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At home abroad: in tourism, there’s a big world beyond hotels

31 May 2016

The article at a glance

Nicola D’Elia of Airbnb seeks to open up many more areas to visitors in developing countries. Most tourists around the world, says …

Nicola D’Elia of Airbnb seeks to open up many more areas to visitors in developing countries.

At home abroad: in tourism, there’s a big world beyond hotels.

Most tourists around the world, says Nicola D’Elia (Cambridge MBA 2009), tend to visit the same cities or districts because that’s where most hotels are located. And that means there’s a huge area that’s relatively untapped, and just ripe for a new type of accommodation.

Nicola D’Elia (Cambridge MBA 2009)
Nicola D’Elia, MBA 2009

As general manager for Africa and the Middle East for online accommodation service Airbnb, which matches visitors with people seeking to rent out their homes, Nicola sees huge potential for smaller cities and rural areas to welcome tourists – helping the visitor, the host and the local community.

“There’s an opportunity to bring tourists to every place in the world if we can create that connection,” he says. “This translates into a positive impact for restaurants and shops in those areas, so there’s a clear benefit for local businesses. Unlike hotels, homes are spread all over.”

Nicola sees part of his role at Airbnb to help “create a generation of micro-entrepreneurs” in Africa and the Middle East. So far, the biggest markets in those areas for Airbnb are South Africa, Morocco and Kenya, with the Cape Town region of South Africa the largest single area.

“There are lots of people eager to share their culture,” he says. “People saw an opportunity through Airbnb to get an extra income, and to create a business out of it combined with their passion for welcoming people from all over the world.”

Africa and the Middle East each attract more than 50 million international tourist arrivals per year.

Now based in Milan in his native Italy, Nicola began at Airbnb in mid-2015 following more than three years at Facebook in London, where he was Growth Manager for Africa and Head of International Growth & Partnerships. He worked on managing mobile, media and developer partnerships, and improving the user experience of mobile Facebook users.

After studying telecommunications engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy, Nicola says that his career has had three stages – with the second and third stages divided by his MBA in Cambridge.

“In the first stage I was involved in IT consulting for five years in Italy and Germany,” including work at Accenture in Rome and Hamburg, before focusing on emerging markets in the second stage – including at the Ministry of Education in Namibia, at a non-governmental organisation in Italy, and a mobile telephony project in Uganda.

After doing his Cambridge MBA in 2009-2010, Nicola then combined his tech and emerging market experience – first with the mobile telephone trade group GSMA and then with Facebook and Airbnb.

“The work I’ve been doing the last five years (for Facebook and Airbnb) is using mobile technology to grow in emerging markets, for US-based companies,” Nicola says, although the challenge at Airbnb is different from that at Facebook: “Airbnb is a marketplace that links the supply side – hosts – with the demand side – travellers – so both those sides need to grow at the same time.”

Nicola says his Cambridge MBA experience helped him realise that he could tackle new challenges without the fear of failure.

“The most important thing for me was acquiring that confidence that you can really do this – you can try to do something, and that making a mistake is not the end of the world, that there are opportunities for learning and coming up with other ideas. I learned the feeling that you are able to have an impact: if I do things right, this company can go on and do great things.”

Going forward, Nicola says his focus at Airbnb is to raise understanding of the company.

“The way services like Facebook and Airbnb grow most are through word of mouth, although you can do things to accelerate growth like making registration easier. But the most important thing is for people to understand what Airbnb is all about – the experience, the connection between people, and to deliver a unique experience for travellers.”

Nicola is interested in meeting …

… travellers, vagabonds, growth marketing experts, entrepreneurs and innovators who are currently working in emerging markets.