Building Real Connections with Technology

How Airbnb Cracked One of the Thorniest Problems In Our Digitial World

Believe it. We live in a truly incredible time. Like never before, opportunities are opening up for people from every walk of life to learn about a world beyond their own with nothing more than an internet connection. Unfortunately, dramatic increases in the connectedness of communities has not achieved similarly dramatic increases in the connectedness between communities. All too often thorny differences in language, culture, or other factors diminish opportunities to create natural, genuine connections between people.

I know well the challenges of attempting to build connections across cultures. As a former intelligence officer and, earlier, a student living abroad, I learned a relationship can mean the difference between an experience built for one and an experience built for a guide book. For many people, unfortunately, deeply-immersive, personalized travel experiences are either very expensive or based on a lucky node in their social graph.

Solving this gap in the travel market is what makes Airbnb so valuable. Airbnb works from the ground up by building trust, adding ease, and delivering a product that could fundamentally change how people understand each other. It has earned a spot as my go-to travel companion for three reasons: building trust among a community, enabling instant bookings, and redefining the definition of “home.”

#1: Building Trust Among a Community

Booking, Profiles, and Messaging All On One Screen

Airbnb wins because of trust. It was Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham who originally called the idea of Airbnb “crazy,” the idea that hosts would rent out their extra space to complete strangers. But what makes Airbnb less crazy is that the Airbnb community is not a bunch of complete strangers. In fact, the community is a bunch of people from around the world who profile, review, and certify themselves and the folks they meet in a highly-managed environment.

How do you know that amazing apartment overlooking Cochabamba Beach actually overlooks Cochabamba Beach? Through the power of the review, that’s how. Using both manual and algorithmic curation via multiple service layers to rank the best listings for each user, Airbnb helps users quickly find what they want. Airbnb also uses a simple, yet robust, messaging service across desktop, mobile, and Apple Watch that allows hosts and guests to review the booking, view the host or guest profile, and exchanges messages all on the same screen.

#2: Enabling Instant Bookings

A Lightning Bolt Symbolizes an Instant Booking

Airbnb also wins because of instant booking. When I first tried Airbnb, I bypassed the normal process and tried instant booking. By making it so easy, I moved (or rather slid) through the purchase funnel with ease —focusing on my trip rather than the first-time booking process.

Hosts opt in to this feature by selecting “Who Can book” and how much “Advance Notice” is required. Without a “courtship” period, instant bookings allow hosts to focus exclusively on ways to create travel experiences that stay with their guests for years to come. My first host, for example, quickly congratulated me on my plans to travel to their home and helped me discover all the things I “just needed to do.” It was awesome.

#3: Redefining The Definition of “Home”

Lastly, Airbnb wins by taking big risks, including redefining what it means to be home. For some, home is where you drop your bag for the night. But for others, home means a place where you feel safe, comfortable, and familiar with your surroundings. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Airbnb embraces a concept where their product is not just the nightly booking but the entire trip.

Airbnb is pushing squarely into this entire trip product concept with their new service, Journeys. With Journeys, Airbnb is attempting to create high-touch experiences to build genuine, lasting bonds. Like their core service, these experiences are delivered by locals who list on Airbnb’s website.

Journeys was piloted in San Francisco as three-day handcrafted trips that cost $500.00 USD and involved creating a complete experience for Airbnb travelers. For the price of the trip, travelers received a Lyft ride from the airport, a local tour, a place to stay each night, and one meal each day.

Now, I haven’t used the service yet, but Journeys seems to move Airbnb beyond a platform for lodging services and into a hospitality brand customized for every guest. This is the kind of experience I’ve long craved, and one I think holds the power to change cultures. Or at least help folks experience the world more like Anthony Bourdain.

My takeaway: it takes a lot of trust to open your home or stay at a new home in a new city. Airbnb works because it creates an environment where new relationships can develop between hosts and guests that just a few years ago would seem impossible.

The challenge of building relationships across social graph nodes will remain well beyond a time when the internet is available everywhere. But if Airbnb can help people experience distinctly local ideas and come to the understanding that the world is varied, rough, and interesting, it very well may help us learn to see ourselves and others with more humility. And that certainly is something that takes my breath away.