What would I want to see in an AirBNB loyalty program?

There’s an article on Doctor of Credit today about AirBNB’s nascent loyalty program, including the fact that AirBNB’s CEO is soliciting opinions on Twitter. Quick, someone go suggest that they name the program’s tiers “Explorist,” “Discoverist,” and “Globalist” like you just thought of it. I’m not exactly an AirBNB frequent flyer, but I do use them from time to time, and I got to thinking about what I would want in an AirBNB loyalty program.

#1 — Provide certainty around travel

AirBNB has rolled out various badges that hosts can earn, like a “business-ready” badge if they have wifi and some other stuff. However, unless I can absolutely avoid it, I won’t use AirBNB for business travel, because it’s too risky to have the host cancel at the last minute. (It’s also risky for personal travel, but personal travel is usually more flexible, since it isn’t organized around a big meeting or trade show.) This happened to me last summer, and I was scrambling to find lodging for my boss and I in small-town Germany a few weeks before a huge trade show that sucked up every hotel room for 50 miles in any direction. We ended up getting split apart, and the place I found for myself had spotty wifi and no air conditioning, despite it being in the high 90s during the day.

Solution: create an AirBNB elite badge for hosts as well as guests. When hosts earn the badge, they have to honor certain benefits (one of them being a guaranteed stay) — but only to elite guests. If a normal guest books that property, the owner isn’t under any additional obligation beyond AirBNB’s normal terms. That way, it incentivizes hosts to offer up more to AirBNB’s best guests in order to get preferred access to those guests. Everyone wins.

#2 — Provide a customizable version of the hotel elite experience

Part of why I like AirBNB rentals is that they are different from hotels. You can be much more specific about your location within a city, and you get the privacy and space associated with a $1000/night hotel suite for a fraction of the cost. However, if I’m going to swear off hotels entirely, I’d need AirBNB to pick up some of the slack in terms of offering elite benefits that I’d get from my preferred chain.

A bunch of people have suggested the idea of a concierge, which AirBNB says they’re considering. However, I’d take it a step further and incorporate local businesses that want to have a preferred relationship with AirBNB’s top guests. In San Francisco, AirBNB is pretty controversial, because they’re seen as absorbing available housing inventory that is actually more profitable to run as a short-term rental. Working with local businesses would be a way for them to show that they’re helping improve the neighborhoods with high concentrations of AirBNB rentals by promoting the nearby businesses to their guests.

(However, San Francisco being what it is, I’m sure millions of people would protest this move for whatever reason. “AIR BNB EXTORTS LOCAL BUSINESSES — PAY US MONEY OR OUR GUETS WILL BOYCOTT YOU” sounds like a sufficiently alarmist take on this idea, although AirBNB has a pretty good marketing department and plenty of lobbying clout, so I think they could handle it.)

Here’s how it could work: AirBNB finds businesses in various categories, and it encourages them to offer incentives to elite members. Obviously restaurants would be a good choice, as would gyms, theaters, nightclubs, etc. It’s the Groupon model, where the business gives a little to get (hopefully) a lot… and it would cost the business much less than Groupon. AirBNB would handle the commerce end, so the guest would pay for a gym pass, dinner, breakfast, or whatever else through their AirBNB account, and the business would honor that voucher when the customer went in to redeem it (getting paid back later by AirBNB).

The catch is that each voucher would include some sort of discount or freebie to incentivize the customer to patronize businesses on AirBNB’s elite platform rather than walking around and finding a place to eat like some kind of weirdo from 1993. A free drink at a bar could easily turn into three or four, and I know for me, a free pancake at a local cafe could easily turn into three or four. This way, AirBNB generates additional revenue, businesses get preferred access to high-value (and potentially repeat) customers, and the elite AirBNB member gets a “golden ticket” to use in an unfamiliar city.

Obviously this couldn’t work everywhere, but in AirBNB’s main markets, it makes a lot of sense. It also gives the guest an opportunity to customize their experience in a city that you don’t get when you’re confined to the hotel’s gym, restaurant, bar, etc. It’s totally in keeping with the spirit of AirBNB, and it one-ups the idea of the hotel concierge, rather than just mimicking it.

#3 – Recognize different types of travel

Here’s another way AirBNB could differentiate its loyalty program. Most hotel program recognize nights and stays, which is great for business travelers that hit the same markets again and again. (Or folks who are on the road constantly and are loyal to a chain like Hilton with properties every 15 feet throughout the globe.) However, AirBNB represents a little more adventurous approach to lodging, and their loyalty program should reflect that.

The basic way to do this would be to recognize nights and stays as the main hotel programs do, but to add in bonuses for things like the number of countries visited, or the types of lodging used. Personally I would never stay in an AirBNB unless it’s a private home. However, maybe if there were an incentive to rent out a shared room and actually meet some people in the place I’m going, it would help me bite the bullet… and maybe encouraging me not to sequester myself would help me get out of my shell a little bit and engage with the community at my destination a little more, social anxiety be damned.

Another way to incentivize guests while staying true to AirBNB’s social ethos would be to give elite credit for social integrations, like posting about your travels on Instagram or Facebook (similar to what Barclay does with its Travel Stories platform).

#4 — Cut the fees and include a nod or two toward concrete value

I realize that a point system that builds up to free nights is difficult to manage given AirBNB’s widely varying costs, since they’d need some way to control how much they reimburse the host for each award stay. I believe AirBNB could even operate a loyalty program without any free stay benefits, as long as the rest of the benefits were rich enough. One concrete way to encourage loyalty would be to offer discounts on the service fees and cleaning fees for elite members. An AirBNB super-user could potentially save more on fees over the course of the year than they would get in value from free stays anyway.

Another way to provide concrete value would be to offer points that were treated as a payment method, just like having a credit on your account. It may go against the spirit of the program they’re trying to provide to basically create a rebate structure where every stay yields X% toward a future stay, but they could get around that by restricting the credits to the extra experiences described in #2. That way a stay is a stay no matter the status of the guest or the level of loyalty, but for elite guests, a benefit of continued loyalty is additional freebies through the local business immersion program. Kind of like how hotels offer incremental benefits to top tier elites like additional free night certificates, personal concierges, and other fancy stuff.

Okay, so that’s my four-part plan for AirBNB’s loyalty program. They should definitely listen to me, since I’m a random guy on the internet with no prior experience in the hospitality, consumer loyalty, or tech industries. I’m sure these four ideas are all unworkable in their own way, but that’ll teach Brian Chesky not to ask internet weirdos how to make a loyalty program.

Do you stay in AirBNBs when you travel? Would you use AirBNB more if they adopted the Windbag four-point program of success?

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