Airbnb’s India business almost at pre-Covid levels: Blecharczyk

Airbnb’s India business is almost back to pre-pandemic levels and the recovery has been very robust, says co-founder and chief strategy officer Nate Blecharczyk. In an interview with ET’s Vinod Mahanta, Blecharczyk talks about the recovery of the travel and tourism sector, supporting Ukrainians during the conflict and its future transformation into an end-to-end travel platform. Edited excerpts:

By when do you expect Airbnb India business to reach pre-pandemic numbers?

In 2021 we almost reached our 2019 numbers. So we’re almost back where we left off. Additionally, we found that domestic visits within India in rural areas doubled in the third quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. This is a shift we have seen in many countries during the pandemic. People have traveled within their own country and visited places, particularly rural areas, that they might not have been to before. Last year, Airbnb travelers traveled to 6,000 new cities and towns that no one had ever visited on Airbnb before. When international travel reopens, that too will be a great opportunity.

Will Airbnb invest more in India?

We will open a technology center in Bengaluru. We are very excited to be part of Bengaluru’s tech ecosystem. We hope to hire more than 100 high-tech workers in the near future. We have always wanted to bring our culture of innovation to the ecosystem of Bengaluru. I think that will be very important as we serve India. We will soon see a tourism recovery in India and look forward to working with local governments across the country. The center will help us and our local teams to better localize Airbnb in their markets.

There is a race between different travel and tourism related platforms to be an end-to-end service provider for travelers. Where are you on this journey?

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That’s certainly something we’re striving for, and we had a lot of different projects going before the pandemic. Now the pandemic has made us think carefully about what matters most to us. Of course, the pandemic has hit us hard at the moment. We saw our earnings drop by 80% in two weeks and we had to make some compromises. We couldn’t do the same things we did before. And that’s when we decided to focus on what makes us different, which is the fact that we have hosts. We have ordinary people offering extraordinary hospitality. Whether it’s sharing their home, offering experiences or making recommendations.

We have 4 million hosts today. But we believe we can have many millions more. As such, we believe this is still an underused opportunity that we are focusing on. I think as we think about the end-to-end platform, we’re going to make sure we’re thinking about approaching it in a way that leverages our differentiation. Everything we do is truly host-led. Our goal is to be one of the most creative companies in the world, and we think differently about new opportunities than most.

Do you think the Ukraine-Russia conflict will mess up summer travel plans?

I think it’s really early to say. All of this happened within a couple of weeks. Two weeks ago nobody would have predicted where we are today. So far this conflict has been centered on a concentrated geography, we obviously see the impact of this broadly in terms of fuel prices, refugees, etc.

I think one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that there’s this appetite to travel, there’s this need to connect, and there’s this pent-up demand. It remains to be seen how this will affect travel.

What we’ve learned at Airbnb is that even when consumer behavior is changing rapidly, you can adapt. There is an inherent adaptability to our platform; the fact that we are not only at home in the cities but also in the countryside. This allows us to meet demand wherever it wants, even if it wants to stay domestic. And we’ve tried to tap into what consumers want right now.

That’s why, over the past year, we’ve introduced more than 150 product features that target what consumers want right now. We have something we call flexible search, which allows people to basically search and find accommodation without giving specific dates. And since we started it, we’ve seen more than 800 million searches using our flexible date search tool. We’ve innovated and stayed truly agile by embracing what consumers wanted in a time of great change. And that will be our strategy going forward as we expect travel to change all the time. We will be very responsive to that.

During the Ukraine-Russia conflict, many people around the world booked apartments on Airbnb Ukraine with no intention of staying, just to help Ukrainians. How did this idea come about?

This is the first time we’ve experienced anything like this. The intention of the people is basically to give money directly to people affected by the war in Ukraine. Again, these hosts are not recruiting. This is truly an upsurge in kindness among guests around the world who want to help. About $1.5 million has been gifted on the platform in the last 24 hours — that’s a sizable sum in a small window of time.

In parallel, Airbnb has committed to house 100,000 refugees from Ukraine in the coming months. Basically, and donors contribute funds to fund this. And hosts on the Airbnb platform are also opening their homes, some for free, others at a discounted rate, to help accommodate refugees from Ukraine.

This is a very unique example of innovation through community…

The idea of ​​taking in refugees came up on Twitter in 2012. In 2012, one of our New York hostess made her home available free of charge to New Yorkers who might need shelter during a hurricane.

We thought maybe there are other New Yorkers who, out of generosity, want to do the same. And indeed, over 1,000 people opened their homes within 24 hours.

Over the years we have improved this functionality. Most recently, we have sheltered more than 20,000 Afghans while they searched for permanent housing. We have truly built an incredible capability to do this and we are delighted to make it available during this terrible tragedy in Ukraine.

What is the corporate philosophy behind such initiatives?

Well, I’m an engineer, but both of my co-founders are designers. But because of her background, we bring a lot of design thinking into the company. We are very philosophical about our purpose and principles. I think from the very beginning of the company we asked ourselves what impact do we want to have on the world? That’s a question we ask ourselves all the time. We also think a lot about our various stakeholders – our guests, our hosts, our employees, the communities in which we operate and of course our investors. So in everything we do, we think about how Airbnb positively impacts these five stakeholders. We are constantly looking for ways to create value and do good. I think we are ambitious optimists and confident in what we are doing in the world.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has decided to live as an Airbnb guest indefinitely. How is the experiment going? I mean what are the key takeaways?

Joe (Joe Gebbia, Co-Founder) Brian Chesky and I have always believed in staying close to the user experience. And so we believe that during this time when travel is changing, people can live, work and travel at the same time. Brian wanted to experience this for himself. And from that comes two things: lots of tactical observations about bugs in the product and strategically what you need when you live on the platform, not just for a few days or weeks. You are no longer a tourist but a longtime resident of the area.

I think there is a lot to explore in terms of experiencing and understanding the needs of these New Age travelers.

The reason we enable payments isn’t the lending business model, it’s to solve a user experience issue that we first discovered while using the product ourselves. Brian was attending a conference in Austin and didn’t have any money with him for a few days, and he got a bit awkward with the host. So we thought maybe we should facilitate upfront payments. So that explains a little bit of our approach: we really tried to live the user experience and even now, after 14 years and all our success, we still want to be at the forefront, get first-hand feedback and draw inspiration from our community . Each week Brian has a story to tell.

You’ve seen two black swan events in the last two years. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a leader?

First of all, communication is very important in a crisis. Communicating with our employees about what is happening and how we will manage this situation. Communicating with all of our stakeholders including our guests, hosts, employees and of course the communities in which we operate and our investors. And for each of these, we thought, what can we do for each stakeholder?

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