In June, home-sharing platform Airbnb started advertising for the first time in India. The decision was preceded by the visit in May of the platform’s co-founder, Nathan Blecharczyk, who felt the time was right to invest in the country. “India is a strategic market for Airbnb globally now,” says Amanpreet Bajaj, country head of Airbnb India, while sharing that it is also one of the fastest growing markets for the company. Bajaj speaks about Indians being good hosts and young Indian travellers looking for unique experiences choosing Airbnb for their stay. Edited excerpts:
You have been advertising a lot in India since June. What is the reason?
We felt that India is at the right stage in terms of the momentum that is being built for us to now take the message further. At the heart of the global campaign—Live There, we want people to reimagine travel. We want them to understand that there is a new way to travel, which is not about ticking the check boxes and saying that I have been there and seen these four things.
Can you tell us what you mean by the right time?
About half a million Indians have already used Airbnb across 160 countries. That is a very positive sign. We have seen about 185% growth in travel on Airbnb, of Indians travelling abroad, and a similar 184% growth on Airbnb, of people coming to India and staying with Airbnb. This is in the last one year. This gave us a lot of confidence that we are on the right course. Our listings have grown by 115% year-on-year. Currently we have 18,000 listings in India across 100 cities. The growth numbers we are seeing now are even better.
You have managed to get some really good properties in prime areas listed at reasonable prices. How did you manage that?
That’s the beauty of the platform. We have something for everyone. A number of Indians have primary homes and secondary homes that they have put money in as investments. There are multiple motivations behind hosting: one is additional income; there are a few people who do it primarily for that reason. But a lot of people that we see now are hosting as they want to meet people from different cultures. I would like to share a story. There was this couple. They were senior citizens, and their children were settled abroad. So they had a lot of space in their home. They were very lonely. So they were introduced to Airbnb by one of their friends. In the last one year, they have hosted for almost 200 days. They say that Airbnb has brought the world to their drawing room. They have made friends in multiple countries. So Airbnb has literally given them a new lease on life. For the couple, money is secondary; they just want people to come and stay with them.
How is the pricing decided?
At Airbnb we don’t tell people how to price. We let the host decide what they want to price the property at. So you could end up renting a private room for Rs.1,000 a night or a villa in Goa for Rs.40,000 a night. Also, a lot of unique accommodations have come up on Airbnb like traditional havelis in Rajasthan, mud houses across India—people want to share rural life in India, Kerala houseboats. More people are looking for these local experiences.
What about safety, how do you ensure that, especially in cities like Delhi?
Trust and safety are our fundamental pillars. We have a number of tools that support us globally and they are available in India. We have a dedicated trust and safety team of 250 people globally who we can reach from here. We also have detailed profiles of people. When people sign up, they link their social profiles, they link their email, phone numbers, all of this is verified. Also you send a request when you are booking. The host and the guest can choose who they want to stay with. We have a verified ID where people upload a government ID like a passport or Aadhaar card, which has to match the social profile.
Don’t you think you are late in coming to India? There are local companies operating in this space.
We are not in any rush. From a homestay perspective, we are the largest in India. I don’t see any other company that directly competes with us.
Did the Indian market surprise you?
Hospitality is intrinsic to Indian culture. The moment people got a platform to host, they latched on to it. Our growth in the number of hosts that we got and the growth we are seeing in people coming and listing, that’s phenomenal. That surprised us. Some of our best stories come from people who share their primary homes. So, the Sanskrit scripture Athithi Devo Bhava (guest is God), we see literally playing out.
Who is the Indian traveller using Airbnb?
At Airbnb our biggest strength is the global network—191 countries, 2.2 million homes in 34,000 cities. Our early adopters were people who tried Airbnb abroad. A few years back Indian listings were not that much. It has grown in the last one year. Largely, the urban millennial has taken to Airbnb. About 29% of our travellers come from Mumbai, 22% from Delhi. We see the top 15 cities contribute the maximum number of travellers. If I were to explain in terms of demographics, this is a young Indian, wanting to explore new things, very Internet savvy, is an independent traveller in the true sense and takes two-three trips a year. They want every trip to be a new experience.
How do people use Airbnb in India?
A lot of people use us domestically for weekend getaways to tourist hotspots. Goa is our top destination in India when Indians travel domestically. Places like Ooty and Puducherry have also come up with big numbers. What is interesting is that people are also using us in metros like Bengaluru, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai. A lot of people are using us when they travel on work as well. Typically when they travel for more than three-four days on work, they want to stay in a homestay environment so that they get home-cooked food. On the outbound side, 39% of our travellers travel as couples, and want to explore local places. About 38% of people travel in big groups.
What about outbound travellers? How are Indians using Airbnb outside the country?
We see 50% of our outbound traffic come from Europe. The US gets about 20% traffic. The rest is distributed between South-East Asia and Australia. Tourists on Airbnb tend to stay longer and spend more. What we have also seen is Indian tourists tend to stay away from the tourist places or the city centre where most of the hotels are. They tend to stay in quieter neighbourhoods. These are the trends globally as well. Paris, Rome and London are some of our top cities. What we have also seen is that first-time users travel within a five-hour radius. So in Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and Bangkok, we seeing good growth due to Indians travelling abroad.
There are regulatory issues with renting apartments. How do you get past that?
The Airbnb business model is fairly new, whereas most of the rules related to rentals and accommodation are decades old. So they did not contemplate something like this coming through. There is a need for new rules to come in. Wherever we have seen new rules come in, they are positive to home-sharing. Recently the government of India announced that they want to look at the benefits of homestay and home-share. We are thrilled by that announcement. We have a positive working relationship with the government.
What are the rules that govern you now?
Right now we look at local compliance rules and follow them. It differs from city to city, building to building, municipality to municipality.