Feature

Airbnb’s travel plans: Jonathan Mildenhall on building an end-to-end service focused on experiences

Short-term rental service Airbnb wants to change the face of travel, as we found out when we caught up with marketing chief Jonathan Mildenhall.

For a company currently valued at a cool $30bn, Airbnb had humble beginnings. The rental platform started life as a lightbulb moment when design graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky realised they couldn’t make their rent and decided to capitalise on the popularity of a design conference that had left hotels fully booked in San Francisco.

The enterprising duo set up a simple website to advertise three air mattresses on the floor of their living room, with the promise of a home-cooked breakfast for guests. Word soon spread and the following spring they enlisted the help of former engineer and roommate Nathan Blecharczyk to build out the business. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast-forward 10 years and Airbnb has transformed the accommodation industry, boasting rentals in more than 3m locations worldwide. But the sharing economy darling isn’t done quite yet. It has turned its focus to becoming an end-to-end travel company, most recently with the launch of Trips, a service within its app which Chesky says wants to “make travel magic again”.

There are three main components to Trips: experiences, places and homes, and flights and services. While development of the flight-booking feature is still early, the company says it will be ready by 2018 as it looks at ways to crack the market. The experiences element of the offering, meanwhile, gives travellers access to locals’ knowledge, skill, work or social life for a price. Arriving in 12 cities, the launch comprised of around 500 curated experiences, serving up the chance for intrepid travellers to sample a range of activities, from Samurai swordplay to truffle hunting.

End-to-end travel

According to the brand’s chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall, Trips was born when the company realised that accommodation was no longer the most interesting part of travel for holidaymakers. “With our core younger audience craving unique experiences, it became obvious to us that to maintain relevance we should look at trips, and what Trips really means is end-to-end travel,” he says.

With the millennial generation less motivated by the idea of personal ownership, and more driven by experiences, the company decided to expand its focus from purely accommodation.

“There is a general truth about travel which is that people are looking for excitement outside the accommodation and there is a consumer trend, particularly with millennials, who no longer want to own material things in the same way that I certainly did when I was in my 20s.”

He continues: “The idea of owning a car, owning a house and owning 100 different pairs of sneakers – that is no longer how millennials drive a sense of validation and social kudos. What they’re much more motivated by is unique experiences, and unique experiences afford millennials a way of self-affirmation, education and basic social development.”

Trips is vetted to ensure only the best experiences are sold to Airbnb users. Part of this process includes Airbnb designers helping hosts create professional old Hollywood-style movie posters to market their offering, which is coupled with a short video. For some this may seem time-consuming but, for Mildenhall, it goes hand-in-hand with his belief that in future, “all Airbnb’s product will be marketing, and all Airbnb’s marketing will come from product”.

The plan places a reliance on user-generated content (UGC), and the company is rapidly racing towards a model where every host on the site has their own “content fingerprint,” built around their rental listing.

These will be used in Airbnb’s marketing “where appropriate,” with Mildenhall acknowledging that the delta between Airbnb’s product and marketing content is already narrow, and conceding that he wants to close it even further.

“We really want to be the first brand and the first product that designs content so compelling and so clear that we can use that in paid advertising,” he adds, “and we want our paid advertising to be so compelling that it actually becomes content.”

Such a massive shift in how Airbnb markets its brand will surely impact the way it works with advertising agencies, but when pressed, the marketing chief says that while content from hosts will form the “backbone” of his strategy, there will still be a place for creative shops.

“The traditional role of an advertising agency is under radical redefinition and we do need to work with the brightest and the best strategists and idea curators so that we can continue to remain relevant to pop culture,” he observes, pointing to the need for Airbnb to be highly visible during events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars.

He likens the dynamic to a tent structure, with the UGC acting as the tent pegs, while “the role of advertising agency content is to be the tent pole holding up these big moments”.

The Snow White Journey

This focus on spellbinding and relevant content should come as no surprise from a company that drew inspiration from the strategies used by Disney animators to shape its customer experience.

Five years ago, to help create its roadmap, the startup undertook a project known internally as the ‘Snow White Journey,’ for which it hired a Pixar animator to produce three storyboards around the host process, the guest process and the hiring process. The images hang prominently in its headquarters, underpinning the company’s commitment to storytelling and serving as a reminder of its design-led roots.

Design is still core to everything the company does, and the swathes of data Airbnb now has access to around those who engage with it or book through it will help it inform the business’s design and marketing plans going forward, says Mildenhall.He is also hoping the breadth and depth of data available to his marketing team will help it conquer what he calls the last frontier of marketing – mobile.

“Nobody is really yet that sophisticated in figuring out how to make mobile marketing a welcome part of a user’s mobile experience,” he observes. “Speaking from personal experience, there are so many advertisers that abuse mobile communication. There’s so much content that just feels like noise, like a distraction and like an interruption of my most personal source of media.”

As such, the executive is “very, very keen” that Airbnb sets the benchmark of relevant, engaging content that will enhance the mobile experience.

Awash with data

Social media will play a pivotal role in how Airbnb curates content from travellers to promote itself. Mildenhall is keen to see platforms like Facebook and Twitter used to provide the brand’s global audience with authentic reviews.

Since the start of 2017 alone it has been experimenting with all manner of social firsts, including a 360° Twitter video campaign and Instagram’s new Sponsored Stories format. Trips itself was unveiled via a Facebook Live campaign which saw people from around the world participate in a ‘We Are Here’ stream presented from a helmet-mounted first-person perspective showcasing experiences from Seoul, Toyko and Cape Town.

While Airbnb is keen to experiment as it continues its transition from room-renting app to a full-service travel brand, Mildenhall is on the hunt for a chief media officer to better value the media it needs to complete that journey.

The desire to fill this vacancy should come as no surprise, given the debate around the importance of the role which kicked off last year after a string of scandals from the likes of Facebook and Dentsu Japan exposed how little many marketers understood about media. He says these controversies reiterate the “absolute need” for clients to ensure they don’t abdicate any area of marketing to any outside organisation.

For Airbnb this means investing in marketing analytics in terms of strengthening its own team and building relationships with independent data auditors.

“I’m in the market right now to recruit what I’m calling a ‘global director of connections and media planning and buying’”, he muses. “That is a critical function for a 21st century marketing role and it’s one that I don’t have right now.”

“I need an unexpendable group of people working inside Airbnb that are genuinely on top of all of this data. The industry is awash with data but a lot of industry marketing organisations are still data ignorant.”

If Airbnb continues to move towards its end-to-end proposition, it could end up claiming ownership of the travel industry – quite a feat for a disruptor that started life as three blow-up beds in a San Francisco apartment.

This article was originally published in The Drum magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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