Amanpreet Bajaj, Country-Manager, India, Airbnb, has seen phenomenal growth in the adoption of the platform in India and expects the growth story to continue. Here are excerpts from his conversation with IMPACT
By Srabana Lahiri & Allan DSouza
Amanpreet Bajaj, country manager-India, Airbnb, exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of the global start-up he represents. Formerly co-founder of Letsbuy.com (a leading online marketplace for Computers, Consumer Electronics and Communications, acquired by Flipkart in 2012), he is upbeat and excited about his role, believing in the phrase ‘Atithi devo bhabha’ in the true Indian tradition for personalized hospitality offered to guests through the home-sharing platform. At the helm of affairs at Airbnb India since January 2015, Bajaj has seen phenomenal growth in the adoption of Airbnb in India, and expects the growth story to continue.
Here are excerpts from a conversation he had with IMPACT:
Q] What has been the experience of brand Airbnb since its launch in India? What are the local issues you face?
India is one of the fastest growing travel markets in the world, with travellers displaying quick evolution in their choices to experience new places in unique ways. Airbnb, ever since its launch, has seen a positive growth journey in India. With our listings growing by 115% over the course of the past year with nearly 18,000+ listings in cities all across India, we have witnessed steady growth from the market.
Entering any new market comes with its own challenges. These challenges are gradually overcome as guests and hosts become better acquainted with the platform, and subsequently discover true value in how Airbnb transforms the travel experience. The Indian government is keen on promoting initiatives that empower people digitally and boost micro-entrepreneurship. Last year, we signed an MOU with the Government of Gujarat to promote the concept of homestay as well and this is a testimony of the Indian market looking at Airbnb as a unique way to travel and also at home-sharing as a means of livelihood.
Q] Every country and community has a different set of values that are in many ways culturally distinct. How challenging is it for Airbnb to have a global mandate that is uniform in policy, yet unique in its offerings for different communities? Are you customizing your offerings for India?
We at Airbnb believe in understanding the local dynamics of every country where we are present and connect with the culture of its people. Although our policies are uniform globally, we pay keen attention to the subtleties of every State. There are different rules and regulations local to every State that we follow for smoother processing of our dynamic platform.
India is a strategic country for us that has grown exponentially over the years. Experts predict that the Indian travel industry is set to pass the $40 billion mark by 2020. As we spread the footprint for Airbnb in India, our goal is to better our understanding about the local dynamics when it comes to travel and hospitality and make people aware of the benefits of home-sharing, making it extremely relevant for the Indian hosts and guests. We recently partnered with Thomas Cook, since in India, people still go to traditional travel agents. We’re conducting a lot of hyper-local events in India where hosts and guests come together to share positive experiences. At Airbnb, we’re witnessing the maximum growth through positive word-of-mouth when existing hosts share their enriching experiences within their circle of friends and family to inspire them to start hosting on the platform.
Additionally, our local teams work with the host community in the country to enable the exchange of insights on best practices and to aid them in the process of building enriching experiences for their guests.
Q] What are the mainstays of your marketing strategy for the brand in India? And can you give us an idea of the budget allocated for it?
The beauty of Airbnb is that it is a community-led platform that dwells on understandings and experiences of its host and guest community. Word-of-mouth marketing has been one of our greatest strengths as we are a brand that focuses on the experiences of its people. We launched our global ‘Live There’ campaign in India to showcase Airbnb’s true capability to transform travel experiences. India is experiencing a change in attitudes when it comes to the way the country sees travel, and its spirit of hospitality complements the values espoused at Airbnb.
Naturally, community is at the core of Airbnb’s philosophy and hosts play a central role in establishing it for us. We organize hyper-local community meet-up events from time to time, bringing together hosts and guests to share their positive experiences and stories with Airbnb. The greatest growth opportunity we are witnessing in India is how existing hosts share their stories within their circle of friends and inspire others around them to open their homes to the world. A few months ago, in partnership with the Bollywood film ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’, we launched the ‘Ae Dil Lets Airbnb’ campaign, celebrating the synergy between Bollywood and travel.
Q] Tell us about your association with the movie ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’... what was the response to the #AeDilLetsAirbnb contest? What are your expectations from this association?
The Indian film industry is one the biggest film industries in the world and has been instrumental in putting India on the world map. Bollywood drives India. Bollywood inspires Indians and associating ourselves with Karan Johar’s movie, ‘Ae Dil hai Mushkil’, was to create Bollywood inspired travel experience for Bollywood buffs. The contest encouraged fans to put their creative hats on and create wishlists on Airbnb in London and Paris, cities where the movie is based out of. We saw an enthusiastic response and a number of innovative ideas come up. We offered fans the chance to travel to Paris or London and relive the experience of the film, as well as to explore the cities based on recommendations made by the cast of the film.
Q] Referring to the MoU with the Gujarat Government, is Airbnb looking at similar associations with other State governments as well? How do these associations benefit the company and its users at large?
In India, our aim is to understand the local dynamics and connect with the diverse Indian culture in various parts of the country. Our intent is simple – we want our hosts and guests to enthusiastically enjoy all the benefits of associating with Airbnb.
We signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Gujarat, under which, we will collaborate to set up a mutual and close system of cooperation with each other in order to boost tourism and create positive travel experiences for both domestic and international visitors in Gujarat. These associations are in line with our focus to get more and more people to know and get acquainted to the Airbnb service and reap the benefits of home-sharing.
Q] While Airbnb’s advertising has largely highlighted the aesthetic charm of travelling, is the creative team working towards developing a strategy that directly aims to mitigate the inhibitions of travellers?
Our focus is to spread awareness about Airbnb’s platform, benefits for travellers and hosts alike. All our campaigns are aimed at highlighting the unique offering that Airbnb presents.
Q] How do you ensure the quality of hosts in a place like India where the concept of cleanliness, for example, is very different than that of more developed countries?
Airbnb is a people-led platform that continuously engages with its host and guest community. We focus on mutual trust as a priority—and we are constantly working towards helping our community to host and travel with more confidence. The Airbnb platform is designed in a manner that enables transparency, with the option for hosts and guests to be thorough, and exercise individual choice when it comes to their specific requirements and/or preferences. Filters such as Superhost and the review system where both guests and hosts have to review each other after a stay makes it an extremely transparent platform. We encourage hosts to come together and share their insights and experiences to enable them to deliver an enriching experience to the travellers and for the same we have our local teams. We will continue to host hyper-local events to ensure more awareness campaigns are conducted for guests and hosts alike to address any issues or concerns they have.
Q] Indians are used to a certain level of service while travelling. How difficult is it to promote a brand that does not offer service as part of its travel proposition in a market flooded with brands out to pamper consumers?
New age Indian travellers know what they want. They want to break away from the templated way of travelling and are seeking more ways of discovering new locations and experiences. Through Airbnb, travellers get to experience cities like a local, since they are hosted by one. We believe that locals in a city are the best people to guide a traveller on the unique experiences a city or a neighborhood can offer, and can even provide valuable inputs to unravel the mystery haunts and interesting nooks and crannies of a town.
Keeping in mind that a property is in fact the host’s own home and each person has unique ways in which they look after or groom their home – the Airbnb platform is enabled with a variety of amenities, and the provision for stating house rules in order to ensure the host as well as the guest are able to exercise their choice.
Q] What is the complaint redressal system like – is it handled globally? In this context, what is the experience of Team Airbnb in India?
Airbnb has always focused on the safety of its host and guest community. We have built a trusted network of travel enthusiasts across the world who operate on faith and respect of this platform. We seldom come across issues with hosts and guests on our platform, but when they do occur we deal with them immediately and do the needful. We have zero tolerance for any bad behaviour in the network and believe in eliminating the perpetrators. We have a 24x7 customer care number which works across time zones. Last year, more than 60 million people have stayed at an Airbnb home- and of those 40 million, just 455 (or 0.001%) reported an incident worth $1000 or more.
Q] What are some of the points that emerged from the recent host meet in Mumbai? Are they going to help build strategy?
It was a wonderful opportunity for me personally to interact with our host community from all over India and it reiterated my faith in the power of community and word of mouth for increasing awareness for a platform as unique as Airbnb. It felt great to see how our enthusiastic host communities came together to share knowledge and insights and help each other. Too early to comment on strategy but we will continue with these hyper local awareness events more often.
Q] Tell us about your own experience of the brand – either as a host or user.
My favourite Airbnb is an amazing boutique six-suite villa in Goa. Recently we had a team offsite there and it was one of the most amazing experiences for all of us. Nestled amid jackfruit, chikoo and sangwan trees in the tranquil village of Moira in North Goa (close to Mapusa), this villa was built in 1804, more than 200 years ago. A beautiful Portuguese bungalow of pillared verandahs and high roofs, gardens and pools, it offers the rare charms of inner Goa, away from the hustle and din of beaches and markets. Six stunning suites, a capacious pool, a superbly stocked library, and fresh Goan cuisine to enjoy too.
Q] What are your immediate priorities as well as long term plans for Airbnb in India?
India continues to be a strategic market for us and we are on a steady growth trajectory in the country as we continue to expand our network. The focus on the Indian market has become more committed. In the near future, you are likely to hear updates about our presence and growth in the market, with demand coming from both metro cities as well as smaller towns. We are undertaking several activities to build awareness like the recent host event in Mumbai that saw our Indian host community come together to share learnings about how to better the personalized hospitality available to guests.