Multinational technology companies in India aren’t fence sitters. Amazon’s got a good hold on e-commerce and web services. WhatsApp on chat and now, financial technology. Tinder on dating. Google on local search, payments and a bundle of other services. Facebook on digital advertising and on fake news.  

There’s one category, however, where outsiders have had little success in displacing indigenous incumbents. Travel.

From the looks of it, there’s nothing stopping Oyo. Not money. Not ambition. The homegrown company, MakeMyTrip isn’t a pushover either. After acquiring Ibibo in 2016, it is India’s largest online travel agency (OTA); and hotels & accommodation is increasingly becoming a significant part of its business.

Compared to them, international companies have had little success. Booking.com hasn’t really set the market on fire. Neither has Airbnb, the global homestays company with a $31 billion valuation, which has been in India for six years now.

Much of Airbnb’s existence in the country can be summed up in one word—promise.

Promise that, by now, Airbnb would have revolutionised the homestays business in the country, but hasn’t.

Take its global product Experiences, for example. In 2017, Airbnb’s CEO and founder Brian Chesky flew to India to be part of the launch of Experiences in the country. He even participated in the company’s first curated experience—a fashion show titled “Journey of Couture” in association with Delhi-based designer duo Shantanu-Nikhil—where he walked the ramp.

The idea of Experiences is not just to help people with stay but to make travel a transformative experience by allowing them to discover communities and their passions. As part of Journey of Couture, participants were given a peek into the designers’ studio, met artisans, and learnt what goes on behind the scenes at a fashion show. It was meant to be the start of something big in the country. After all, in an interview with Fortune magazine late last year, Chesky said that the Experiences business was growing 13 times faster than Airbnb’s homes business.

India vs. China

The combined revenue of both of Airbnb’s India entities is under $8 million. Meanwhile, in China, the company expects its FY18 revenue to touch $130 million

However, while the number of Experiences globally has swelled to around 20,000 in the last few years, it stands at just 100 in India. Sources in the travel industry say the initiative hasn’t really been able to build momentum in the country, pointing to glaring shortcomings like how Kolkata, for example, doesn’t have any listed experiences despite being famous for its rich history and culture.

While pricing is said to have played a part in Experiences’ slow growth in India, its limited success is emblematic of Airbnb’s journey in the country.

AUTHOR

Vandana

Vandana is based in Delhi. She covers vertically focussed startups in consumer internet space and also writes on travel tech and smartphones for The Ken. She has spent 13 years in journalism covering a wide range of subjects- equity markets, mutual funds to education and skilling, working at organisations such as Business Standard, CNBC TV18 and The Week in the past.

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