Airbnb tells the story of its first-ever guest as it bets big on India

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Amol Surve, a cash-strapped Indian design student, was looking for a cheap place to stay for his trip to San Francisco in 2007, when he stumbled upon the website Air Bed & Breakfast, where two designers like him were renting their spare bedroom.

Desperate for a good deal, Surve hunted down their numbers to book his room, and ended up staying with Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, two of the three co-founders of what would grow into Airbnb. Chesky and Gebbia, then unemployed, had hit upon the idea of renting out their spare bedroom to pay for their rent.

The room only had an air bed, almost no furniture and certainly no breakfast, but Surve ended up having a great time during his five-night stay. In many ways, his experience encapsulated Airbnb’s core appeal: affordable and personal stays, with like-minded people. A year later, Air Bed & Breakfast became Airbnb, and Surve would be the first of the company’s 80 million guests.

“When we started Airbnb, I had no idea about the people we would meet, or the friendships I would make,” Chesky would write later. “Then I met Amol, one of the first guests, who later invited me to his wedding in India.”

Airbnb is betting big on growing in India, but it isn’t just because of this connection. It has tripled its growth in 2015. Nearly half-a-million Indian guests travelled on Airbnb in the last one year, making the country one of its fastest-growing markets. The majority of these travellers were from the three big metropolises, Mumbai (25%), Delhi (22%) and Bengaluru (19%).

“Countries all over the world continue to embrace home sharing, and we are excited that India is at the forefront of this movement,” Airbnb co-founder and CTO Nathan Blecharczyk said. He added that Airbnb will be looking to tap into India’s burgeoning travel industry, which is estimated to cross the $40 million mark by 2020.

Airbnb has seen a 185% increase in bookings in India, and a 184% increase in bookings from India. Indian travellers’ favourite international destinations include Paris, New York and London. Yet, the bookings made by Indians for Europe (50%) and North America (18%), clearly outrank those within the country (13%).

On the other hand, Airbnb is also hoping to expand the number of its listings in India, by attracting more hosts. The company currently has 17,000 listings across the country, a jump of over 115% since last year. These range from house boats in Kerala’s backwaters to palaces in Rajasthan and heritage villas in Goa.

“India has one of the most charismatic cultures in the world. Its richness and diversity need to be made more accessible,” Airbnb’s India manager Amanpreet Bajaj said. “We have a great opportunity here.” Bajaj adds that the company is trying to create micro-entrepreneurs in India, “everyday people, mums and dads, who are using their homes to support their families.”

Rita Sharma, is a retired professor and what Airbnb calls a “super host”. She and her husband have listed three rooms in their home in Agra on Airbnb since 2013 and hosted over 600 guests from around the world. It helps that their house is near the Taj Mahal.

“It has changed our life,” Sharma says. “My husband and I are working together for the first time, and working from home.”

“Airbnb was born of a jugaad (hack). Who else is better at jugaad than Indians?” Surve, Airbnb’s first-ever guest chuckles. “Besides, Indians are big believers in good hospitality and like me, always looking for bargains.”

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