Why Airbnb Is Interested in Local Search

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airbnbFor some, Airbnb offers a cheaper way to travel — a lower-cost alternative to avoid the astronomical prices of big-name hotels. But for many, the value of the service rests as much on the authenticity of the shared experience as it does on the economics of the sharing economy.

Over the past few years, the apartment sharing service has been quietly working to bring that sense of authenticity beyond the walls of the host’s home. In 2011, Airbnb introduced neighborhood-centric travel guides to help users pick the right neighborhood to stay in, and find the best local spots during their visit. Then, a year later, the company acquired two small local discovery startups — Fondu, a restaurant-review app, and LocalMind, a locally focused question-and-answer service  — to strengthen these products.

A year and a half later, and the company is still working to crack the code on the out-of-apartment experience for its guests. So far this year, the company has experimented with a number of travel-related services including curated local experiences, car rental options, and a restaurant reservation service. At the core of the effort is a push to use technology — and the burgeoning local web — to approach the travel experience as a local information problem, something that can be recreated using the collective knowledge of its hosts and guests.

Street Fight recently caught up with Lenny Rachitsky, a product manager at Airbnb and founder of Localmind, to talk about the role of local discovery in Airbnb’s product, and the challenge in building technology which will ensure that guests have that same authentic local experience in a surrounding neighborhood as they do in the places they stay.

Airbnb acquired LocalMind in 2012 to expand its local discovery experience. Explain the thinking behind the acquisition, and where local discovery fits into the company’s roadmap.
Airbnb has been really good and very focused on not just finding you the cheapest place to stay, but helping you have the most meaningful experience that you can have when you travel. We’re going to win not by being the cheapest player, but by getting you the best experience from end-to-end. So when they acquired us, there was a lot of thinking around “How do we make the trip itself more incredible and more meaningful and more interesting?”

That’s still something we’re working on. It’s the one thing that’s a big focus in this company. It’s a big initiative to figure that out and to launch that as soon as we can, but basically it comes from the question of how do we help our guests have the most meaningful experience when they’re traveling. LocalMind was very good at helping you get in touch with local experts to kind of have that local experience through traveling and for locals.

In addition to local discovery, where else can technology help improve the guests overall stay?
There’s a lot of parts to it. There’s the question of how do we make sure [the guest] can get from the airport to their apartment. How do they check-in? Is the space clean? How do we help them have a good time when they’re out and about in the city? All those pieces make up the overall experience, so anywhere we can improve is something we’re thinking about and working on in some way. It’s hard to say how much we do internally versus how much we work with other companies, but it’s all under that umbrella on focusing on the entire journey.

The travel and local search industries have largely been kept apart, in part because there’s traditionally been such scarcity in local information. Given Airbnb’s thesis about helping travelers live like a local, do you still see a difference from building a local discovery service for travelers versus residents?
The way that my team initially looked at this question is: if it’s interesting for a local, it’s going to be really, really interesting for a traveler. That means that it’s local and interesting and unique and that’s what travelers want. If it’s good enough for a local, it’s going to be good enough for a traveler.

One other point about that is that we find that travelers want to have that local experience as much as possible so the more we can connect them with locals or give them that local personalized experience, the better the experience they have. That’s part of the reason people choose Airbnb: the experience is just so much more authentic. They’re not staying in a hotel in the center of the tourist part of town. They’re staying in neighborhoods where people live.

Like Yelp, Airbnb uses the the crowd, so to speak, to drive its service. Has the company worked to create technology which helps leverage this base of hosts to take create local content as well?
There is a Guidebook feature on the site, where hosts can recommend places for their guests. It’s a small underdeveloped project that we haven’t put a lot of research into it — but it’s popular. But honestly, most of the time it’s that discovery experience really comes from the host just emailing recommendations to the guests or just kind of telling them their personal favorites when they get there. It’s mostly an analogue experience today.

What’s interesting though, is that when we analyze all of the recommendations which hosts offer, they’re mostly practical. It’s things like where the nearest market or liquor store is located. It’s more about convenience than local flavor.

The company recently released a last-minute booking feature, which allows users to book weekend rentals without a confirmation from the user. Talk a bit about that product and what it says about where the company is headed.
With Airbnb the model is very much “the host determines who can stay in their home.” The trick with last-minute booking is that the host needs to very quickly make that decision. So we had a product called Instant Book, which allows you to book instantly without having to wait for the host to confirm. That’s the cornerstone of the last-minute booking product.

But the biggest challenge here is really a perception issue. A lot of people don’t see Airbnb as a good place to go when they’re trying to book a place for today or tomorrow. In many ways, [the company is trying] to create a mindset shift in the brand from these long-term vacation experience to ‘hey, I just need a place tonight.’ But remember, it’s just a pilot now, so we’re just testing to see how it works.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

To find out more about how Airbnb is integrating local search and recommendations, join us at Street Fight Summit West, where Maxim Charkov will talk about how the company is innovating in local discovery. Click here to buy tickets.