BEIJING—Airbnb is stepping up its focus on China's outbound travellers, after hiring new communications leadership and switching PR firms over the past 12 months.
The online accommodation marketplace, which has grown rapidly over the past decade to reach a valuation of more than $24bn, hired former SAP and United Technologies executive Bella Ling last year as its first communications head in Greater China.
Ling, in turn, has brought in Edelman this year to handle PR across the sub-region, displacing incumbent firm Allison+Partners. Since then, Edelman has also forged a relationship with Airbnb's marketing department, as part of an overall effort to lift the company's brand awareness in a market where many Western online companies have struggled.
Those moves highlight an increase in Airbnb's marketing and communications activity in China, focused firmly on younger outbound travellers. More than two million Chinese have used the accommodation sharing site while travelling abroad since its 2012 launch in China. Airbnb global operations head Varsha Rao, meanhwile, recently revealed that China has become Airbnb’s fastest-growing market for outbound travel, surging 500% in 2015.
Ling told the Holmes Report that Chinese millennials are driving this growth, given their general desire for different experiences, rather than the typical package tour. "Outbound is going to be our main revenue stream," said Ling. "Millenials want to be different — they are always looking for unique experiences."
In particular, Ling noted that better awareness of some of Airbnb's more unique accommodation options, such as villas, castles, igloos, treehouses, can help it shed its backpacker image. "Chinese millennials can brag about these on their WeChat," she said. "That’s the type of message we want to get out to the market. You can travel like a local."
Airbnb is currently preparing a "huge campaign" in tandem with Edelman, said Ling, scheduled to launch in September. After that, the company will look to boost its domestic business; it is estimated that out of more than 2m listings worldwide, probably only around 30,000 — or 1.5% — are in China, where it faces domestic competition from big local players Tujia and Mayi.
"We are still working on messaging for domestic listings," said Ling. Hosting might mean different things for Chinese hosts. We really want to try to make our hosts in China the cultural ambassadors for the country."
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