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Why Airbnb is in love with Southeast Asia

The country manager of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan on the challenge the company faces in expanding in the region and their solutions to them.

In May 2015, Robin Kwok flew to Singapore for her new job at Airbnb. She touched down at 6am. By 8am, she was already at work, which is typical for Kwok, according to her friends.

A year later, the American-born Chinese was made country manager (South-east Asia, Hong Kong & Taiwan) of Airbnb, the world’s biggest peer-to-peer home rental network. She now oversees short-term bookings of more than half a million homes across the Asia-Pacific, the company’s fastest-growing market.

Airbnb is on a winning streak. In 2009, it had just 3,000 listings worldwide. By August 2017, it had more than four million. In Thailand last year, business grew by 115 per cent year-on-year, while in Malaysia, growth hit 231 per cent year-on-year. In each of these two countries, there were more than 700,000 people staying in Airbnb accommodations in 2016.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans are avid users of Airbnb: One million outbound travellers from Singapore booked an Airbnb lodging last year. Conversely, the Singapore Airbnb options have not grown in tandem – short-term rental of private and HDB homes or rooms is considered illegal if it is under six months.

Kwok isn’t deterred. “We know Singapore wants to be a Smart Nation, so we look forward to working with local authorities to see how Airbnb can help generate economic impact to local businesses and hosts, and diversify tourism.”

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What are the challenges of expanding Airbnb’s operation in the Asia-Pacific? Is regulation often a hurdle for homeowners?

Airbnb is used in 191 countries and 65,000 cities, so we’re concerned with having a platform that is right for every country and city. It’s a challenge of balancing globalisation and localisation, figuring out what local communities and governments want, and coming up with solutions that are right for them.

We’re learning from over 275 jurisdictions around the world and putting what we’ve learnt into a policy toolkit where we can pick out the best practices at any time and share this with local authorities. What may work in one country might not work in another, so we’re always listening to local communities.

Technology is changing, and regulation has to change as well.

At a micro-level, what are the difficulties of getting homeowners to open up their homes? Are there cultural challenges?

Home means different things in different countries, so a deep understanding of it is important. In Taiwan, for example, the minsu is the traditional bed and breakfast with a long history. So we’re doing different things to introduce guests to the idea of minsu so that they can live like a local.

We rely very much on word-of-mouth – people who’ve tried hosting and had a good experience tell their friends to do the same. We have regular host meet-ups so they can learn from each other. We have “superhosts” – people who are more experienced and can teach newer hosts how to give and get a better experience.

You also pay a lot of attention to neighbourhoods that are trending. What do you do for places where there’s a surge in demand for rooms but not enough listings?

Airbnb is a very data-backed company, so when we find something trending, we ensure that we have enough homes in that area. Our teams look into these growth areas and start partnerships with local businesses and governments in building the right bridges. In Bangkok, Sukhumvit and Sathorn are trending. In KL, Kampung Baru is trending – that’s where you’ll find houses on stilts, and our guests love that.

It’s interesting that when you travel for work, you always stay at an Airbnb lodging that’s newly listed, usually by a first-time host. What are you learning?

I’m learning why people use Airbnb. I’ve met people who do this to earn supplemental income to cover their mortgage or provide for their families. I’ve also met many guests who choose Airbnb to live like a local and have authentic experiences to tell their friends. I choose new listings because, often, it’s harder for them to attract guests because they don’t have any reviews yet.

Recently, I went to Taiwan and met this retired entomologist who wanted to build his dream home on top of a mountain. For 12 years, every weekend, he drove up to the mountain in Yilan where he designed and built his dream home in the shape of his favourite insect, the dragonfly. I picked out the listing myself – no one picked it for me – and I was his first guest.

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You graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. But after a few years as an engineer, you moved into the managerial side of things. What prompted the switch?

Since school, I’ve always loved bringing people together – whether it was for a study group or work project. I did engineering because I love solving puzzles. But I quickly realised that in order to lead a company, I need to have business skills as well, so I went to Columbia University for an MBA. Having a business and tech background really helps me build cross-functional teams. For some reason, I still don’t see myself as a leader – I just enjoy bringing people together.

In recent months, there’s been a lot of talk of women in tech being sidelined in Silicon Valley because of classic sexism. How do you feel about that?

I personally feel that being a woman in tech presents challenges, but also opportunities. At Airbnb, one thing that stands out for me is that we really do want employees from diverse backgrounds. And because of that, the question of being a woman or Asian-American has not come out that often. I think a woman brings a different perspective. And when I form teams, I always aim for a diverse group of people of different genders, backgrounds and personalities.

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

HEADER PHOTO YEN MENG JIIN / THE BUSINESS TIMES