Last month, Airbnb announced the launch of Plus Homes in India. We talked to co-founder Nathan ‘Nate’ Blecharczyk to find out what tickled his taste buds in the country. By Sumeet Keswani
What’s on your travel bucket list for 2019?
I’m planning a trip to Poland with my parents because I’m half-Polish. That’s my plan for this year. But, I have a long list of places I want to go to, like St. Petersburg, Iceland, Morocco and Myanmar. And most of India!
Have you been to India before?
This is my third trip to India. Last time I was here for almost a week and I also travelled to Jaipur—it’s an amazing place in terms of the old structures and the [City] Palace. But India is a huge country, so I feel like I haven’t seen anything.
Any memorable experiences so far?
I took a walking tour in Jaipur with a guide and we covered a lot of ground. We went through some farmers’ markets and visited rooftops where monkeys were running around. I actually got invited for a private meeting in the City Palace, which was pretty cool. It felt like something out of a story.
What kind of reading do you do while on holiday?
Usually, it’s business books… Just finished a book called Blitzscaling [:The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies]. It’s about the kind of hyper growth that companies like Airbnb can go through. My favourite one is called The Everything Store—it’s the story of Amazon.
What do you look for while booking your accommodation?
I pay a lot of attention to pictures. And in the pictures, I’m looking for personality. I also often ask the host if they’re willing to make recommendations because figuring stuff out on your own can be hard.
Favourite Airbnb experience?
One of the most unique Airbnbs I have experienced is what I call The Treehouse. It was a three-storeyed structure made entirely out of bamboo in Bali, in a rainforest. It’s a part of what’s called The Green Village—there’s a number of these and six of them are on Airbnb.
Any challenges specific to India?
It’s still early days in India, so we’re still building the awareness of the product. I do think we turned a corner in the last year—we have had more than a million Indians use it. This is a concept that requires a great deal of trust and establishing that trust takes a while. But now, after two and a half years, I really think we have broken through. It sets us up really well for the next few years of sustained rapid growth.
Airbnb recently released a ‘Black Travel List’ with 18 honorees. What was the thought behind it? Any other programmes that you’ve done recently?
Our whole mission is to create a world where you can belong anywhere. It’s a very inclusive mission; it’s about making people feel like they belong, that they’re insiders not outsiders. And so, we’ve done a lot of campaigns to open people’s minds up and show off different places, different peoples and different ways of living.
A programme that we’re doing in India is reaching out to rural communities and spreading entrepreneurship around hospitality. We partnered with SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), where we’re training women about home-sharing as an opportunity. We also recently announced a partnership with the Digital Empowerment Foundation, and in the next five months, we’re going to train 15,000 women… It’s interesting to see how a business model can be applied to social issues as well. A lot of these rural places are fantastic destinations.
Future of Airbnb Experiences in India?
Last year, we launched Airbnb Experiences in India. It’s available in Delhi and Goa. At the moment, there are about 100 experiences. We do expect that to increase. Globally, we have about 24,000 experiences right now. The main focus [in India] is expanding our homes business. Once that’s established, it’s easier to launch these other businesses.
Is Instagrammability a factor you consider while selecting homes in India?
It’s a big part of the ‘Plus’ criteria. These homes have a high level of style and design. And we really emphasise the pictures. Of course, we’re open to different kinds of spaces, but the ones that do the best are usually those that visually pop. Fun fact: we have big data and smart people who analyse the pictures on the platform, trying to figure out what kind of pictures have the biggest conversion rate—they found that if you put a red pillow on the bed that make a substantial difference to the conversion rate. These small touches that add warmth and personality to the home can prove to be a tipping point for homes.
Travel trends have shifted from experiential travel to responsible travel. How is Airbnb coping?
Firstly, we have done some research and found that staying in a home is much more efficient than staying in a hotel in terms of electricity and water consumption. There’s a lot of waste in large-scale hotels. More directly, in our ‘Experiences’ product, we have a whole category that is for social causes. All the earnings go back to the cause and of course, the experience also helps the cause. For example, soup kitchen, urban farming and etc. It’s a way to do good while still meeting locals and other travellers.
You have your own home on Airbnb. How is that working out?
My own home has been on the platform for about three and a half years. It’s hosted 640 guests so far. Most of them don’t realise it’s me! Sometimes it’s employees who stumble upon the house because we have a lot of employees from around the world coming to San Francisco. Back in November, I was in the backyard, building a clubhouse for my daughter, who’s four. I was cutting wood with power tools, in a t-shirt and shorts, and I had a guest arrive from China. I knew he was an employee and I knew it’d be interesting because he probably didn’t realise who he had booked with. He showed up and I greeted him. We had a little chit-chat. But he was a bit disoriented, I could tell, like he should know who I am but he doesn’t. He went back inside and came out 15 minutes later and kept looking at me. I finally went up to him and said, “I’m Nate. The Airbnb Nate. You work in our China office, don’t you?” He was so confused as to why Nate would be working in the backyard of the Airbnb he was checking into!