Airbnb: Getting Asians to let strangers stay in their homes
Airbnb is like couch-surfing, except you have to pay for your stay and you often get the entire place to yourself.
The online service connects global travelers with people who want to lease their homes or other residential spaces for a short period of time.
Founded by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia in 2008, the website airbnb.com now has more than 100,000 listings in 19,000 cities, including Hong Kong.
It allows travelers to bypass the major hotel chains and opt for a richer travel experience, staying with local residents who may choose to be present in the home and can act as a guide to the city.
Hong Kong-based blogger JJ. Acuna from theWanderlister+ Asia met Chesky when he was in town recently to talk about their Asia expansion.
theWanderlister+ Asia: Why does Airbnb work?
Brian Chesky: Airbnb guests get a unique travel experience that promotes cultural understanding. Airbnb hosts are able to monetize the extra space in their homes.
theWanderlister+: What was the “Aha!” moment for you in creating this company?
Chesky: In 2007, I moved to San Francisco and became roommates with my best friend from the Rhode Island School of Design, Joe Gebbia. But there was a problem. The landlord had just raised the rent and we were both jobless, so we needed to make some money for rent. Fast.
Since we were both designers, we knew the International Design Conference was coming to San Francisco in October and all the hotels were sold out.
We thought, 'Hey, we can make some money and network with some of the conference attendees if we open up the apartment as a bed-and-breakfast.' So, we got three airbeds and created a Web site called the “Air Bed and Breakfast” and three designers from completely different backgrounds signed up to rent the airbeds and stay with us.
We cooked them breakfast every morning and acted like tour guides around San Francisco. In the beginning, we didn’t realize that this would be the big idea. It was the thing that would pay the rent until we thought of the big idea.
Gradually it became obvious that this was the big idea. We were making a difference in the lives of guests and hosts and changing the way people experience the world. And that’s what excites me most about being an entrepreneur.
Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to look at a problem and see it as an opportunity, not just the way things are or have to be.
I think that being a young entrepreneur is a great opportunity to challenge the status quo and build the world as you think it ought to be.
theWanderlister+: Tell us about your move to Asia.
Chesky: In Asia, and Hong Kong in particular, there is a huge, untapped market for Airbnb.
Westerners are innately curious and intrigued by the culture and people of Asia, and what better way to unlock those mysteries than to experience travel through local experiences among local hosts?
There’s a huge demand for Airbnb properties, particularly in Hong Kong, because it is a gateway to Asia.
theWanderlister+: Culturally, Asians have a tough time opening up their homes to strangers and they are worried about security. How has Airbnb dealt with these issues?
Chesky: The great thing about Airbnb is that we are still a nimble company that believes in working with our local communities and users as we iterate and innovate the product.
Our approach to Asia will be integrated with a deep respect for local traditions and cultural hesitations as we learn from our users through educational meet-ups and showcases.
Aside from localization built into Airbnb, we have a series of safety features and tips that we encourage guests and hosts to use, including a 24-hour customer service hotline and a US$50,000 Host Guarantee, all of which can be found in our Trust and Safety Center at www.airbnb.com/safety.
theWanderlister+: Any tips for first-time users, both homeowners and travelers?
Chesky: My biggest tip for travelers is to remember that you’re staying in someone’s home. Be sure to build rapport through messaging and read the house rules prior to finalizing the reservation.
Most great experiences start with the booking, so find a host who can offer the type of experience you’re looking for.
My biggest tip for hosts is to read through a guest’s reviews, bio and messages carefully, and ask additional questions if you aren’t sure about the guest’s reputation -– but we encourage our hosts to be timely.
Remember, there’s an excited traveler on the other end of that thread, so help them finalize their plans by being prompt with your communication.
See JJ. Acuna's top five picks from Airbnb's Hong Kong listings as well as the original version of this interview on theWanderlister+ Asia.