Velma Corcoran, Regional Lead, Middle East and Africa, Airbnb
The 6,000+ employees of Airbnb have undergone a radical change in how they conduct business. As a result of the Corona Virus pandemic, the office as it was formerly known is now kind of a form factor from a pre-digital era. But the company’s Regional Lead for Africa and the Middle East, Velma Corcoran, thinks the epidemic had a profound effect on how people travel and, in many ways, improved it. She finds that more people are taking longer trips than ever before, are more flexible about where and when they can go on vacation, and prefer to explore local areas rather than venture abroad.
Since joining Airbnb in 2016, Corcoran has been in charge of creating and carrying out the company’s regional strategy in support of its global strategy, managing a cross-functional team, and locating and implementing partnerships to boost regional growth. Corcoran serves as the company’s point person for all aspects relating to Airbnb in Africa, as well as its lead for strategic partnerships and policy conversations in the market. She has succeeded in her role by putting Africa on Airbnb’s map.
In this interview with Africa Executive, Corcoran talks about what Airbnb has learned in Africa, what “glocalization” means for a business that depends on a global network and scale, and how COVID 19 has led to new ideas.
What have been the key learnings for Airbnb in Africa? What’s working and what’s not working?
The pandemic had a huge impact on how people travel, and in many ways, changed it for the better. People are more flexible about where and when they can travel, taking longer trips than ever before, and looking to explore corners of their own backyards rather than head overseas.
The world has experienced a travel reset, and the changes have opened up opportunities for more people in more places to benefit from tourism.
The promise of Airbnb is that anyone with a space in their home or a passion to share can benefit from tourism. However, many Africans lack access to necessary information, infrastructure and finance to take advantage of this opportunity.
It was this learning that prompted the launch of the Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy, a skills development program predominantly targeted at women and youth in township and rural communities who are interested in tourism. It seeks to provide access to training, mentorship and resources to budding tourism entrepreneurs so they can use technology to access and succeed on the Airbnb platform, and ultimately participate in the tourism economy. In addition, as the graduates are located outside of tourism hotspots, the benefits of tourism are further dispersed.
It’s been incredibly successful in Africa, and while it’s still relatively new, our plan is to expand on our current partnerships with tourism organizations across the continent so we can continue to scale the programme. Since launching, we’ve trained more than 500 entrepreneurs in townships and rural areas in South Africa and Kenya.
Are there changes you are making based on your learnings?
What we’ve learnt from the past few years, is that anyone can work from, and live anywhere. Flexibility is a trend that is now instilled in day-to-day life, and it’s no different when it comes to travel. One in five guests globally reported using Airbnb to work remotely while travelling in 2021 – a trend that has continued in the first half of 2022, with long term stays more than doubling in size from two years ago. In Cape Town, bookings for international solo travel for longer stays in the first half of 2023 grew by about 55% compared to the same time in 2019, highlighting the demand in South Africa.
We’re also seeing guests discovering their own backyards, with thousands booking stays in small towns and rural communities. For example, from 2016 to 2019 in South Africa, there was an 81% growth of bookings in rural areas*. This dispersal of tourism has accelerated as a result of the pandemic, further demonstrating the need for a diversity of supply that caters to both domestic travellers and international travel at all price points.
Remote working is also thriving. Earlier this year, Airbnb announced a partnership with Cape Town Tourism as part of the “live and work anywhere initiative” to attract remote workers. These travellers ultimately stay for longer, often in local areas outside of the touristic centres, and spend more, contributing positively to communities, local businesses and the wider economy.
At Airbnb, we’re seeing these trends and meeting the demand by constantly innovating the platform to suit travelers’’ needs. In 2021, we released 150 upgrades to improve every aspect of the Airbnb service. And this year, we launched the biggest change to the platform in a decade, introducing Airbnb Categories, so that millions of people could discover homes they never knew existed, and Airbnb Setup, making it easier for millions of people to Airbnb their home.
Glocalisation is already a big theme. And we are in a period of hyper glocalisation now. What does it mean to a business like Airbnb that relies on glocal network and scale?
Airbnb is more than convenience, affordability and just finding a place to stay when you want to get away. It’s a home away from home – an experience and culture-driven platform that encourages relationships between Hosts, the community and guests. People are looking for connections and authentic experiences more than ever and it’s something we’re well placed to offer. We have a global technology platform that makes it easier and safer than ever to become a tourism entrepreneur, but the experiences and stays Hosts are offering are inherently local. It’s why there’s a magic that comes from travelling on Airbnb and staying in someone’s home, in the place they love.
Millions of people all over the world are being empowered to host on Airbnb and share their homes to make some additional income, especially important as many face uncertainty in the face of cost of living increases. The typical South African Host earns just over R25,400 a year – equivalent to approximately one month’s additional pay for the average income earner – by renting their space on Airbnb. Our aim is to make hosting more accessible for more Africans, allowing anyone, anywhere to earn.
How do you think the future of home-sharing should evolve?
Travel is never going back to the way it was. The new world of travel is more distributed, more flexible and more local, and more sustainable.
Post-pandemic, people are blending life with travel. We think more cities and countries will compete to attract remote workers, and it will lead to a redistribution of where people travel and live. More countries are adapting their visa and tax rules to make it easier for digital nomads to live and work in their country and we’re excited about the opportunity Africa has to capitalise on this trend with the introduction of remote working visas.
We also hope to see more Hosts joining Airbnb through our Entrepreneurship Academy, so that they too can earn additional income and ultimately participate in the tourism economy.
How big is the market for accommodation booking in Africa?
Africa is a land of opportunity, and in many places tourism is still in its infancy. As infrastructure across the continent continues to improve, we would expect destinations to become more appealing to a wider audience. There is so much to see in Africa, and it’s just a matter of time before it becomes accessible for the majority of travellers.
We’re excited about the upcoming summer travel season and the return of many international travellers who missed out last year due to omicron. If we look at South Africa, for example, a number of global airlines have added new or additional routes to the country in a bid to meet the increased demand in travel to the region, so we’re looking forward to the year ahead.
How would you describe Airbnb’s relationship to cities as tourism changes on the continent?
Travel fundamentally changed as a result of the pandemic. Airbnb is helping disperse tourism and is especially creating new economic opportunities for Hosts in rural areas. As part of our commitment to help redistribute where people are travelling to – seeking to avoid guests concentrating in the same handful of cities as before – we are continuing to work in partnership with destination marketing organisations to promote and disperse tourism to the places that most want it, spreading benefits across the region. We’re also working closely with destinations to bring back a more sustainable type of tourism that’s distributed away from touristic centres to further benefit communities and local businesses.
Earlier this year, Airbnb launched the Live and Work Anywhere initiative, which identified some of the most remote worker friendly destinations in the world who are actively working towards attracting remote workers and making it easy for them to live and work. As part of that program we’ve partnered with the City of Cape Town to help attract remote workers to the city and promote what Cape Town has to offer. We have also partnered with Tourism KZN to boost tourism in the regions, and recently ran the first Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy in the Waterberg, bringing tourism skills and knowledge to women and youth in the area.
We pride ourselves on fostering strong relationships with destinations across the world, and Africa is no exception.
Which cities are your top trending destinations in Africa and why?
The top trending destination list in Africa is a snapshot of where guests are booking and planning to travel on Airbnb. It’s exciting to see such a diverse range of destinations being represented from across Africa.
From Cotonou in Benin, to Stellenbosch in South Africa, there’s some incredible destinations on the list. Morocco in particular is seeing strong demand as travellers head back to coastal favourites like Agadir and Taghzout.
Travel can play a powerful role in promoting cross-cultural understanding and this list is a great example of the ways in which our community is connecting with and celebrating African culture.
Airbnb’s top 10 trending destinations in Africa for 2022:
Salazie, Réunion Island
Vaal Marina, South Africa
Stellenbosch, South Africa
How did Covid impact Airbnb’s operations in Africa and how did you overcome it?
It is no secret that the devastation of the pandemic wrecked livelihoods in tourism. At Airbnb we had a complete shift in how we operate and went back to our roots by focusing on the everyday Hosts that are at the heart of Airbnb. We’re coming out the other end and what we’ve learnt is that, ultimately, travel is never going back to the way it was before.
We were able to adapt to this shift by tapping into these new travel travel trends – the growth of domestic tourism and the flexibility that we’ve now all become accustomed to. This involved shining light on local communities and offering new ways for Africans to explore their own townships, including remote working holidays.
We partnered with tourism organisations such as Wesgro, Western Cape Government and South African Tourism to follow Airbnb’s commitment to inclusive tourism, and we have invested in our Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy, which works with organisations, including Africa Ignite and Tourism KwaZulu Natal, to encourage local people in townships and rural communities to become tourism entrepreneurs.
We believe that, as we emerge firmly in this tourism recovery phase, there is a moment to pause, rethink and reimagine a tourism industry that benefits everyone. The tourism recovery can be a tourism revolution that enables anyone, anywhere to travel, earn and live.
Airbnb has grown from a small home-sharing website to one of the most significant disruptors in the travel industry. So large that it has been roundly condemned as disruptive by the hospitality industry in a number of African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and South Africa. So far, how have you handled these contentious situations?
We work closely with governments around the world to unlock economic opportunities for everyday people through hosting and highlight the benefits that hosting brings to local communities and the economy. For countries to reach their ambitious tourism goals in a post pandemic world and encourage economic development and job creation, it is vital that there is a wide selection of accommodation and experience options – including home sharing – which allows guests to explore different communities, and local hosts to showcase their hometowns in a unique way. Hosts on Airbnb are incredibly proud of what they bring to the tourism sector and have become positive ambassadors for the communities they are operating in.
Hosts on Airbnb have already contributed significantly to the economy and communities across the continent. In South Africa alone, the typical Host earns just over R25,400 – equivalent to approximately one month’s additional pay for the average income earner – by renting their space on Airbnb. And, in 2020, a crisis year for local tourism, travel on the platform contributed more than R8 billion to the economy supporting around 22,000 jobs*.
Particularly in the current economic climate, SMMEs and those in the informal economy will be essential to the economy. The National Development Plan suggests that nine million of the 11 million jobs we need by 2030 will come from SMMEs, with a high number of these coming from self-employed entrepreneurs. We want to work together with governments to support a sustainable tourism sector by not trying to force formalisation of businesses and instead, partner with platforms like Airbnb to help SMMEs succeed.
Our vision for a better and more inclusive tourism sector breaks down barriers to becoming a tourism entrepreneur, grows tourism outside of traditional hotspots, includes national regulation, with clear and sensible rules that encourage and enable entrepreneurship, and works in partnership with governments.
Together, we can enable entrepreneurship and inclusivity and sustainably grow Africa’s tourism industry.
Despite challenges faced, how would you rate Airbnb’s performance in Africa?
Airbnb is constantly innovating and it’s that focus that’s meant we’re in a stronger position now than prior to the pandemic. We’ve been able to adapt to the new changes within the tourism industry, and have created a unique offering that focuses on championing tourism entrepreneurs and contributing to inclusivity. We’re incredibly excited about the long-term opportunities in Africa.
Why do you think local and international travellers have a preference to use the platform instead of hotels?
Hotels and short term rentals appeal to different types of travellers, and in fact, we have hotels as part of the Airbnb platform for that very reason. We know that people are looking for authentic and local travel experiences, which is one of the reasons why so many love using Airbnb. When you book on the platform, you’re supporting local hosts, and the communities they call home, whether that’s the local restaurant or a small business down the street. Guests on Airbnb often feel like they are at home and experience a sense of belonging in the homes and local communities that they are visiting.
The cumulative economic impact this type of travel has on local economies is significant. We see time and again the positive impact that hosting on Airbnb brings to both the hosts and their communities.
Almost one fifth of guests said that Airbnb offered a more local travel experience. A third said their Airbnb listing enabled them to experience an area they probably wouldn’t have visited and over half say they took up their Host’s recommendation of a local business or place to visit. This helps disperse guests and benefits beyond hotel districts to local families and their communities. A 2021 report from Genesis Analytics highlighted Airbnb’s contribution to the inclusive growth of tourism, with travel on the platform contributing more than R8 billion to the economy supporting around 22,000 jobs in 2020, a crisis year for local tourism.
What has Airbnb really done that’s innovative?
The way we travel today has changed and Airbnb continues to innovate to offer new ways for people to search, stay and earn on the platform.
We know that people are more flexible about where and when they can travel, so we’ve created a new way to search, to help our guests discover millions of unique homes and new communities they never knew existed – our ‘I’m Flexible’ allows people to search by type of accommodation rather than where they are going; and ‘Categories’ offers guests an abundance of homes to choose from based on their style, location, or proximity to travel activity. We want to guide people to less visited locations, whether that be in their own backyard, or on the other side of the world.
Second, people are taking longer trips, so we created Split Stays to give people more options by splitting their trips between two homes. We’re also continuing to innovate by making hosting more simple, safe and accessible, with Airbnb Setup – a new, super easy way to Airbnb your home, with free one-to-one guidance from a Superhost, and even more AirCover for Hosts – our top top-to-bottom protection, with guest identity verification, reservation screening, and USD $3M damage protection, including coverage for cars, boats, art and valuables, free for every Host.
Are there a new slate of product offerings that you have initiated?
Airbnb continues to launch new products and features as we look to stay up to date with the changing travel trends and regulations across the globe. Last year, we released 150 upgrades to improve every aspect of the Airbnb service, and this year we have continued to innovate, introducing Airbnb Categories so that millions of people could discover homes they never knew existed, and Airbnb Setup, to make it easy for millions of people to Airbnb their home. We’re also providing even more AirCover for Hosts.
At a time when extra income has never been more important amidst a rising cost of living – right around the corner from the holidays – those who are considering becoming a Host for the first time can now benefit from a new set of tools and specialised support.
For guests, we’ve recently opened up further travel inspiration with new ‘Categories’, such as ‘Play’ – homes with basketball courts, game rooms, miniature golf, water slides and more; and ‘Top of the world’- homes around 10,000 feet above sea level, often with stunning views.
What have you learned from the process of managing Airbnb in Africa?
The power of community, and that Africa still has so much to offer the world, from amazing stays to incredible local experiences, but that if you go into many rural and township communities, people are struggling with market access. There are systemic barriers in place, for example, a lack of connectivity, and it is up to us to help break these down.
The great thing about Airbnb is that we provide a platform that empowers anyone, anywhere to earn. In continuing to break down barriers to entry, and through skills workshops, we can create a more inclusive and sustainable tourism industry, where anyone can be a tourism entrepreneur.
Our Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy is a great example of how we’re working to achieve this goal. To drive a genuinely inclusive tourism recovery we need to eliminate the barriers to becoming a tourism entrepreneur and foster the power of communities, which is exactly what the programme does.
The heart of Airbnb’s success in Africa is around helping people to create new economic opportunities for themselves and their communities and it’s a privilege to see this in action.
What difference do you intend to make in driving Airbnb’s brand-first philosophy?
We want to continue to help more people to become tourism entrepreneurs by creating economic opportunities for themselves and their communities. The Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy started as a South African initiative but today has global reach. In 2020, the World Tourism Alliance recognised the Academy as a Best Practice in Poverty Alleviation Through Tourism, which is a great endorsement for Airbnb as a brand that understands the importance of supporting the next generation of tourism entrepreneurs.
Today, Airbnb has Academies around the world – in India, Colombia, Kenya, the United States, China, Thailand and Korea – focused on reaching diverse communities in partnerships with local organisations and academic institutions.
What is the vision for Airbnb in Africa?
Tourism in Africa is moving in the right direction. We’re continuing to invest in the people and communities that bring incredible tourism experiences to life. The Entrepreneurship Academy is one part of Airbnb’s broader inclusive tourism commitment in South Africa – a three-part pledge that aims to tackle digital and financial access, and support Academy graduates who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
In 2021, Airbnb also also announced a three-year commitment in South Africa to address barriers to becoming a tourism entrepreneur, and to help rebuild a more inclusive and resilient domestic tourism economy. The commitment focused on infrastructure, training and investment; and builds on Airbnb’s 2017 USD $1 million commitment in Africa to boost community-led tourism projects as well as the Africa Academy.
We need to drive a genuinely inclusive tourism recovery by breaking down the barriers to becoming a tourism entrepreneur. We know from the hundreds of agreements Airbnb has signed with authorities around the world and the wide ranging system of rules that have been introduced, that good rules not only benefit Hosts who list their properties on Airbnb, but also their communities. That’s why we have always led calls for fair rules and continue to support the introduction of national registration frameworks that unlock economic opportunities for local families and support a diverse tourism economy.