Brand Cuba: What’s Behind Fathom’s Tie-up With Airbnb


Last week, Carnival Cruise’s Fathom brand announced a partnership with Airbnb to attract new customers by offering a cruise discount in exchange for becoming a new Airbnb host.

Airbnb’s tie up with Fathom, a cruise brand focused on the experiencial/social impact aspect of travel, makes perfect sense in a travel world burdened by commoditization and infinite sameness, especially for cruise ship travelers.

The headline of the announcement of the partnership contains a deeper meaning about Caribbean travel and Cuba’s emerging coolness as a travel destination.

Airbnb, the holiday rental platform, was one of the first US tech companies to operate in Cuba. Since integrating with Cuba’s casas particulares program last year, Airbnb has paired more than 13,000 guests from all 50 US states with rentals in Cuba. More than 4,000 casas particulares owners have added their homes to Airbnb’s network.

According to the company’s founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, “Cuba is the fastest-growing country on Airbnb ever in the history of our platform.” This is Airbnb as a problem solver.

The partnership is about two brands positioning themselves around the most interesting place in the world today, Cuba. In fact, the offer is for new Airbnb hosts in the USA – not in Cuba. The $250 discount can be applied to one of two seven-day Fathom cruise options: $499 for the Dominican Republic or $1899 for Cuba. This is Airbnb as a brand.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder and CTO at Airbnb, stated: “what we’ve demonstrated is there’s an immense appetite to travel more authentically and immerse yourself in culture… as opposed to having a commoditized experience.”

Cuba appears to sit squarely at the intersection of Americans’ desire for authentic travel experiences and Airbnb’s brand mission to increase cultural empathy and decrease cultural boundaries.

According to the Cruise Line Association, in 1970, cruise ships worldwide carried about 500,000 passengers annually; 40 years later, that number reached over 20 million, a growth of nearly 4,000%. Cuba’s absence from this boom has opened a deep cleavage in terms of what a visitor experiences upon arrival in each destination. Too many Caribbean destinations have been reduced to a cash nexus, offering experiences more akin to the televisual reality of a US mall – where the vanity metric of total number of “landings” prevails over a more nuanced offering of a place of discovery and a novel experience.

Competition among the various Caribbean island destinations has resulted in a loss of bargaining power for revenue derived from cruise ship visitors. According to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, “Cruise Industry Overview – 2014″, for the past decade, cruise tourists have made up about 40% of all tourists in the Caribbean, yet they have accounted for less than 10% of overall tourist expenditures. Charges per visitor in the Caribbean remain under $10 whereas in Bermuda the rate is $60, for example.

Look no further than to the price difference between a Fathom cruise to Cuba relative to the Dominican Republic, one of the cruise industry’s top destinations in the Caribbean, as a signal of what the future holds. An identical cruise to Cuba is 380% more expensive on Fathom than to the Dominican Republic. That’s Cuba’s “brand” power at work, and Airbnb and Fathom are the first major companies to align around it.

By Simons Chase for Cuba Journal

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