December 16, 2016

Airbnb Trips: How Airbnb Intends to Change How We Experience Travel

Since the 2016’s Airbnb Open and Airbnb’s “massive new product launch” of Magical Trips at the event, there has been a great deal of discussion around what Trips mean for Airbnb and for travel more broadly (if anything). Commentary has come from all quarters, both within the company itself and from those on the outside looking in. But what does it really mean for the future of Airbnb, and what does Airbnb Trips mean for the future of travel?

Is this the start of something transformative? Or is the offering of 500 “Trips”—many only offered a few days each week—merely a beautiful distraction?

Does it signal Airbnb’s acceptance of itself as an online travel agency (OTA)? Or is it a violent revolt against the very concept?

As a wise philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” That being said, I’m going to give it a try.

Airbnb Trips & The Future of Travel: A Shot Across the Bow

Whether ultimately successful or not, I think years from now we will look back on 2016 as the first time that Airbnb publicly announced its true ambition: to own “Travel” (yes, the capital “T” is intentional).

This may seem a silly argument to make. At this stage Airbnb only offers bookings for “alternative accommodations,” and now with Trips, a few in-travel activities and tours. The Priceline Group (including, Expedia (including HomeAway and VRBO), and TripAdvisor (including FlipKey and HouseTrip) each cover the whole gamut of travel booking from flights, to accommodations, to cars, cruises, and more.

While true, I think this argument misses the point. Airbnb’s ambition was never to become another booking engine or OTA. Airbnb has set out to transform Travel. Not only how we book travel through a more beautiful user experience, but also how we are inspired to travel. How we discover travel options and research them. Where we stay when we travel from tree houses to castles. What we do when we travel via Trips. Even, eventually, how we continue to explore, discover, engage, and encounter travel once we are already traveling.

And herein lies the distinction: Airbnb is not trying to improve how we book travel. Rather, Airbnb is planning to change how we experience Travel.

Trips is the first public expansion into this broader vision.

Such a grandiose vision will no doubt be met with eye rolls from the peanut gallery, and dismissed as yet another example of a Valley Unicorn drinking its own Kool Aid. And by pointing this out I am by no means arguing they have succeeded, or even will. The exciting thing is that they are trying. And as long as someone is trying, there is a chance.

For those who doubt it is even possible, looking at some other examples of companies that have completely transformed an industry to such an extent that they would be unrecognizable to people just twenty years ago is informative.

Apple & Music

First with the iPod then with the iPhone, what was once a computer company transformed how we purchase and listen to music via the iPod and iTunes, and then how we do virtually everything in every aspect of our lives via the iPhone. MP3 players existed before Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, and smartphones were around for years prior to the launch of the iPhone, and yet these two devices, and perhaps as importantly the ecosystems built around them (iTunes and the App Store) completely changed industries, and created new ones.

Amazon & E-Commerce

At the VRMA Annual Conference this year the keynote speaker asked the audience of ~1,000 how many were signed up for Amazon Prime. Maybe 3 people failed to raise their hands. How we shop, what we shop for, the frequency, and far more have been completely upended by what was once an online bookstore out of Seattle.

Google & The Internet

I don’t need to say much here. Many of you probably came to this article in the first place via a Google search. It is ubiquitous. It is how we look for information. No “competitor” even comes close.

Facebook & Social Networks

Yes, there were “social networks” prior to Facebook, and they were sideshows. Facebook, if it was a country, would now be the most populous nation on the planet. Americans spend an average of 40 minutes on Facebook every day. Let’s just think about that for a second. A company that was started barely over a decade ago now warrants our attention for TWICE the amount of time that we spend reading.

And what do we do when we are on Facebook? Certainly not just looking at photos of our classmate as initially delivered by the company. At this point, nearly half of adult Americans get their news via Facebook. It is displacing not just TV and print, but even “new media” online news sources, as our primary way of learning what is happening in the broader world.

Airbnb & Travel

And it is in this last example that perhaps the most fitting lesson can be drawn. People ask me if Airbnb is now trying to compete with the OTAs (Priceline, Expedia, and TripAdvisor), and if so, if it can win.

My response is, no. It is not trying to become another OTA.

It is trying to change, to create an entirely new way for us to travel. It is transforming Travel, and as such, is creating something new and different.

As to what that something is, I have no idea. I might even go so far as to say that Airbnb doesn’t even know at this stage. Again, pulling from the Facebook example, when some commentators pointed to the numbers above and suggested to Mark Zuckerberg that the proliferation of fake news on Facebook might have influenced the result of the US Presidential election, he dismissed the notion as a “crazy idea.”

Looking objectively at the numbers, it hardly seems crazy. But to the person who founded the social network, to the person who built it initially in his dorm room as a fun distraction for college kids, and who grew it to allow for photo sharing, and updates, and so much more in a piece-by-piece manner, it is maybe more difficult to fully realize what it has now become.

And herein lies both the promise and the danger of ubiquity. When you take on, or even create an entire industry, when you transform how we live our lives, we meaning the users/customers/consumers, will begin to shape the product to fit our own needs, whether intentionally or not. Once you pass a certain threshold, no one can truly control the beast, even its creator.

So what does this mean for the future of travel, and for you?

I cannot be certain, but as another creator and transformer of our daily lives, Bill Gates, once told us: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

Now is the time to act.

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