Airbnb CEO: The pandemic forces us to see more of the world, not less

Cities aren’t dead, but Covid-19 will forever change the way we see them

By NIKKI EKSTEIN

Some things will return and some won’t, says Chesky (source: Airbnb)

IN THE first month of the pandemic, Airbnb Inc faced a loss of US$1 billion (RM4.16 billion) due to cancelled bookings, leading CEO Brian Chesky to declare: “Travel as we knew it is over.”

Getting on an airplane, he postulated, was not something consumers would be ready to do for a long time, leaving travel plans to be dictated more by safety precautions than whimsy. Fast-forward a few months, and his outlook hasn’t fundamentally changed. But what once sounded like a cataclysmic doomsday prediction has given way to a more nuanced view of how travel is evolving — not dying.

“Some things will return and some won’t,” says Chesky, forecasting what travel may look like on the other side of Covid-19. “One day it will be stronger than it ever has been. But when it comes back, full force, it’s going to look different.” Among the things that’ll be missing, he predicts: Overtourism, business travel, and, to a lesser extent, loyalty programmes.

Chesky also sees the rise of new and more varied destinations to visit, including — yes — resilient cities.

The comments come at a critical time for Chesky and his company. Airbnb has wrapped up its summer with an unlikely comeback story, having U-turned from a 90% drop in bookings and reporting US$400 million (RM1.66 billion) in adjusted second-quarter losses to notching a 22% year-over-year increase in consumer spending in July and filing for its long-awaited IPO.

A home for rent in Charleston, South Carolina (Source: Airbnb)

“On July 8, we had guests booked more than one million nights worth of future stays in Airbnb listings,” Chesky tells Bloomberg Pursuits. “It was the first time in four months—sinceMarch3— that we hit that threshold.” (The number is similar to an average day’s sales in the first 90 days of 2019, during which Airbnb booked 91 million room nights.)

This doesn’t mean that Airbnb is out of the woods. Company-provided data show that while travellers are booking almost twice as many remote stays as last year, home rentals in urban markets — Airbnb’s bread and butter — are still struggling. For Labour Day, high- density destinations are making up just 20% of the site’s bookings, down from 40% last year.

Other statistics released by the company as part of a fall trends report indicate that long-term rentals are still in demand, even as summer breaks wane — and that spontaneous stays, planned just a few days before departure, are on the rise — no surprise, given the unpredictability of travel restrictions across the world.

But Chesky has a lot to say about the future of travel that can’t be captured by sheer numbers. What we’re seeing, he says, “is a massive revolution” that’s “changing the face of travel forever. Some people are waiting for the world to get back to what it was. But change rolls forward — not backwards”.

A Tale of 2 Travel Industries

Getaway House’s accommodations outside 13 major cities are more like secluded cabins, or Loge Camps (Source: Getawayhouse Instagram)

Americans waiting for their passports to become relevant again may be comforted to hear that Chesky doesn’t see different pictures for European and American vacationers. While inter-regional travel has been greenlighted throughout the Schengen Area, cross-border trips still represent just 15% of Airbnb’s bookings.

That said, there’s still a tale of two travel industries. They’re defined less by border restrictions than by the potential for domestic tourism. Take the US, France and the UK. “They’re so vast, but they’re also popular destinations,” he explains. “So, even though they lost cross-border traffic, they’re seeing booms in domestic travel.”

By contrast, Chesky points to parts of South-East Asia and the Caribbean. These destinations, he says, “rely on people to fly there. You don’t have a huge demand of people who live in the Bahamas who also want to stay in a resort in the Bahamas”.

Germany is a further example: “They have a really strong economy, but Germans usually leave Germany when they travel, so they’re not doing as well as France, where there are a lot more destinations that locals have an interest in booking. At least that’s what the data spells out.”

Chesky says the same contrasts exist stateside, with Hawaii being particularly hard-hit and accessible Charleston, South Carolina, winning out.

All this suggests that tourism-reliant, fly-to destinations will need to diversify their economies in the short term to weather a protracted drought in visits, while overlooked spots near big cities will continue to experience success.

But in the long term, everyone stands to win, Chesky argues. Spreading travellers to more destinations, rather than concentrating them into a few lucky resort spots, he says, “is more sustaining than people think”, in spite of our collective pre-Covid-19 proclivities.

The Future of Cities

An Airbnb home in the French Alps (Source: Airbnb)

“It used to be that the vast majority of people would travel just to a handful of cities — you know, the big, iconic, international capitals,” Chesky begins, referring to such selfie-stick- saturated tourism hubs as Amsterdam, New York and Venice, Italy.

The well-documented phenomenon of over-tourism, he says, has finally found its tipping point. Not only are these crowded destinations inaccessible to cross-border travellers, but they run counter to the what people now crave: Nature, space and room to breathe (without the threat of aerosolised droplets from a stranger less than 6ft away).

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Chesky says. “People are now discovering small towns, small communities. They’re discovering national parks, falling in love with the outdoors, and realising they can go to all sorts of other places. This is an irreversible trend.”

If 20 cities previously made up a majority of Airbnb’s business, none of them now captures more than 2% of the company’s bookings — and consumers are spreading out almost evenly to thousands of small and rural destinations instead. That spells opportunity for Airbnb, which features plenty of unique, rural home rentals on its platform — particularly in markets that don’t have enough density to be served by large hotels.

Some hotel brands are positioning to compete with Airbnb on that front. Take Getaway House, whose accommodations outside 13 major cities are more like secluded cabins, or Loge Camps, an outdoorsy brand that renovates motels near naturally pristine settings.

So, Where does that Leave Cities?

“Definitely, this is not the death of cities,” Chesky asserts. But the short term does involve a steep climb. “Here’s what’s going to happen: People will migrate away for the coming years, and then prices will go down. Then, a new generation will discover cities as more liveable and more affordable, and it will probably lead to a renaissance.”

How long will that take? Chesky says three to five years — or more.

“The bigger the city, the longer I think it will take to recover.”

Looking in a Crystal Ball

In the long term, Chesky sees trouble for one sector in particular: Business travel. This comes at no small cost to Airbnb, which has for years marketed itself to corporate travellers and companies as a conve- nient, money-saving solution.

“Even when the world gets the pandemic under control, business travel won’t come back the same way,” he states, adding that people will simply have fewer reasons to get on a plane when remote work has facilitated so much collaboration from afar. That’s a problem for the industry: Business travel has typically represented the lion’s share of profits for airlines and hotels. It’s also one for Airbnb, though to a lesser extent. If companies aren’t paying for trips, consumers won’t be racking up points as they used to, says Chesky — “so that whole (loyalty) game is kind of changing, too.”

And what of Airbnb’s motto, that its purpose is to “foster human connections”? Chesky believes it will continue to be relevant in a post-pandemic world, even one in which social distancing pervades.

“When the crisis hit, and we lost 80% of our business in eight weeks, you know, it was really really important that we have clarity of what we’re going to focus our energy on. And what we decided to do was get back to our roots, to get back to basics, back to human connection.”

Right now, that doesn’t mean hanging out with your host, Chesky admits. “The kinds of connections we’re seeing are people using Airbnb to reconnect with those they already know and love,” he explains, pointing to family getaways and reunions with friends around a large kitchen table.

“We are at — possibly — the loneliest time in human history,” Chesky declares. There may not be much he can do about it right now, or for the foreseeable future. Eventually, he says, “there will be a yearning to meet new people once again, and when it’s safe to do so, we’ll be there at the ready.” — Bloomberg