WHEN Airbnb launched in China late last year, the house-sharing company outlined the importance of Chinese travelers to their global community in an all-out love fest.
Airbnb said: “To date, there have been more than 3.5 million guest arrivals by Chinese travelers at Airbnb listings all over the world. Outbound travel from China grew 500 percent in 2015 alone, making China one of the fastest growing outbound markets for Airbnb.”
China accounts for 80,000 of Airbnb listings, or about 2.7 percent of the company’s three million-odd listings.
Despite Airbnb’s efforts, the relationship between the company and China has never been chummy. To bridge the gap, Airbnb recently outlined a rebranding strategy to conquer the world’s largest travel market.
The company introduced a new Chinese name, Aibiying, which translates to “welcome each other with love”.
On top of that, the company is investing in more talent and infrastructure, including a China-based engineering center that will more than triple its workforce there. Based on Airbnb’s careers page, the company is on the lookout for several local engineers.
Also, a “major marketing campaign” is in the works to woo the Chinese market with efforts that include translation services, integrating with local payment methods such as Alipay, offering sign-up options via WeChat, and providing 24/7 customer support in Mandarin.
The company also spun off another company, Airbnb China, to share data on its Chinese operations to comply with pending laws that go into effect next year.
Plus, Airbnb Trips – a platform for users and hosts to share local experiences – launched its first initiative in China. Guests can book locals-led tours in Shanghai through activities such as learning the art of making miansu (dough figurines) and getting a behind-the-scenes look at traditional kunqu opera.
Winning over Chinese millennials
Chinese millennials – a lucrative market for the travel industry – are closely watched by Airbnb as they make up a large slice of the luxury travel pie.
Airbnb CEO Brian Ckesky said in a statement “a whole new generation of Chinese travelers want to see the world in a different way”.
According to Skift, over 80 percent of Airbnb’s users in China are below the age of 35, more than in any other country where the company operates.
US-headquartered Trip.com founder and CEO Travis Katz told the publication, “I think there’s an opportunity to offer something that isn’t really being offered to younger travelers in China.”
Based on an Airbnb-commissioned report published last year, 93 percent of Chinese millennial respondents said travel was an important part of their self-identity while 94 percent desire unique travel experiences.
Competition from Tujia
Currently dominating the house-sharing market in China is Tujia, a powerful platform backed by Ctrip and Expedia. The five-year-old company has had a home-field advantage for many years and offers more listings in China than Airbnb does.
Katz told Skift Airbnb is late to the game and they are trying to penetrate a market already monopolized by Tujia.
He said: “They have more than 400,000 properties and Airbnb has 80,000 there. Tujia has the backing of Ctrip, which is a near-monopoly in China in the travel space.
“The big challenge Airbnb is going to have is if they have radically less supply than the biggest player and radically less brand recognition, how are they going to compete?”
Following Airbnb’s rebranding campaign, Tujia is buckling down with development strategies and product launches.
For instance, Tujia offers additional features such as “multiple people” and “extended stays” to better cater to corporate travelers and large groups. Cleaning services might also be thrown in.
Tujia is also trusted among the Chinese because of its two-way evaluation system to implement a “concern-free living strategy that includes a house inspection”.
Airbnb has a lot to fight against, and with a tried-and-tested model already backed by Ctrip and Expedia, it best be prepared for some rainy days ahead.
“The history of Western companies in China is not filled with many successes,” Katz added, quoting Uber and Google as case in points.
“I don’t want to be cynical. I hope they do well. Regardless of the strategy, though, China is tough market.”