the cases where it's an intentional lure to start with.

Hospitality round the world has tourist taxes which hotels etc take from the customer, but which AirBnBs may circumvent, possibly pleasing the customer, but not doing AirBnB as a whole any favours in the longer term in the eyes of local governments, whose pot of money for tourist & related services (for example street cleaning, water, waste...) may be shrinking - and the municipal and environmental impacts this creates for the areas people want(ed) to stay in.

There's also the issue that several cities are addressing, such as Berlin, that the switch of property use for short term tourism is pushing up rental prices and taking longer term lets out of the housing stock, in effect pushing citizens out of their own cities. The change in a citizen sense of place to a tourist town is very significant socially and environmentally in terms of stewardship, as well as economically. Berlin is making it illegal for whole properties to be rented, that the host has to live in.

From an absent owner host perspective, there's the stories of wild parties and (valuable at time) property going missing, but perhaps more concerning the properties rented to be used as brothels or for dealing drugs.

Anyway, just a few of a long list of issues which is fascinating to watch how AirBnB and the other 'sharing' ie. renting economy grows up to handle. The website, concept and vast majority of experiences are no doubt brilliant, I love it myself, but use with an informed view. Beyond tech, you hit real world issues. Disruption isn't all a one way joyous street for AirBnB I'm sure!

about 1 year ago

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Theo Dye, Marketing at TurboMonitor

This article made me want to go on holiday.

It is an interesting point though: AirBnB somehow manages to get the best of all of the human aspects of sales whilst combining them with the security benefits of the digital platform. I expect more companies to do the same, but, of course, if I knew how they were going to do it, I'd do it myself...

I was also interested by your comment that "Airbnb is one of the most inspirational and progressive brands in the world, regardless of industry" - I agree, but I think it is an industry in which this is more possible than most! There are some things (generally cheaper and less exciting things) that people just want as efficiently as possible.

Im rambling, but thanks for the article, I enjoyed it!

about 1 year ago

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Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Insight at Jack Wills

Really great article. Interestingly, one of your points was that 'The only part of the whole customer experience that Airbnb has full control over is the website.' and to me that is what has enabled them to become so successful, so quickly.

The difficulty that other companies in the industry have is that to evoke change in customer experience, they have to do it at 20 different touchpoints and ensure that those are all consistent. By not having to worry about this and instead leaving the experience with the renter / owner (and allowing social proofing to determine popularity) they find themselves in an enviable position compared to many brands across industries...

about 1 year ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Vicky - thank you very much for your detailed feedback around areas which I didn't feature in the article. Whilst I was writing the article I saw the C4 documentary on Airbnb and about some of the negative experiences and areas of their brand which isn't all rosey.

I agree that Airbnb should be used with an informed view, absolutely. I would be really interested to know where the documentary was commissioned from, as a major thing it failed to do is highlight the many positive elements of the experience that people around the world are having. As you said it will be very interesting to see how Airbnb and the travel industry in the main evolves over the coming years. I would love to see an Airbnb travel brochure I have to admit!

about 1 year ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Matt - thanks very much for your comment, I'm glad you found the article valuable.

You have raised an extremely valid and interesting point around the scale and potential challenge companies need to face up in order to evolve or significantly enhance their customer experience. From my experience, this comes to down to the mindset of the business and its C-suite. If they are willing to embrace some uncertainty, overcome short team challenges, focus on the bigger picture and long term strategic opportunities for growth - then ultimately they are setting themselves up for potentially making bigger and more strategic changes to their end-to-end customer experience.

The only issue with this is that its much easier to have a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset! This does present opportunities to major, established market players to take this new path, but it takes guts and determination. One of the brands I admire is AO.com and 5 years ago they decided to take this new path.

Thanks again for your comment, its much appreciated

about 1 year ago

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Vicky Smith, Consultant - Online, Responsible & Volunteer Tourism at Freelance

@Paul, cheers. Travel is an attractive sector to many, it's also quite tricky! The product is intangible until the point of consumption, but usually paid upfront. So it's sold on dreams and as such can be very subjective. The end-to-end customer journey is possibly one of the longest in regular consumer purchases and the number of touch points crazy. So that brings a lot of opportunities for potential differences in the dreams vs. realities, bringing all manner of customer service issues. So AirBnB has indeed achieved quite something to decouple the booking experience from the responsibility of customer experience of the product!

Outside the customer experience, you might be interested in this report out: Report puts figure on Airbnb's 'unpaid' tax bill at $440 million http://www.travelmole.com/news_feature.php?c=setreg&region=2&m_id=bT_vdY!~A&w_id=32496&news_id=2024383
It will be interesting to see if AirBnb start playing ball more with local governments, pushing prices up a bit, but perhaps necessary for volume and longevity of rental stock thus consumer choice.

Good discussion!

about 1 year ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Vicky - thanks for your additional insights and the link. As you say this is a good discussion, particular when it revolves around a global disrupter brand which don't come along too often.

Regrading customer service, it was really interesting to see just how quickly and how positively Airbnb got involved in when my wife and me had what has so far proved to be our one poor customer experience at their "non controllable" end. If only traditional brands and retailers and travel agents (IME) were as pro-active and customer centric as Airbnb were/are there would be more people out there turning from detractors to promoters.

It can be the case like what I had in 2015 where I was getting knowhere fast through traditional customer service channels with one of the UK's major supermarkets, then when I turned to twitter I suddenly got some interaction from them. I'm not sure what this means for all those UK consumers who don't use social media!

about 1 year ago

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