It's T-minus two months until the Olympic torch and a parade of international athletes enter Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to open the 2016 Olympic Games. 

And about an hour flight from Rio, in a new office in Sao Paolo, Airbnb's nearly 20 Brazilian staffers are in crunch time.

Back in March, Airbnb won a bid to become the "official alternate accommodation service provider" of the 2016 Olympic Games. That's a mouthful, but it's the first time such a title has been doled out at any Olympics. By scoring said plaudit, Airbnb beat out local services Hotel Urbano (a vacation-package sale site) and Alugue Temporada (a property-rental site popular in Brazil and owned by HomeAway). Airbnb has not disclosed how much the contract is worth, and Rio 2016 has not responded to a request for comment on the partnership. 

"With visitors traveling from around the world, Rio residents get to serve as diplomats to their home country, hosting a global audience with real, authentic Brazilian hospitality," Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia said at a press conference in Rio announcing the partnership earlier this year.

That's a sea change from the 2012 Olympic Games, during which London homeowners were threatened with the possibility of fines should they attempt to rent out their homes to guests. According to Reuters, this is the first time a major sporting event has "turned to the general public, and their extra rooms, to solve a short-term spike in demand for accommodation. "

This year, visit the Olympic Games ticket-booking website, and you'll see that booking a home or room on Airbnb is an official option. And Airbnb itself has an Olympics-themed landing page. And that's about the extent of the partnership--on the surface.

The back-end of things is far more complex. Airbnb promised the International Olympic Committee it would be able to provide more than 20,000 lodging options. That's a lot--for a company that launched in Brazil in 2012 with just 3,500 listings. As a result, Airbnb has been adding shared homes, rooms, and full estates to its country listings--especially in Rio--at a rapid clip.

Getting up to speed.

Managing this growth has been Airbnb's new Brazil country head, Leo Tristao, a former Google employee whom Airbnb hired away last year from Facebook. (He was Facebook's head Brazil manager as well.) 

Tristao immediately identified a surprising complication--and we're not talking about the country's economic recession or the looming threat of the Zika virus. Eighty percent of the roughly 7.5 million tickets for the Olympics would be going to Brazilians. Meaning: The Brazilian hosts in Rio would be far more likely to be serving as diplomats to their own compatriots than to frequent globe-trotters. This situation would be new for Airbnb Brazil. The audience for the World Cup--the most similar recent event and a potential test-case for how this Games would play out for the company--was just 6 percent domestic. So, more than 90 percent of people who needed lodging were international travelers. And international travelers--the frequent travelers at least--are far better-versed in the ways of Airbnb than Brazilians, in general. 

"The hosts in Rio are already used to hosting international travelers usually," Tristao says. "So we are more concerned about local Brazilians--how to educate them and make booking easy for them."

Planning for payments, hosting.

Considering the fact that Brazil is deep in its worst recession in 25 years, opening up a variety of payment options to those who can afford to travel would be key. "Very, very key," says Tristao.

There are systems unique to Brazil that Tristao's team wanted to be able to offer to locals. One of them: a popular debit-card-like payment system involving credit cards issued by local banks.

There's also the Boleto Bancário. It's a form of payment native and specific to Brazil. It's something like the bar code on a U.S. check. So to make a payment, for example, an individual has to scan a Boleto code from a merchant onto his or her phone to make funds automatically withdraw from their checking account. Boletos can also be paid at ATMs, local banks, or some supermarkets.

Also, Tristao says, "Brazilians love to pay in installments, so we had to make that available, too."

Aside from payments, Airbnb Brazil will need to educate hosts to be patient guides for those new to the process.

"It's about showing our community the little tips from the moment a guest contacts them on the platform, through the booking flow, through the check-in," Tristao says. His staff has been coaching hosts to be extra responsive--and to answer guests' every-last question. "We want every guest to have a five-star experience."

He says while interactions through the Airbnb website may take some extra coaching, most Brazilians don't need any help when it comes to the actual "hosting" part. "Sometimes," he says, "I joke to my colleagues that hospitality is in our blood."

Expanding geographies.

The downturn has perhaps helped Airbnb exceed its promise to Rio 2016: It is already up to 25,000 rooms available throughout Rio--5,000 more than it pledged.

"Brazil is in an economic situation that is not favoring employment," Tristao says, speaking euphemistically. He says Brazil's sour economy has been an impetus for many eager hosts, as renting a room can help generate additional income for families.

Rio is already the largest market in Latin America for Airbnb. Tristao says he's proud of the expansion within Rio in particular, because it includes lots of lodgings in neighborhoods not populated by hotels or typically visited by tourists.

And the company is pleased with its economic impact: During the World Cup in Rio two years ago, it provided $38.3 million in revenue for local hosts. Considering Airbnb Rio has been growing 87 percent year-over-year, this could, recession be damned, be a really huge year for Airbnb Rio. 

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Published on: Jun 15, 2016