Last November, Airbnb announced to the world its next wave of innovation to the strains of Maroon 5 with a dash of Lady Gaga.
Trips was to be the next layer in the customer travel experience after accommodation because, after all, people are inspired to travel based on what they want to do in a place – far more than by where they will lay their head when they get there.
NB: This is an analysis by Tony Carne, general manager of Urban Adventures.
It gives Airbnb a play higher up the funnel, in the inspiration and dreaming phase – which is a super important place to be playing if you want to eventually own the total travel experience.
There were of course also hints at what is to come next: air, food, transfers.
The whole journey could be covered, in a single app, in the palm of your hand.
Trips consists of experiences (one-day), immersions (multi-day) and the self-guided audio tours of ex-Groupon boss Andrew Mason’s Detour.
All integrated into a single app alongside accommodation with a strong mobile-first emphasis, it is exactly as the textbook for 2017 (and travel conferences of 2015/16) writes it should be.
So far so good.
Of course, now everyone wants to know how it is all going as evidenced by a recent LinkedIn post, where some of the major figures of tours and activities weighed in with their thoughts.
I think it is way too early to be asking, but human nature always wants to know and wants to know fast.
Still, I also think it is too early for a couple of reasons.
I firstly believe that Trips was born in a laboratory by the so-called Magic Team at Airbnb.
Theoretically, it would’ve looked like a solid play and some time was spent meticulously crafting some hyper-stylised experiences.
Airbnb has had a couple ofaborted starts into the activities space, so there is definitely some acquired knowledge already there – but really you can never know with these things until you push go.
With a sound hypothesis and a handful of killer-looking and sounding products, next came the launch.
What was more instructive for me was what came immediately afterwards, which was about a month of cheap online SEM spend on Instagram and Facebook and then… nothing.
No outdoor ads, no newspaper, no TVC that we’ve seen or heard of through our global network.
Whilst we’ve seen some TVC ads for Trips in production, I haven’t yet heard of any going live to an audience.
Again, this isn’t so strange in my opinion, because the northern hemisphere high season is only now just coming upon us.
It is when the sun shines there that we in the tour business make our hay.
Potentially they’ll get a run as the season warms up but even if they do, it will be more of a brand building and momentum exercise, for the simple reason that there is still not yet any chance of a decent ROI given the dearth of available product.
Here is the rub
The way Airbnb have set up the Trips component is (similar to its accommodation) tied to a host who is a real person.
It is worth pointing out that this also changing - in accommodation there is now evidence of super hosts who are actually just letting agencies for whole of apartment rentals – so not really a person – which is perhaps indicative of the way Trips might also eventually pan out.
The problem with tying a "Trip" to an individual person is twofold:
- It limits supply. Airbnb Trips are all private affairs so only one group can book per session and most Trip providers are only offering one Trip per day and only a couple of times a week. If they are full, you miss out. If you are leaving tomorrow, then they and you miss out. In a low-margin, high-value game like activities, having to say no to customers is never a good thing.
- Unlike a spare bedroom in your apartment, an individual’s time is never a redundant asset. People can always find something else to do with their time.
What then happens when that something actually looks better than running the tour?
This could be anything from a girlfriend you haven’t seen for ages suddenly dropping into town for one night only, to suddenly getting your hands on some free Knicks tickets, or even just being offered a higher paying gig for that day.
Apart from the risk of a poor review (or maybe getting delisted – but that isn’t really what Airbnb does) on a no-show with Airbnb, there is no stick for not turning up that Airbnb can apply.
My guess is that the Magic Team is working through all these scenarios live, right now.
I doubt it is much fun because no-one likes either disappointing customers or hassling new suppliers with whom you are trying to nurture a relationship (but ultimately have no control over aside from the "promise" of riches).
It also takes time and resources away from what is essentially more important: growing product and destinations.
Working with professionals is more than just the boring licences and safety audits.
They generally always show up and do a great job because their entire livelihood depends on it, not to mention their personal pride in being a leader of their profession and how swiftly they’ll be called out in online reviews if they don’t perform (or turn up).
Personnel is one issue and as Tao Tao from GetYourGuide also remarked recently, the other big issue is that Airbnb is steadfast to date in offering what it thinks people want rather than what people are currently booking – things like visiting the Louvre or going to Moulin Rouge.
I’m less bullish on this one, personally, but I acknowledge if you want to own travel, you probably have to own this bit too.
Also, the main point of all that mobile-first development is real-time availability for last-minute booking for the "always-on" economy.
This is also the booking pattern we at Urban Adventures experience for our similar product lines.
I really just can’t picture how a booking one hour prior will work in the Airbnb model. At that point, surely most people who are potential tour hosts have found themselves something else to do?
Perhaps the Magic Team are working towards changing the way the entire funnel works and getting people to book en masse earlier (based on scarcity?).
That really would be pulling a rabbit out of the hat.
I seriously doubt there is any major concerns or alarm bells going off at Airbnb.
What's going on then?
Right now it is going through the well-worn playbook with the execution of the "treehouses, igloos and yurts’" phase it went through with accommodation - a highly stylised product that makes for great copy, great images and therefore great PR.
After all, PR is definitely a cheaper route than TVC or other traditional advertising, and great efforts I’m sure are being made to maximise this through the initial product offerings.
Those snazzy videos and old Hollywood-style posters are all there for a reason.
Again, if we look back at the accommodation side, Airbnb didn’t make a multi-billion dollar business out of yurts or igloos or treehouses.
Airbnb made its business on the back of people’s spare bedrooms offered at a great value when compared to the pricing of hotels, generally within a decent distance of the centre of big cities.
The big unanswered question is what is the equivalent supply solution in Trips?
Maybe (just maybe) however, this isn’t what Trips – right now – is all about, anyway.
I have no doubt that Airbnb has genuine ambitions to own the entire journey and, in the future, it very well might do just that.
What it will need, to be able to fulfil that mission, is another bucket load of investment cash, and I think pretty much every observer thinks that is coming from a near future IPO.
It is probably therefore not entirely out of the question that, for now at least, Trips could be more about increasing the checkout basket sizes of the existing accommodation customers to make those figures look great, especially in percentage growth numbers, prior to an IPO to ensure the target valuation is reached.
Hunches and canaries
There are no available figures about how it is all going in terms of sales, so we can only guess on those.
Our initial thought was that Airbnb coming into the market would be an amazing, rising tide that would float all similar boats.
But without any big ad spend yet to materialise, it is hard to say that the market, in general, has been activated as yet.
But, we do have a canary in coal mine. Airbnb started with Detroit as one of its launch destinations, and Detroit has very little competition in terms of a more unique local lifestyle product.
The Detroit Urban Adventures sales figures were up 80% YOY in Q1 against a total business growth of 61%.
Based on that it seems like there is still life in the old bird yet.
NB: This is an analysis by Tony Carne, general manager of Urban Adventures.