Skift Take

From the looks of it, this new experiment seems like a smart move for Airbnb to test out: it broadens Airbnb's appeal even further to guests who expect or want more hotel-like amenities at an Airbnb, and it helps them compete against other startups that try to offer a more service-oriented home-sharing experience.

At about the same time Airbnb launched its brand-new, largest-ever campaign, Live There, it also quietly launched a brand-new pilot program that tests the platform’s ability to offer more of a hospitality-driven, hotel-like experience.

The pilot, called Sonoma Select, will officially begin in July and it applies to a select number of highly-rated listings in Sonoma, California. If you choose to turn on the Sonoma Select filter, you’re shown about 37 different listings, all of which offer Instant Booking, 24-hour check-in, and local amenities that include “local treats, wine, upgraded bath products, and a guidebook.”

Each of the listings varies in price point with an average nightly rate of $281, and all 37 listings as of April 26 are for entire homes or apartments. But what really sets these Airbnb listings apart from any others you’ll find on the platform is that they also feature interactive Matterport 3-D models that let you take a virtual tour of each listing.

Skift spoke to Matterport vice president of business development, Oren J. Tversky, who confirmed the Sunnyvale, California-based startup is working with Airbnb. He said, “We can’t really talk about the specifics of the relationship at this time, including how it happened, but we can tell you that we are excited to be partnering with Airbnb on the Sonoma Select pilot.”

When we reached out to Airbnb for comment about the new pilot, spokesperson Amanda Smith said, “There is nothing new to share at this time. As you know, Airbnb is constantly testing new ways to create meaningful experiences for our community.”

We also spoke to an Airbnb Superhost (a host with exceptionally high ratings, at least 10 bookings a year, a high response rate, and who rarely cancels on guests) participating in the pilot program who gave us a bit more insight into the program.

This host said she was approached by Airbnb about two months ago to participate in Sonoma Select, which would require her to add Instant Booking and agree to have the 3-D photography from Matterport taken at her property. She said that closer to July, she expects to be working with her respective Airbnb representative to obtain the amenities (local treats, wines, bath products, and guidebook) to be given to guests who book a Sonoma Select listing for July and August.

While she hadn’t previously offered Instant Booking for her cottage, she said that having added it has been a positive experience and that she wants to keep it even after the pilot ends in August. She also said that, even before Sonoma Select, she has been offering home-baked scones and a local bottle of Sonoma wine to her Airbnb guests, so the new amenities won’t be much different from what she’s already used to providing.

“[Airbnb] must have some goals and objectives that they are looking to achieve as a business,” the Sonoma Select participating Airbnb host told Skift. “I don’t know specifically what those are, but this seems like it really makes the whole booking process more quick and comfortable for customers. I have no idea whether or not we’ll have more guests because of this, but it seems like a great program to me.”

Airbnb’s “Goals and Objectives” for Sonoma Select

Airbnb is known for experimenting with a variety of different features and pilot programs. Over the years, they have tested out ways for hosts to market services or “experiences” to guests, as they are currently doing in Paris. They’ve also even tried to turn homes into pop-up restaurants in San Francisco.

With this latest experiment, it’s clear Airbnb is trying on a few of the amenities and features you might normally find at a hotel, but giving it more of a local, tech-driven twist. By choosing to pilot the program with Superhosts, hosts who are already accustomed to providing a higher level of service and hospitality to guests, it’s clear that this pilot is testing out the waters for a slightly more upscale type of Airbnb experience.

One thing that’s a bit unclear about the pilot is what form the provided guidebook will be in. Will it be a print guidebook specific to Sonoma or San Francisco wine country, or will it be a link to a digital City Guidebook that can be accessed on its site?

On April 19, Airbnb launched City Guidebooks on its site and app for cities ranging from San Francisco to Cape Town. The guidebooks are marketed as “keys to the city” and they are a compilation of local Airbnb hosts’ recommendations for food, drink, sightseeing, parks, arts and culture, shopping, and much more. (On a side note, it’ll be interesting to see how Airbnb’s City Guidebooks stack up against Google’s proposed travel assistance app, which will likely tap information and insights from its Local Guides members.)

The broadening of the Airbnb stay to include more amenities and perks like those in the Sonoma Select program could also help Airbnb appeal more to travelers who prefer more of a blend of a traditional hotel stay and that of an Airbnb: the comforts of a hotel stay like special amenities and treats as well as instant booking, combined with the more personalized, peer-to-peer, local experience that the Airbnb platform facilitates.

It also positions Airbnb more squarely against other home sharing and vacation rental platforms like Oasis Collections or Onefinestay that appeal to more of an upscale, luxury clientele. And it extends the company’s commitment to offering more to its community, beyond simply a place to stay.

If the Sonoma Select pilot is successful, it’ll be interesting to see if Airbnb rolls it out to other destinations, and how it chooses the participating hosts, or if hosts will possibly have to pay to be a part of the program, or to have access to special features like the enhanced photography from Matterport.

Airbnb Goes 3-D

Additionally, the use of Matterport technology to provide interactive video tours of properties instead of static pictures could be a major game changer in the way Airbnb allows its hosts to promote their listings on the platform.

If the pilot is successful, will Airbnb make the Matterport technology available to all of its hosts or to a select few? Will it consider charging hosts to enhance their listings with it?

A handful of travel and hospitality brands are already testing out 360-degree videos on platforms like Facebook, and Hilton just launched a new mobile video campaign using 360-degree videos to drive direct bookings. Brands like Princess Cruises, Viceory Hotels, and Wyndham Vacation Rentals have already started using Matterport for their digital marketing as well.

Matterport’s Tversky said the company is currently in talks with a number of travel and hospitality brands to partner with them in providing these unique 3-D virtual tours to “give vacationers an ability to experience a place as if they were staying there” as well as “increase engagement and take the uncertainty out of the booking or conversion process.”

Tversky said that if Matterport’s success with the real estate industry is any indication, it’s that the company’s technology can be easily scaled up to accommodate thousands of properties, and that it has the power to increase customer engagement.

In September 2015, released the results of its partnership with Matterport, which began in March 2015, coinciding with the launch of the new website. Since the launch, was able to post up to 1,000 3-D floor plans per week, accumulating into a total of more than 30,000 by September and more than 4.8 million views. On average, site users also spend three times more engaging with properties with 3-D tours than those without.

“As we roll out more and more partnerships in travel and hospitality,” Tversky said, “that will continue.” used its own photographers to post the 3-D models on its site, but Tversky said Matterport has its own Matterport Service Providers, a network of photographers, to capture the images necessary to build the models.

He also said that Matterport’s models are not like your average 360-degree videos, and that they can also be easily converted for virtual reality devices like Gear VR.

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Tags: airbnb, sonoma

Photo credit: An Airbnb listing that is part of a new pilot program called Sonoma Select. Airbnb

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