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What the travel industry can learn from Airbnb’s customer experience success

4-minute read

Travel has changed. The way people travel, why they travel and the experiences they’re looking for have become much more personalized. Destinations too are changing their approach to welcoming travelers with many opting for lower visitor volume, managed visitor impact and authentic high value experiences over maximizing visitor numbers. 

Travel operators eager to make the most of pent up demand are having to pivot quickly to  adapt to these trends, attract bookings and be able to deliver on these new emerging customer expectations. A company known for being a disruptor and doing things differently is Airbnb. They’re one of the biggest global competitors in travel and have achieved unprecedented success with their unique business model. 

The broader travel industry doesn’t need to emulate this model to take advantage of travel’s rebound. But there is an opportunity to learn from how Airbnb approaches customer experience (CX) and understand why it’s been so central to their success: 

Great CX by design

When Airbnb was first started in 2008, its three founders were very intentional about creating the type of travel experiences that were rare and memorable. Like inviting strangers to stay in your home! This is rare because most people were brought up to be distrustful of strangers entering their home. For the concept to work, they had to design experiences from the booking phase through to post-stay that helped build trust for both hosts and guests.

The ability to view a traveler’s profile and read reviews before deciding to accept a booking is still one of the cornerstones of the Airbnb experience that provides hosts with a level of reassurance that guests will respect their property. Plus the hosts define the house rules. There’s also accountability for hosts to deliver what was promised according to listing details as guests can review hosts. 

In the traditional travel industry a consistently great customer experience throughout the whole journey can be hard to achieve because there isn’t the same direct link between host and guest. Instead there are many players involved. Airlines, hotels, transfer companies, restaurants and tour guides each have a part to play in the overall experience. Currently, airlines in particular are struggling with canceled flights, lost luggage and missed connections, which is frustrating travelers. This is something that’s beyond the control of travel operators and even airline booking sites, but there is still a way to build trust - by design. 

Travelers may not know what problems they’ll encounter when they travel, but as long as they have some level of assurance that a solution can be found, it’s likely they’ll still book. Highlighting information on flexibility and rebooking policies at strategic touch points can ease buying anxiety. Additionally focusing on the destination and experiences awaiting travelers also helps to focus on the positive aspects of travel, rather than what can go wrong. Being intentional about design elements with a focus on continually improving CX builds trust because it aims to deliver on customer expectations.

Building digital connections to gain a competitive advantage

Today the debate over whether or not it’s possible to build meaningful connections on digital channels has largely been proven, but this was not the case back in 2008 when Airbnb was founded. A key factor in their success and being named as a major industry disruptor was their ability to create digital experiences that brought people together. 

It was a process that evolved over time through trial and error by consistently delivering great experiences as the focal point. In many ways being the disruptor in travel paved the way for others in the industry to look to digital channels as a way to better connect with customers. 

Most companies across the travel industry now have a well established digital presence offering online booking. But it’s a competitive space with travel and hospitality providers, including those beyond airlines and hotels, competing with third party entities for customer’s attention. With the abundance of product options and not much room to maneuver on price, building strong customer connections through engaging digital experiences is what can deliver a more sustainable competitive advantage.  

Culture of experimentation

Understanding what makes a great CX requires living the experience as a customer on an ongoing basis. For Airbnb this means constantly testing everything from systems to host and guest experiences. In the early days it was the founders who hosted, so they quickly learned what was important to guests. But then when they traveled they would book stays at Airbnb properties to experience them as guests. 

As the company has grown globally these same habits are encouraged and the culture of experimentation has become firmly entrenched. At Airbnb they’re constantly asking questions like: What makes an experience memorable, what would travelers like to experience differently in a destination, how are they searching for destinations. Some of the platform’s recent updates reflect how Airbnb has sought to answer these questions: Listings can now be searched by “sea views”, for example, or “ winelands farm stay experiences”. This was based on a finding that people don’t always know where they want to travel, but they usually have a very clear idea on what they want to experience. 

For most travel companies experiencing destinations has always been the norm. The challenge is translating that destination knowledge into engaging digital experiences when there isn’t a human travel consultant involved. Knowing what information to focus on requires the ability to learn from how visitors are navigating a site and how they’re progressing in the customer journey. 

This can be achieved through AI-driven experience optimization that experiments with different ideas, formats and content to find out what visitors are responding to and use those learnings to serve experiences that move them closer to booking.  

It’s all about experiences and experimentation

The main lesson to be learned from Airbnb is how the value they put on experiences and continual experimentation was able to change how people travel and the length of their stays. This highlights just how powerfully positive experiences are influencing buying decisions. 

Technology such as AI is able to optimize these experiences to improve personalization and engagement. This now provides the broader travel industry a way to apply lessons learned from Airbnb to strengthen their position in the marketplace. 

As travel rebounds, providing a seamless customer experience will undoubtedly remain a primary expectation, and AI-driven experience optimization provides a way to continually stay in tune with consumer preferences in real-time.

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