Recently, Airbnb released its third annual host conference, Airbnb Open 2015, in Paris. 5,000 dedicated homeowners from the travel experience and accommodation listing site (of the 2-plus million homes currently available to rent) ventured to the city to learn about the company’s new suites of features designed to eliminate frictions in the travel booking and planning process.
From keyless entry to educational toolkits, there’s no denying that Airbnb has a new vision of the future of travel, one that reshapes the traditional notion of hospitality and service experience. Alongside the launch of PSFK Labs’ Future of Travel report launch, we speak with Airbnb’s Head of Product, Joe Zadeh, to learn more about the value in human connection, utilizing connected technologies to deliver rich and frictionless experiences and empowering hosts to be an educational tool and concierge service for their guests.
PSFK: Tell us about Airbnb’s digital experience.
Joe Zadeh: We can start with Airbnb’s mission of “Belong Anywhere.” Were trying to help travelers feel like they belong in a place that isn’t their home: to go somewhere else in the world and actually feel like they belong there.
My wife and I went to Mexico City and we had a host that spent an hour with us when we first arrived, helping us to understand the neighborhood and all the best places to go from great restaurants to the top spot for fresh-pressed juice. Those are things we never would have done on our own using traditional guidebooks, but because of that personal hospitality we felt like we really belonged and were able to discover new sites of the city that never would have been available to us.
As travelers, Airbnb allows you to take in more of your surroundings and begin to change a lot as a person. We were still inspired when we got back from our trip and began to see San Francisco—our home—through new eyes. It’s an example of what great hospitality can do.
A lot of travel today is really mass produced. People come to San Francisco in search of local cultures and local flavors, but a checklist doesn’t help them discover that. It goes back to the roots of travel, which is a source of personal growth.
What is the biggest travel challenge you are trying to solve?
One of the challenges we face is what makes Airbnb completely unique: there’s no two similar apartments and we have to help people make sense of everything on our site being completely different from one another. Some people talk about their web app or their mobile app as product, but the product is the experiences you have when you travel in the city. When you have 60,000 different listings in a city, how do you find the one that’s right for you? That’s going to be a major source of changes for us in the future.
How does Airbnb act as competition to hotels and hostels? What value will travelers find in choosing this reimagined lodging experience over other hospitality models?
I think about when I used to live in Los Angeles before I worked at Airbnb and I would be sitting on the freeway thinking to myself, this whole city is going to collapse. I was thinking that there has to be a way that these streets can grow without having to create new infrastructure. When it comes to growing in travel, it’s about making more opportunities for travel to grow without necessarily having to create new infrastructure.
What does the Airbnb experience offer that justifies the price of more expensive properties?
What attracts people about Airbnb is the authentic, local experience. You’re going to be staying at a place that doesn’t have traditional accommodations in the area. Travelers who choose San Francisco typically don’t go to Bernal Heights, but because my listing is there, they end up staying at a really interesting and vibrant neighborhood and seeing an authentic side of the city.
Do you look to other industries for inspiration when it comes to designing local, authentic, personal experiences?
That’s just a general trend across technology. It’s getting harder and harder to build a one-size-fits-all approach and we’re losing that for product. We’re shifting toward a world where things are very contextually aware and very personalized, not just to you as an individual, but where you are on your journey.
Is the Airbnb emphasis on real-life experience engrained within its digital experience?
When we design our technology [at Airbnb], we don’t design for individual screens. We launched an internal tool called Snow White because we storyboard the entire end-to-end journey of what a traveler experiences. The insight there is that things are happening with your product that you don’t actually know about so we create technologies for both online and offline experiences.
I don’t think people should be traveling halfway across the world to stare at their screens in the real world. Obviously, technologies can unlock travel without getting in the way. Airbnb sits at this nexus of the online and offline world.
A few months ago, we launched an integrated Smartwatch app which is still in its infancy, but it’s a way to provide context about the world around you that doesn’t interfere with the experience.
Are the connected life and smart home products being introduced to the hosting and guest experience? Why are those digital touchpoints important?
One of the pain points of the Airbnb experience for some people can be the key exchange, so we just announced our first integration with Smartwatch. A host loves to check their guest in, but sometimes they can’t. Guests want to have confidence that when they arrive at this very unique listing, that has a very unique way of getting in, that they will be able to.
Although we wanted to create a one-size-fits-all solution, we couldn’t because of things such as shared doors or multi-unit buildings. We recognize that there are many different types of smart solutions out there so we’ve let them integrate into our API. We partnered with August Smart Lock, which lets Airbnb hosts connect their smartphones with their account. When a guest books, they’re automatically sent a temporary key. We want technologies to take care of all of the heavy lifting so that hosts don’t have to worry about it. We’re just scratching the surface with ways we can use smart technologies.
Our philosophy for technology is to have it take care of all of the heavy lifting and all of the things that can be done automatically. We want our hosts to do the things that technology can’t do: be human. Technology can’t create a sense of human connection.
What does the future of travel have in store in the near future? In 10 years time?
I’ll start in the future and work backward: I think that this leads to two opportunities in travel to make everything incredibly seamless and easy. People spend a tremendous amount of time planning, and with so many available options, we imagine this process as being exceptionally fast on mobile. There’s no anxiety, stress or challenges in booking your travel.
Travel is filled with challenges no matter where you’re staying, from getting there, figuring out how to unlock the door, enhancing your travel experience and taking it to a whole new level in a very personalized way. If I look down the street, I may not see any restaurants or shops, but there’s a lot of these interesting people that are there below the surface; it’s not accessible to everyone, but it’s about granting access to the right person for the right thing. The experience of travel is really about understanding the culture through its people, and that’s a big shift we’re going to see.
Tourism won’t feel as mass produced when it is facilitated by human connection.
From recent ventures such as Airbnb Open and Host Mentors, does Airbnb take pride in empowering hosts as a concierge-type service?
We want to educate our hosts and give them resources as hospitality entrepreneurs. That’s a big part of the Airbnb Open and other recent ventures: at our community groups we teach hosts how to be better in terms of their hospitality skills. We want to engage our hosts to be the best they can be because then they can provide that really unique hostal experience to our travelers. That is the real product.