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What hotels can learn from Airbnb’s design and user experience

Whether or not you support Airbnb, it’s hard to ignore the numbers. The company generated $5.5 billion in bookings in 2014 and just surpassed 30 million guests at the end of January. With this pace of growth, analysts suspect that it will surpass rival HomeAway’s revenues by 2016 or 2017.

So what’s powering Airbnb’s meteoric growth? You can point to many different factors, from the shifting travel preferences of Millennials, to its prime visibility as the unofficial leader of the “sharing economy,” to its unconventional content marketing and brand strategy.  But ultimately, when it comes to user acquisition and conversion drivers, Airbnb wins on design and user experience—not unexpected for a company founded by designers that has a “Head of Design” position. Here’s where Airbnb excels as a booking platform:

Research and room selection 

Airbnb has spent many years fine-tuning its search results page, and for good reason. They’ve learned that vivid imagery leads to increased engagement (Airbnb has some of the highest in the business), and this is reflected in its clean photo-centric design. In fact, images are such an important driver in user engagement that the company offers free professional professional photography to all of its hosts.

airbnb search results


The oversized map and price filter make it easy for guests to ascertain the value of their options, while the additional amenity filters hidden in a drop-down button allow users to sort through options without cluttering up the results page. For contrast, consider this “before and after” shot of one of their redesigns.

Most importantly, Airbnb carefully limits the number of options it displays in its search.  It shows the first 18 options, with only four visible within the screen at any one time. (In contrast, Expedia and Travelocity show 50 results by default.)  We have talked at length about the psychology of choice here at Travel Tripper, and the same concept applies in this situation.

Guest and payment information collection 

Airbnb is unique in that it requires all users to have a site account in order to book, and they encourage all users to “verify” their ID and build a robust profile with photos and descriptions. This builds trust between hosts and guests, and it also has the benefit of making the booking process much easier.

Airbnb one-step booking

When making a booking, the only information required is the credit card or payment information, name on the card, and postal code. No address or phone number is required. This slimmed down version of information collection allows the booking process to be fast and efficient—it’s only one step to book.

Email and ad retargeting 

Airbnb is by no means a pioneer in this strategy, whereby emails and ads are retargeted to users who have completed searches on a site but have not completed bookings. However, they do stand out among other OTAs in the way they retarget users. Instead of going for the hard sell—telling guests to “Book now!” for a place they researched—Airbnb’s messaging encourages users to “Learn more” or “Find a unique space.”

Consider this retargeted email personalized for a specific place search, or these general ads based on destination search. The soft sell here entices the user back to the site, while eliminating that “creep factor” of ads that seem to know a little too much about you.

airbnb email retargeting

A booking platform designed for… hotels? 

Hotels can no doubt learn a lot from Airbnb’s successes and use some of their design principles to better optimize their own websites, whether it’s employing a better booking engine that increases conversions, or improving hotel remarketing campaigns to capture abandoned bookings. But some hotels are taking it a step further and using Airbnb as an additional distribution channel.

The Box House Hotel, a boutique property in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, recently made the news when the media published a list of NYC hosts suspected of running illegal hotels. Unlike some of the other listings, however, The Box House is a licensed hotel and is simply using Airbnb to sell its loft-style suites.

box house hotel on airbnb

Though impractical for the vast majority of hotels, Airbnb may prove to be a useful tool for small independent properties like The Box House, which stand to benefit from the visibility to Airbnb’s audience and well-designed booking platform. It seems to be working—Dana, the hotel’s manager and Airbnb “host,” has 215 reviews for the property, most of them highly positive.

Airbnb has said before that it is “unlikely” to become a distribution channel for hotels, but they continue to blur the lines between traditional home-rental sites and OTAs. The company just announced that it would start collecting hotel taxes in major cities, and has recently released a feature on its app to take advantage of last-minute bookings. Where will Airbnb get that inventory? As CN Traveler put it, “It’s certainly a lot easier for a hotel to offer an empty last-minute room than for, say, an L.A. resident to vacate his apartment for the night with an hour’s notice.”

Though we don’t see Airbnb shifting from its core model anytime soon, we may see the door open for some interesting partnerships between the booking platform and hotels. And given their track record in design and user experience, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Steffan Berelowitz

Steffan Berelowitz

Steffan is the SVP Enterprise E-commerce. A pioneer in all things web and mobile, Steffan has spent more than 20 years in online services and technology. He loves traveling, the planet Earth, and his amazing wife and sons. Contact him at steffan@pegs.com.

3 thoughts on “What hotels can learn from Airbnb’s design and user experience

    1. Thanks for reading! Yes, UX is one of the most important factors driving successful e-commerce in any industry, but especially in travel where the majority of bookings are now made online. In our own hotel booking platforms, we incorporate best practices from companies like Airbnb that are leading the way in UX design.

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