When will Airbnb do its initial public offering? That’s the question on the minds of many Airbnb investors and industry watchers.
The San Francisco-based company, which got its start in 2008 when its founders were scrambling to pay their rents by advertising air mattresses in their living room, is now worth an estimated $31 billion. That’s only $7 billion less than the market cap of Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company.
It’s also one of the few wildly successful Silicon Valley tech unicorns that has yet to go public. Earlier this year, Airbnb reported a profit for the first time in its company history. In other words, the company seems ripe for an IPO.
In March, CEO Brian Chesky confirmed that, yes, the company is on a path to an IPO. But when that will happen has yet to be determined.
“We don’t have anything to announce,” Chesky told the audience during a luncheon hosted by the New York Economic Club at the New York Stock Exchange. “We are working on making sure the company is ready to go public and so, you know, we’ve always said it’s a two-year project and we’re probably halfway through that project as far as being ready to go public. At that point, you know, our investors are very patient. None of them are anxiously waiting for us to go public.”
When reminded he made the same comments in 2015, Chesky said the two-year period was “flexible.” He also said the only reason Airbnb would seriously enter into an IPO would be to deliver immediate liquidity for the company’s shareholders.
That Airbnb will eventually go public is mostly a given. The only question left to answer now is when.
Kathleen Smith, principal of Renaissance Capital and manager of IPO-focused exchange-traded funds, said there’s no better time than now for a company like Airbnb to go public, especially given the current state of the markets.
“These are the best of times in the public markets,” Smith said. “Any company that is not moving forward to go public that has the ability to do so is crazy. If they’re able to go public, they should do it now. We aren’t always in these good times.”
Smith said that by going public, Airbnb will benefit from having more credibility in completing major transactions, raising more financing, and doing more business with suppliers and other large companies. In other words, it will help the company grow even more than it already has. Being a public company will also benefit its employees, as well as its investors.
The Case for Waiting
Others, however, believe that Airbnb doesn’t need to rush itself into an IPO. “They have the luxury of choosing and waiting,” said Justin Patterson, an Internet and digital media research analyst at Raymond James Financial Inc. “They don’t have to be hitting any specific windows.”
Andrew McConnell, co-founder and CEO of Rented.com, agrees with Patterson, noting the company’s “cash pile” of an estimated $3 billion frees Airbnb up from having to raise a lot of money. The fact that the company has made few major acquisitions — approximately a dozen in the last five years — also means the company has more pocket change with which to spend, or invest.
Not only that, however, but should Airbnb go public, it’ll be “more in the public eye, if that’s even possible given how publicly looked at they are now,” McConnell said. “The more they have to publicly disclose, the more they may not want to do it just yet … As a privately owned company, they can do things more under the radar. There are less disclosures about what’s succeeding or what’s not and what initiatives they’re pursuing, so they can truly diversify their business in more of a stealth manner. Once they go public, some of those veils start falling off.”
A case in point? Figuring out exactly how profitable the company was in 2016. “Is it that they weren’t marginally profitable before, and now they’ve moved into marginal profitability where a new customer costs them less than they expect over the lifetime of that customer?” McConnell asked. “Or did they truly spend less money over the quarter than came in, and is that a consistent thing now?”
Santosh Rao, head of research at Manhattan Venture Partners, said his research for private investor clients, published in April 2016, showed that Airbnb was “generating money very well” and “not spending any money they raised.”
Sources have suggested to Skift that the 2015 hiring of chief financial officer Laurence Tosi, the former Blackstone Group CFO, accelerated Airbnb’s profitability in the second half of 2016. His primary method? Making the company leaner.
Rapid growth is something Airbnb has already undergone in the nine years it’s been in business. When the company officially launched at South by Southwest in 2008, it had a total of two bookings. Today, it has more than 3 million listings in more than 191 countries, and more than 200 million Airbnb guest arrivals. By 2020, the company expects to earn $3.5 billion, before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. Airbnb also has 19 offices around the world, and recently added a new San Francisco office location.
In November, during the company’s annual “festival of hosting,” Chesky announced the launch of its newest product outside Airbnb’s core business: Airbnb Trips, which consists of peer-to-peer tours and activities. This year, rumors have swirled that Airbnb is launching a new luxury division, internally known as Airbnb Lux. Those rumors only got larger when the company purchased Luxury Retreats, a Montreal-based vacation rental platform, earlier this year. Chesky has also repeatedly alluded to the eventual launch of “Airbnb Flights,” although few details are available as to just what will emerge from that as well.
Rao said he thinks it makes sense for Airbnb to not rush toward an IPO and to “get all their ducks in order, get all the new acquisitions in place and to digest them. They’re going into the luxury market, they’re providing experiences, etc. I think they can do all of that — walk and chew at the same time — that’s the way I feel. One good thing about Airbnb is the management team is very good. We’ve met them and we like them, they’re executing very well, and we have a very high opinion of the CFO, who has a lot of IPO experience.”
Simply put, the company is busy. It’s growing rapidly, and looking to diversify itself beyond what it’s done for the past nine years. Earlier this year, Chesky said that by 2020 he expects more than half of the company’s revenue to come from businesses the company currently isn’t operating in.
In pursuing that kind of incredible growth, scale, and breadth, however, Airbnb is confronting plenty of challenges, too. They include dealing with short-term rental regulations around the world, and addressing the often-devastating incidences of racism and discrimination taking place among its community of hosts and guests, among others.
Like any large company coming into its own, Airbnb is grappling with the push and pull of multiple opposing forces: the push to grow and expand but also, not to lose itself, or its sense of community in the process. To live up to its marketing messages of enabling people to “belong anywhere” and “live like a local,” even as those efforts can, in some cases, lead to overtourism and the crowding out of local residents in high-demand cities and destinations.
They are growing pains, to be sure, and ones that the company must contend with if it’s ever going to make progress toward its founders’ ultimate goal: becoming the only brand you’ll ever need in travel. Here’s a closer look at what the company needs to tackle as it pursues not only an IPO, but eventually domination of the travel industry.
If there’s one blight in the otherwise bright and overwhelmingly positive viewpoint many people have of Airbnb, it has to do with its many tussles with cities around the world. Yes, Airbnb can be a powerful economic boon for destinations and its hosts but, as we’ve seen in multiple cities, from Barcelona and Paris to New York and San Francisco, not everyone is happy to welcome Airbnb as their neighbor.
Depending on whom you talk to, however, Airbnb is either winning or losing its regulatory battles worldwide.
Critics of Airbnb’s public policy strategies say that the company’s approach to working with cities is, in many cases, too little, too late and whatever progress it has made has been more reactionary than originally conceived. The biggest case in point being New York City. The company’s second largest market in the world is where Airbnb’s formerly more cavalier stance toward regulations has not endeared itself to local lawmakers.
Those who believe the contrary, like Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and an expert on legal issues relating to websites, think that, despite all the battles, Airbnb will eventually prevail.
“All of the regulatory crackdowns for Airbnb are not really bad news for them,” Goldman said. “They’ll figure it out, they’ll navigate and shut the door on anyone else who wants to compete with them. It’s a tough position for them to be in because regulators are gunning for them, but they could also be in a winning position. I think they’re setting themselves up as a winning model for the future, and every time Airbnb strikes a deal [with a city], they are putting a little more distance between themselves and their competitors, who just can’t catch up.”
Goldman pointed to Chicago, for example, where Airbnb struck a deal with the city to develop its own registration system for hosts that also delivers information on hosts and their listings directly to the city. Some hosts have sued, calling it a violation of their First Amendment rights to privacy, but their suits were dismissed. Most recently, competitor HomeAway filed suit against the city as well, against what it called a “deeply flawed law,” which also gives Airbnb an upper hand in the city.
Patterson thinks Airbnb’s “regulatory issues, as they are across all areas of technology, tend to be near-term constraints versus long-term deal breakers.” Smith, however, noted that “investors are going to care how they’re navigating those regulatory issues” and those issues could, potentially, impact the company’s stock price once it goes public.
And with cities around the world toughening their stances on short-term rentals, Airbnb’s business is beginning to feel the effects. A recent report from UBS suggested that Airbnb’s listings and bookings on a global basis are growing at a considerably lower pace than just one year ago. In cities where regulators have enacted tougher laws — New York and Barcelona — the number of available listings in both cities was down approximately 10 percent year over year in February 2017.
However, new data from InsideAirbnb seems to suggest that Airbnb’s listings in New York are on a slight upswing, especially in boroughs outside of Manhattan. In February, when the city’s new short-term rental advertising law went into effect, the number of active listings in New York dropped to approximately 28,854. In July, that number has gone up slightly to 30,215 listings.
Airbnb’s current strategy for overcoming regulatory battles is fairly straightforward: extending an open hand to cities to work with them to craft mutually beneficial legislation.
Chris Lehane, the seasoned politician and former aide to President Bill Clinton who serves as Airbnb’s global head of public policy, often repeats the same refrains on conference calls with media, especially when discussing the company’s willingness to work with cities: “We want to pay taxes.” “Airbnb is democratizing capitalism and empowering the middle class.” His favorite analogy involves the evolution from “the horse-and-buggy era to the automobile” and just as new laws were needed to govern that new technology, so too are the laws needed to govern rentals in the age of Airbnb.
Lehane and his public policy team aren’t afraid of engaging in combat with the hotel industry, often accusing hotels of “price gouging” and “fiscal flip flops.” Airbnb has even gone so far as to organize its hosts to protest against anti-Airbnb organizations such as Share Better, which Airbnb believes is being funded by the hotel industry to go after illegal short-term rentals.
Airbnb has also sponsored self-described “national watchdog blog,” Checks and Balances Project, which publishes articles portraying the “hotel lobby” and any opponents of home sharing — from academics and hotel workers’ unions to city council members — in a negative light. Its most recent primary target? A Penn State professor who authored a research study about Airbnb that received funding from the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).
To be fair, it’s not just the hotel industry that Airbnb has to concern itself with. In addition to battling against hoteliers, Airbnb must also fend off accusations from affordable housing advocates who argue that Airbnb is a primary contributor to housing shortages in major cities. In some destinations, such as Iceland, the rampant growth of Airbnb, spurred by a lack of hotel rooms, has effectively doubled the number of rooms available to tourists, but it’s also contributed to the country’s housing problem.
To those critics, however, Airbnb perpetually positions itself as a champion of the middle class. It portrays its hosts not as people wanting to make a business out of renting out multiple Airbnb listings, but as hard-working people just trying to make ends meet. This, despite the incredible growth and dominance of such commercial operators on its platform. And despite the fact that Airbnb’s “One Host, One Home” policies in New York and San Francisco haven’ been successful in preventing the same person from operating multiple listings on its platform. Launching a co-hosting feature also hasn’t helped.
“What Airbnb is very good at doing is the brand building and storytelling,” said McConnell. “It’s not about the 40 to 50 percent of income [of theirs] that comes from professional managers, essentially; it’s about the mom-and-pop retired couple that was going to lose their home but Airbnb helped them save it by renting out the spare bedroom.”
Of Airbnb’s public policy and public perception battles with the hotel industry, McConnell said, “It’s all a game. There are big vested interests on both sides that use individuals as their pawns because the individuals are more sympathetic. I think they’re both doing it the right way to play in the public sphere and win sympathy. Who ultimately wins, it’s difficult to say, but I think Airbnb has a far stronger case, not just because of their story, but because people just prefer what they’re offering.”
However, while Airbnb continually portrays itself as a staunch supporter of its hosts, in some regulatory battles, it has acquiesced to regulators’ demands and ceded liability onto those same middle-class citizens. In response to New York’s new short-term rental advertising laws, for example, Airbnb backed away from its lawsuit against the city and the state once the company was assured its hosts — and not the company itself — would be responsible for paying steep fines for advertising listings that violate New York’s Multiple Dwelling Law.
When you ask Airbnb’s Chris Lehane what type of legislative model he hopes to have with cities, he’ll point you in the direction of cities such as New Orleans, Chicago, and soon, San Francisco. These are cities where the company has developed a registration system for hosts and has agreed to share select host data with local government. Outside of the U.S., in Mexico City, Airbnb is also taking a more proactive approach to adopt more regulations than it did previously in other cities such as New York and Barcelona.
But are those models, especially the one in San Francisco, going to be sustainable or profitable?
In San Francisco, a federal judge’s ruling last fall held companies like Airbnb and HomeAway accountable for illegal rentals. It was a direct blow to both companies’ primary argument that they are protected by the Communications Decency Act, positing that they’re simply online marketplaces and therefore protected under the law. Instead, Judge James Donato of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected their arguments, saying they act as booking services because they are actively involved in every transaction (Airbnb takes money from both hosts and guests every time a booking is made on its platform).
In response, Airbnb and HomeAway had to agree to work with the city by automatically registering all local hosts, which threatens to dramatically reduce the number of listings both companies have in the city.
“It will be real interesting to see how things look like in January [when the agreement goes into effect],” David Jacoby, a San Francisco-based, registered Airbnb host and president and co-founder of Hostfully, a company that helps vacation rental and short-term rental hosts develop digital guidebooks for their guests to use in relation to their stays. “The deal they cut was really something that was forced upon them because the judge ruled in the city’s favor about the law that the city passed. Right now, there are approximately only 2,000 registered hosts in San Francisco. But there are anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 or so listings on Airbnb for San Francisco — that’s not even counting HomeAway and FlipKey and all the other sites. Let’s say, in theory, maybe another thousand hosts will register over the next half year, but by January when this goes into effect, more than half of the listings on the site will be removed from the site. That’s going to have a huge impact.”
And then there’s the matter of the landlords. Airbnb has attempted to court multifamily building owners with the launch of its Friendly Buildings Program in September 2016, and since the launch, Airbnb has accumulated more than 10,000 listings globally within the program. However, not all landlords are so keen on the idea of partnering with Airbnb to allow home sharing in their properties.
One such landlord is apartment investment and management company Aimco, which has filed two lawsuits against Airbnb in California and Florida. Aimco’s argument follows what the judge in San Francisco ruled: That Airbnb is a short-term rental broker directly involved in the business transactions between its guests and hosts, and therefore not immune from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act. This is the same law that protects sites like eBay and Craigslist from being liable for what’s advertised on their platforms.
“That San Francisco ruling casts a very long shadow over Airbnb’s business, and other online marketplaces,” Goldman said. “By casting doubt on its business model, it creates a new zone for regulatory intervention. If this lawsuit [Goldman referred to the California suit] can establish that an illegal sublease cannot be a part of Airbnb’s inventory, it will shrink its inventory dramatically and therefore impact the company’s valuation.”
Moreover, Goldman said, if Aimco is successful in its suits, the implications for how Airbnb continues to do business could be substantial. Goldman asked, “Do landlords then have to opt out of Airbnb? Or does Airbnb have to do pre-screenings to validate that the sublease is permitted? Airbnb might be less upset if it can continue doing what it does now and just remove listings if or when someone complains. But if they have to do work to validate the listing isn’t part of an illegal sublease, that could be a big problem for Airbnb. Do they have to just address complaints or do work in advance to make sure they don’t have any illegal listings?”
All of this, Goldman said, goes back to a central, crucial “proposition that Airbnb has to wrestle with and that its IPO documents will also have to address: They are putting their hosts at legal risk by allowing them to list with potentially life-changing consequences, but they [the hosts] often don’t know what they’re doing. Their contracts say ‘make sure you comply with all the laws’ but Airbnb doesn’t make it any easier for them to fully understand those laws.”
Discrimination and Bias
Another challenging issue the company has been forced to confront in the last year involves discrimination and bias taking place on its platform — an issue that isn’t necessarily unique to Airbnb, but one that has galvanized its leadership into taking action.
Researchers alerted Airbnb about the potential for discrimination, bias, and prejudice taking place on its platform as far back as 2014. In a study, Harvard University business school researchers found that hosts who were not African American could charge 12 percent more, on average, with everything else being equal. Airbnb’s use of user profiles prompted researchers to examine its platform because it places more emphasis on seeing faces and names than other similar platforms. In 2015, those same researchers discovered that Airbnb guests who had African American-sounding names had a much more difficult time being approved by hosts for reservations than those guests with more white-sounding names, even when all of their other information and messaging was exactly the same.
The issue came to a head last year when the social media hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack highlighted numerous incidents in which African-American Airbnb guests were being discriminated against by hosts on the platform. A class-action lawsuit also followed, as did the emergence of more alternative accommodations providers that cater to specific communities, such as Innclusive.
In response, Airbnb announced several changes to its policy and platform to make it more difficult for hosts to discriminate against guests on the basis of race, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or age in September 2016.
The company also hired Laura W. Murphy, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington, D.C. and a former director of tourism for the District of Columbia, to author a comprehensive 32-page report, and it enlisted the help of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help craft the company’s new policy.
As a result, Airbnb debuted a new nondiscrimination policy that is “stronger than what is required by law” as well as a new Airbnb Community Commitment, which all users had to agree to beginning November 1, 2016.
The company also settled a discrimination complaint filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in April 2017, whereby Airbnb would, for at least the next two years, voluntarily agree to take specific actions that address racial bias and discrimination on its platform.
In July, the company also announced a new partnership with the NAACP in the U.S. One facet of the partnership includes a revenue sharing model by which Airbnb will share 20 percent of its earnings generated from new hosts who join the platform in specifically targeted outreach programs conducted by the NAACP. These programs will encourage communities of color to become hosts on Airbnb, but some critics also believe the new partnership will only accelerate the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods.
“The problem here isn’t Airbnb,” said McConnell. “It’s the racism and bias of society. Even people who say they aren’t [discriminatory] will find a way in their minds to justify why they won’t accept a certain booking or whatever it is. It’s a pretty staggering bar to hold any company responsible for trying to solve society’s racial problems. It’s something we have to address as a society.”
Despite Airbnb’s efforts, recent incidences of discrimination are still taking place. The most recent was particularly disturbing: an Airbnb host in Amsterdam shoved his guest, a South African filmmaker, down a flight of stairs when she missed her check-out time. In another incident, a racist Airbnb host in California who cancelled an Asian-American guest’s stay, citing her race as the reason, was fined $5,000 and is being forced to attend a college course in Asian-American studies.
However, some critics still believe there is more that companies like Airbnb could be doing to minimize occurrences of bias or discrimination from taking place on its platform.
Ben Edelman, the Harvard researcher whose work was cited as evidence for Airbnb’s violations by the California DFEH in its original complaint, has been critical of the changes Airbnb has made to its platform in an effort to fight discrimination. The fact that people’s names and photos are still being displayed on the site, for example, is something Edelman and other critics have pointed out as one of the biggest deterrents to establishing a discrimination- and bias-free platform.
There are other forms of discrimination that aren’t necessarily being addressed by Airbnb, too. A May 2017 study conducted by researchers at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations found that people with disabilities were less likely to be pre-approved and more likely to be rejected outright by Airbnb hosts. The study also raised questions about whether Airbnb is doing enough to verify whether accommodations listed on its platform are as accessible as advertised.
Lisa Schur, one of the Rutgers researchers, said “Hosts can check a box that indicates that the place they are renting is wheelchair accessible, but that doesn’t mean anything. There are not any guidelines or standards that correspond to that. The simple thing would be to have and an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] checklist to inform hosts.”
In response to the Rutgers study, an Airbnb spokesperson told Skift, “Discrimination of any kind on the Airbnb platform, including on the basis of ability, is abhorrent, a violation of our anti-discrimination policy, and will result in permanent removal from our platform. Airbnb continues to work with a range of partners, including the California Council of the Blind and the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, to develop host education tools and make it easy for any person to find a listing on our platform that meets their needs. This is just the start, and we will continue to engage experts and leaders in this area to ensure our community is open and accessible to everyone.”
While it is challenging for companies like Airbnb to combat any and all forms of discrimination on its platform, as McConnell noted, one way in which Airbnb is trying to do just that — and boost its revenues in the process — is by encouraging its hosts to sign up for Instant Booking.
Airbnb recently debuted a suite of tools for hosts who opt into the feature, which makes their listings instantly bookable. Currently, 1.7 million out of Airbnb’s more than 3 million listings are instantly bookable, and the company says more than 70 percent of new listings on the site are from hosts who enabled Instant Book as soon as it became available. Airbnb also said that 60 percent of its bookings from guests are now being handled via Instant Book.
Airbnb hosts who use Instant Book can cancel up to three reservations per year, and Airbnb has previously told Skift that hosts who cancel Instant Bookings must give the company a specific reason for their cancellations.
The Rise of Instant Booking — and Host Fatigue
Airbnb’s Instant Book feature directly addresses issues of discrimination by not allowing hosts to reject a guest’s request, except under special circumstances or by citing a specific reason. And as an added benefit, it’s also helping the company appeal to vacation rental managers and grow its vacation rentals business. But the feature has also become an inflection point for Airbnb’s relationship with its host community.
Some hosts have openly welcomed the benefits of opting into Instant Book, including showing up first in searches, especially now that Instant Book listings are the default search setting on the Airbnb site.
Jacoby, who uses Instant Book for his Airbnb listing, said, “As a host, I actually like the ease of getting the reservation immediately, while also knowing that Airbnb will indeed let you cancel an Instant Book reservation, penalty-free, if you feel uncomfortable with the guest. So, you still do have an ‘out’ if you need it. They also give you flexibility on the ‘guest requirements,’ which controls the level of screening for guests who can book with you. For example, have they already used Airbnb and have positive reviews?”
Others, however, have a different attitude. They view Instant Book as something that is transforming the Airbnb experience into more of a transaction, and less of a true people-to-people, home sharing experience.
Kristin Leigh, a four-year Airbnb Superhost (a designation given by Airbnb to hosts who are exceptionally well-reviewed and meet certain benchmarks for excellence), said, “Now it [Airbnb] just feels like one of these huge conglomerates that doesn’t have the level of customer service they started with. I feel like they don’t care about hosts in the same way that they once did. I’m not sure if this is because they grew more quickly than they were ready for, or if they just have so many hosts now.”
Leigh previously told Skift about an incident in which she declined a booking request from a bachelor party group. Leigh, who has not opted into Airbnb’s Instant Book feature, said she later received an email from Airbnb customer service saying that the guest who requested to book her listing “reported a potential violation of our [Airbnb’s] nondiscrimination policy.”
When she attempted to reach out to Airbnb about what had happened, however, Leigh never heard back from the company. “Now they pick and choose what scenarios they respond to when it comes to hosts,” she said. “Three or four years ago, anytime I had an issue, I’d email or tweet them and get a phone call right away and they’d resolve it.”
Leigh isn’t alone in her sentiments and there are certainly signs of “host fatigue” among seasoned Airbnb hosts.
Jacoby also said, “There is a general concern, on the different discussion boards out there, about the hosts not getting enough love and changes being made that are a lot more traveler friendly versus host friendly.” He noted hosts’ frustrations with Airbnb’s changes to its cancellation policy, for example. “They’re making some drastic changes to the policy to make it look and feel more like a hotel and be more guest friendly.”
The concept of “host fatigue” is something Chip Conley, Airbnb’s former global head of hospitality and strategy, often spoke about: that point in a host’s tenure where the newness and shine of being a host eventually wears off.
Tasked with giving the startup the much-needed hospitality knowledge it required to enhance the Airbnb guest experience beginning in April 2013, the veteran hotelier and founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels became the company’s main liaison with its host community of millions worldwide. Conley established the annual Airbnb Open, dubbed a “festival of hosting” in 2014, and he served as a mentor to CEO Brian Chesky.
He also attempted to endear Airbnb to the hospitality industry. It certainly helped that Conley was an executive with more than 30 years’ experience working in hotels, but also someone adept enough and open enough to not only recognize, but embrace, the next big disruption. The hotel industry admired him. Airbnb’s leadership looked up to him. And he skillfully managed to operate in both of those worlds.
It also helped that Conley was closer in age to the majority of Airbnb’s hosts in the U.S., many of whom are over 60 years old. Hosts ages 60 and up, especially women, are the fastest-growing demographic of hosts in the U.S. In Conley, Airbnb’s hosts found someone they could relate to more than its founders, all three of whom were in their 20s when they started the company.
Conley, citing a desire to cut back his hours and take on a strategic advisor role at the company, announced his diminished role in January. Perhaps, not coincidentally, this is the first year since Airbnb launched the Airbnb Open that the company will not host the conference.
Shortly after Conley left the company, Chesky appointed himself as “head of community” but no replacement for Conley has been announced.
In its pursuit of growth, is Airbnb forgetting about its hosts who got them to this point? Without their listings, what would the site be? Without their efforts in battles with regulators around the world, where would the company be?
For example, in 2015, hosts’ advocacy efforts were crucial in defeating a proposition that would have restricted short-term rentals dramatically in San Francisco. Yet in New York City last year, hosts were left with the bill, so to speak, when Airbnb dropped its suit against New York over a new law that imposed heavy fines on people who advertise illegal short-term rental listings.
At the same time Chesky added “head of community” to his role at Airbnb and began a world tour, he invited a select group of hosts to Airbnb’s headquarters.
One of those hosts was Melanie Meharchand, an Airbnb host based in Monterey, California, who’s fought hard to work with local regulators in Sausalito to allow responsible home-sharing to take place.
Meharchand told Skift, “I told Brian [Chesky], it’s hard to organize because the Airbnb system doesn’t put hosts automatically into the community or into a group where you can talk about the area. You have to select into it. There’s not a lot of guidance.”
When asked how she felt about Airbnb’s efforts in helping hosts contending with regulatory battles, she said, “I think that Airbnb is very careful to put the risk on the side of the host. That’s where they draw the line. I understand that companies do this, and every company does this.”
She said that when she talks to newer Airbnb hosts in her area, those hosts “are really first looking to Airbnb for guidance and they always feel like ‘My property is so valuable to Airbnb, they’ll fight or my property the way they are fighting in bigger cities like New York City.’ I tell them, ‘Airbnb really doesn’t care about Sausalito because we’re such a smaller market. We have to do it ourselves. This is our fight, guys. These are our taxes and city code. We have to write this for ourselves. We have to be self-empowered and self-driving.’ I have to rally them outside of this belief that Airbnb will rally for them.”
Meharchand added, “Do I think they [Airbnb] do enough? They do a whole lot more than VRBO and HomeAway and the other platforms do, but I think they could do more. But I also think hosts have to rise to the occasion as well. I don’t want to bash them for what they haven’t done, because they’ve done a lot more than other platforms.”
Beyond fighting regulatory battles alongside hosts, some hosts wonder if the platform is doing enough to provide them with the specific tools and information they need to be better hosts.
Jasper Ribbers, an Airbnb host and self-described digital nomad who wrote the book, Get Paid for Your Pad, and hosts a podcast of the same name, said Airbnb needs to invest more in its communication with hosts and the education the company is providing to them.
“Was the Airbnb Open really about educating hosts?” Ribbers asked. “Look at whom they’re inviting. They’re inviting the people who are already doing well. If you want to educate people, you need to educate people who are not Superhosts. The message they’re sending is all about love and connection at the Airbnb Open, but if you look at what Airbnb is actually doing, you could argue that they’re focusing more on growing their business and growing into an even bigger platform.”
Leigh, for one, said she wasn’t even aware of the new terms of service that debuted in November or the new non-discrimination policy that was released at the same time.
She added that when she spoke to fellow hosts about speaking to Skift about their experiences as hosts, many of them told her they were “terrified of Airbnb” and “too scared” their Airbnb host profiles would be flagged. Leigh added, “They’re worried they’ll get pinged for being quoted in a publication. In a way, they [Airbnb] have become like Big Brother, and people are disenchanted with how things are going.”
When asked if she could tell Airbnb’s leadership how she felt as a host, she said, “You need to still feel valued as a host. Right now, I don’t feel like they’re doing that at all. Hosts built the business for them. Without hosts, they wouldn’t have a business.”
Leigh continued, “I know in the beginning, they [Airbnb] had their growing pains. They were a couple of bros in their 20s when they started this company. They built up this team of advisors who should be advising them in the best steps going forward with the business. But I don’t see that happening now. They need to get back to the basics and the core of their business — connecting travelers with home owners. It just seems like that’s a very small piece of what they’re trying to do now.”
In addition to strengthening the sense of community among its hosts, Airbnb also needs to ensure its ties to employees remain strong, especially as it readies itself for that eventual IPO. However, signs of pre-IPO fatigue among its workforce are starting to show.
In 2016, Airbnb was the No. 1 rated company on Glassdoor, a website akin to Yelp that allows employees to rate and review their employers. But in Glassdoor’s 2017 list of best places to work, which was released in December 2016, the company’s ranking fell dramatically from the top spot to 35th.
The most recent list examined employee reviews submitted from Nov. 2, 2015 to Oct. 30, 2016 and in those reviews, certain themes appeared to emerge. It should be noted that, to date, Airbnb has 566 reviews on the site, and the company maintains a 3.8 out of 5 rating in terms of employee satisfaction. Sixty-eight percent of reviewers said they’d recommend the company to a friend, 88 percent approve of the CEO, and 66 percent have a positive business outlook on the company. However, at the beginning of 2015, overall employee satisfaction was a 4.5 out of 5.
Among the reviews considered for the 2017 list, however, there was certainly a sense among some employees that Airbnb was becoming less transparent and more corporate — the classic signifiers of a company that’s not only rapidly growing, but gearing itself up for an IPO. Reviews mentioned “growing pains,” “little transparency,” and “little room to advance.”
A source close to Airbnb, but not an employee, said employees have expressed their concerns that the company is “chaotic.” There are also rumblings that CFO Tosi did not want a new COO who would compete directly with him, and that there’s a “revolving door as to who’s got Brian’s [Chesky’s] ear.”
As the company continues to get even bigger and closer to an IPO, no doubt Airbnb’s investors will be keeping a close eye on the company’s leadership structure.
So, What Exactly Is Airbnb Becoming? And How Will It Get There?
That’s what everyone wants to know.
Judging from Chesky’s keynote presentation at the Airbnb Open in Los Angeles in November, announcing the company’s formal foray into tours and activities with Airbnb Trips, it’s clear Airbnb wants to do much more than just home sharing. It has bigger ambitions of getting into dining (it’s a major investor in dining app Resy), and even flights.
Simply put, it seems like Airbnb wants to position itself as the only brand a consumer would ever need, for every part of his or her journey, whether on the road or not.
But in its pursuit of becoming that brand or company that consumers immediately turn to for their travel, dining, and in-destination needs, Airbnb seems to have two divergent paths toward achieving that goal.
The first is more traditional or conventional. It means following in the footsteps of the major online travel companies such as Expedia and TripAdvisor, both of whom have nearly every aspect of the traveler journey covered within their extensive portfolios and offer a huge supply of product.
The second means charting a new path — on Airbnb’s terms — to becoming what Conley and Chesky have referred to as a “super brand of travel” or an entirely new breed of online travel agency. Pursuing this strategy would mean entering uncharted territory for the company, something Airbnb hasn’t shied away from doing before. But it would also require Airbnb to confront just how much it can stay true to the brand it’s developed up to this point.
Does Airbnb Have a Supply Problem?
If Airbnb does indeed want to become more of an online travel agency in the traditional sense — or to simply go toe to toe with the current giants of online travel, including the Priceline Group — it needs to focus on its supply for its core product, homes.
“Giant” might be an understatement in describing Priceline and Expedia, especially Priceline. Priceline’s market cap, for example, is $100.66 billion, and Expedia Inc.’s is $23.68 billion. Airbnb’s current valuation is pegged at $31 billion, albeit a private one.
As Airbnb pursues even more supply growth, it also has an unlikely supporter in Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta. Speaking to investment analysts during Hilton’s second quarter earnings call, he said that as Airbnb transforms itself into becoming more like an online travel agency, “the better off we are,” referring to hotels. “More competition, in theory, would have the effect of driving prices down and driving distribution costs down. As the competitive environment heats up, I think the net result is good.”
While Airbnb’s growth story is one of the most impressive in the history of recent travel startups, especially for a company that has not been very acquisitive at all, signs of a slowdown in that meteoric growth are already appearing as the company gets older.
In a recent UBS analysis of Airbnb bookings in 25 U.S. markets and approximately 100 markets outside the U.S. with nearly 1 million listings, Airbnb nights (both listed and booked) were growing at a slower pace than they were just a year ago. While Airbnb’s supply grew more than 40 percent and demand grew more than 60 percent year over year from December 2016 to February 2017, the pace of the company’s growth has decelerated since the beginning of 2016, UBS found. The reasons for that slowdown, UBS surmised, had to do with a “higher base effect” and regulatory changes in major markets such as New York and Barcelona.
Regardless of regulatory challenges, however, there comes a point when a particular market simply reaches a saturation point. And Airbnb must be asking itself what it will do once home sharing becomes more and more mainstream. At that point, when the market becomes so saturated, what will give the company a competitive edge?
Already, we’re seeing the concept of home sharing becoming more mainstream. According to 2016 research from Phocuswright, at least one in three travelers in the U.S. stayed in a home-based unit in 2015; in 2011, only one in 10 had stayed in this type of accommodation.
If Airbnb wants to continue growing its core business, it needs to focus on areas where it can grow the most. One such region includes China, where it’s up against an Expedia-backed, homegrown rival, Tujia.
Sources have informed Skift that Airbnb is undertaking a reorganization involving four major business units: Homes (Airbnb’s core product); China; Luxury (no doubt where Airbnb’s acquisition of Luxury Retreats will play a role), and Trips (Airbnb’s newest business).
Airbnb rebranded itself in China earlier this year to Aibiying. It’s also investing in talent and infrastructure in China, hoping to triple the size of its local workforce and double its investment in the market.
But as Skift has noted before — and as Uber’s recent experience in the country has shown — it’s a much more challenging market to gain a stronghold than others. Airbnb’s success in China will depend on how well it markets itself to Chinese travelers, who make up the world’s largest consumer travel market. And for this base of travelers, at least, there are still a lot of opportunities in the home sharing space.
“China, by virtue of its sheer market size, will always be viewed as a meaningful growth opportunity for virtually any large Internet company,” said Patterson. “But it’s a very difficult market to crack without local knowledge. Case in point: You’ve got businesses like Priceline who are actually investors in Ctrip, so they partner in that region, and then try to do a bit of it themselves. Strategically, everyone would love to be in China, but at this point in time, I don’t think that’s as much of a near-term driver for Airbnb. It’s more of a long-term focus.”
Beyond emerging markets for growth, Airbnb also needs to get a much larger share of the traditional vacation rental market on a global scale. It’s a space where its biggest direct competitor, HomeAway, owned by Expedia Inc., seems to have an upper hand, for now. While Airbnb has an estimated 1 million listings for professionally managed rentals, HomeAway has an estimated 1.2 million, TripAdvisor and its sister sites have 830,000, and Booking.com has 579,000. A HomeAway spokesperson told Skift that of all its listings, approximately 60 percent are for rent by owner and 40 percent are professionally managed.
“There’s still quite a lot of runway for online travel, as a percentage of overall travel, to grow,” Patterson said. “Within there, vacation rentals and alternative accommodations have been a fairly hot category. Priceline has benefited from its exposure to vacation rentals and HomeAway is starting to ramp up pretty meaningfully within Expedia.”
Not only that, but Google is beginning to express interest in the vacation rental market, too. Google is already testing some 7,000 property listings in Europe to see if travelers want to use Google to search and book vacation rentals.
And just last week, AccorHotels announced it would combine its private rental brands, Travel Keys and Squarebreak (which it plans to acquire in full by the end of this year) under its onefinestay unit, which will soon have more than 10,000 listings worldwide.
Airbnb’s recent acquisition of Luxury Retreats, a Montreal-based high-end rental platform and service with more than 4,000 listings worldwide, should help the company in its efforts to grow its professionally managed product.
But beyond simply getting more into the luxury vacation rental space in particular, the acquisition brings to light an important — yet tricky — relationship that Airbnb needs to establish with professional property managers.
First, as most vacation rental managers tend to point out, the fact is that Airbnb’s platform wasn’t designed to be used by professional property managers. It was designed for the single host or homeowner who has one, maybe two, listings — not for someone who manages hundreds of rentals at a time.
Second, if Airbnb does want to bring more vacation rentals and the people who manage them onto its platform, the company have to be very careful in how they court them.
“It’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde split of deciding how much they do want to work on that,” said McConnell. “With vacation rentals, you have to accept that it’s not a shared space; you’re renting a home. It’s different from Joe, Brian, and Nate having a few airbeds in their apartment. It’s a business. These managers aren’t expecting to deliver a totally personalized, hanging out with the owner type of experience.”
In other words, these “hosts” would be a stark contrast to the middle-class families and hosts whom Airbnb so often portrays in its marketing materials and advertising. And these hosts are also brand-agnostic when it comes to choosing which platforms they use to advertise their listings.
“If Airbnb wants to scale on the revenue side, working with existing vacation rental managers and getting that supply is really the way to go,” Jacoby said. “But then they’ll be more like an online travel agency where that listing is on Airbnb, and Booking.com, and HomeAway, and Tripping.com, and all these other sites.”
“It’s rare to have exclusivity of listings for these types of rentals,” McConnell noted. “At Rented.com we work with 900-some managers and I think the minimum number of sites people put them on are anywhere from 10 to 20.”
If exclusivity of listings diminishes on the Airbnb platform, does that mean Airbnb might eventually add hotel product? Will the company’s work on its Friendly Buildings program with landlords to help the company grow its supply dramatically as well? What about the possibility of Airbnb managing longer-term rentals and helping people find a place to not just stay for a short period of time, but to live? These are all things the company will have to consider if it chooses to grow its supply, and to morph into more of a traditional online travel agency or beyond.
Becoming a Super Brand of Travel
While it’s certain Airbnb wants to grow its homes supply as much as it possibly can, it’s more likely that the company is pursuing a transformation into becoming a “super brand of travel,” the one brand that anyone could use for their travels and, perhaps, even, their daily lives.
To achieve that goal, the company is already beginning to diversify its product portfolio. But in doing so, is the company spreading itself too thin?
“It looks, to us, like management’s trying to enhance its growth by offering these different products,” Smith said. “But the question is: Are these going to cost money that defers the point of profitability of the company? Management has to show that these investments can create strong returns for the company in time. The risk is that they are doing this to expand, but it hasn’t yet demonstrated the results, and it costs money to do it.”
But, as we’ve seen before with other tech companies, sometimes you need to lose money to make it in the long run, and profits don’t always demonstrate the strength and power of a brand. Consider online behemoth Amazon.com, which has only had a handful of profitable quarters but boasts a market cap of $515.15 billion. Can Airbnb become the Amazon of travel?
“Amazon started with books and then ended up owning e-commerce,” said McConnell. “Airbnb may have started with accommodations, but this isn’t all that different. It’s just about owning the travel space. Airbnb isn’t necessarily about accommodation. They can be about inspiration, discover, search, booking, travel events, experiences, post-travel communities, and photo sharing — there’s just so much they can do.”
Patterson, for one, believes the company is doing a good job of diversifying its product. “There’s always a risk with expanding into a lot of different products at once,” he said. “But from just the Trips platform and the re-platforming of mobile, I believe those were necessary investments that strengthen Airbnb’s business over the long term. There’s a better mobile app, better messaging tools for hosts and guests, themselves. So, on balance, that increases the value of the overall platform to both users and hosts, and that’s something that should be net beneficial to conversion over the long term, conversion being room night bought.”
Additionally, he said, “When I think of what makes a strong travel platform, it’s usually just having a lot of supply and being great at converting and attracting customers. With that update, Airbnb is effectively checking the boxes on all three of those pieces.”
Tripping Up on Trips?
Earlier this year, Skift interviewed several Airbnb Trips hosts to ask them about their experiences. Most declined to say whether hosting Trips was financially significant for them, primarily because the business is still fairly new, but they did seem to have similar thoughts on what it was like to be a Trips host.
Many said they had issues with the fact that they were required to use the Airbnb mobile app to handle all Trips-related transactions and messages but, beyond that, they were glad Airbnb was taking a hands-on approach to helping them craft and perfect their Trips, although the process can be a long one. Most were very positive about their experiences. All were also early adopters of the new product, and because of that, each of the hosts Skift interviewed was personally asked by Airbnb to become a Trips host.
More recently, however, Skift spoke to Eric Gould, a San Francisco-based photographer and Airbnb Trips host who took issue with how Airbnb was handling its new tours and activities product. Gould applied to be a host three months ago, and objected to the fact that he wasn’t able to use his own photography to market his particular activity.
“I am a photographer,” Gould said. “My trip is an SF Night Photo Workshop. [Airbnb] rejected all of my images I submitted to them and I couldn’t get specifics about why they were rejected. They wouldn’t provide me with the guidelines; they told me the guidelines were confidential and secret. I admire them for keeping it that way but you need to help me make changes so I can be productive and successful. Regardless of whether I’m a photographer or not, if I want to supply those photos to market my trip, I should be able to submit photos and understand what’s to be accepted.” He found the actual photos used to market his trip to be “amateurish and low quality.”
Gould also said he was contacted by Airbnb four times about changing the price of his trip to make it more expensive than the price he had originally set, which was only $1 per person. “When I didn’t change my price, the experience was taken offline,” he said. “The way I was able to get it back online was indirectly — I met someone in the engineering group who facilitated me getting back online. I received an email that said, ‘You can charge whatever you want, but we will delete all the reviews you have.'” Gould has since raised the price to $29 per person.
Gould did note, however, that he has been pleased with the support he’s received from Airbnb in terms of helping hosts like himself. “The people who do the support every day for the Trips are fantastic and they’re probably the best I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
Gould also said that he calculated his own estimate of how much Airbnb has made in the Bay Area since launching Trips in November 2016, and that the number he came up with was a mere $10,000. He said that when he spoke to an Airbnb employee recently about that number, the employee said the actual total was “much less than that.”
It’s hard to say whether Gould’s estimates and that affirmation from the Airbnb employee are accurate — especially since Airbnb hasn’t divulged any numbers regarding its revenues generated from Trips. What the company has divulged, however, relates to growth.
Since the November launch, which started with just 500 experiences in 12 cities, Trips has now grown to more than 1,800 experiences in more than 30 markets worldwide. The average cost of one of the experiences is $66 per person.
While it’s still early for Airbnb’s Trips product, it’s not clear whether it’s actually adding significant revenue and, as the company focuses on growing the number of experiences it offers, questions of quality control and management will continue to linger.
Ribbers proposed his own idea for an Airbnb Trip in Amsterdam several months ago, but has yet to hear back from Airbnb about whether his Trip will become a reality. “It hasn’t been streamlined very well because I didn’t hear back from them at all,” he said.
Trips has been Chesky’s passion project for quite some time, but multiple sources have informed Skift that the introduction of the product was a point of contention among Chesky and other Airbnb leadership, some of whom thought entering into the tours and activities market would be too risky and not nearly lucrative enough financially. Tours and activities experts also warn that this sector of the travel business can be particularly challenging for anyone.
“They are currently in an extremely profitable platform business and moving from that into content creation, which is what they are doing with experiences,” Gould said. “But by moving from a highly profitable business to a not-so-profitable business, I think they’re opening themselves to a huge opportunity for competitors.”
A recent report issued by Raymond James research analysts about Airbnb Trips, however, was more positive in its longer term outlook on building brand value, if not profits: “Beyond social benefits from hyper-personalized, more intimate experiences (e.g., memories, new friends), Trips simultaneously generates brand value (both through word of mouth and repeat usage) and opens up additional monetization paths, thus benefiting long-term margins and free cash flow … Net, Airbnb’s seen a promising start in one area (supply) and success going forward will be measured by conversion (which, as expected, appears to be very nascent).”
Flights, Luxury, Business Travel, and Dining
Gould’s comments about what works in travel could be correct — or they could be way off, especially if Airbnb proves to be ultimately successful.
“Airbnb wants to be like an all-encompassing travel platform, and that’s a choice they’re making,” said Ribbers. “If you want to be the place to go for travel, then you’re going to have to expand into different areas. It’s a choice they’re making, and I think it makes sense because, honestly, Airbnb is doing such a better job than any of the other platforms, in my opinion. I think they’re capable of revolutionizing more aspects of travel as well — they’re that innovative.”
Beyond Homes and Trips, Airbnb has also said it plans to enter the world of flights, and in the past year it’s also made major investments in building up its luxury business, getting deeper into corporate managed travel, and dining.
As for getting into flights, no one is sure exactly what form that will take. Rumors swirled last year that the company was thinking of building a search engine for flights, and was potentially considering buying an online travel agency or licensing data from a global distribution systems provider. An analysis conducted by Skift suggested the most prudent approach the company could take to enter into flights would be to initially partner with an online travel agency as an affiliate.
If Chesky’s comments from earlier this year are any indication, however, it certainly seems like the company has something large planned for flights that extends beyond just metasearch or booking.
“I would like Airbnb to one day redefine how we fly,” Chesky said, during a talk he gave at the Oxford Union in March. “I think today, if you look at modern aviation, it’s a bit stagnating. The funny thing about flying is, no matter how successful you are in life, you are reminded how much of a mere mortal you are, and that’s another area we really want to invest in,” he added.
“Historically, flights have been a very difficult area for online travel agents to differentiate in,” Patterson noted, however. “You’re subject to just a couple of large carriers and in any given market, it’s tough to really extract that much value from flights. That remains a ‘to-be-determined’ scenario for Airbnb, with respect to just how they plan to attack that market.”
Clearer than its strategy for flights are Airbnb’s plans for expanding within the luxury market. The company’s acquisition of Luxury Retreats earlier this year was a clear indication that the company is investing in this space, and more recent reports have divulged more details about how Airbnb plans to cater to luxury travelers.
The first includes a pilot of quality-control inspections called Airbnb Select, and the second includes a new rental service for ultra-luxury accommodations, internally referred to as Airbnb Lux.
Airbnb’s entry into the luxury market makes a lot of sense, if only for the higher margins it can yield, and the growth it can provide in terms of traditional vacation rental listings, without having to deal with quite as many regulatory challenges, too.
And yet another sign of Airbnb’s deepening commitment to becoming a super brand of travel —and in some ways, one could argue, of becoming more like a hotel business — is its focus on growing its business travel sector. One of its biggest achievements in the space occurred in July when Airbnb announced its listings were now bookable via Concur, one of the biggest corporate travel management booking platforms around. Earlier this year, the company also doubled down on the visibility, searchability, and endorsement of its “Business Travel Ready” listings, which all have amenities such as desks, Wi-Fi, and self-check-in with a doorman or digital lock.
Earlier this year, the company also bought Tilt, a startup whose mobile app makes it easier for people to conduct peer-to-peer payments, akin to rival Venmo. This deal will no doubt make it easier for Airbnb to let its guests, especially those traveling in groups, to more easily split up costs, with added benefits for both leisure and business or meetings groups.
“The next leg up for Airbnb is the business travel market,” Rao said. “It’s a tough market to crack into because business travelers need precision. They need a lot of services. I think it’ll take them a long time to build that business. Right now, I think about only 1 percent of their sales are through that corporate managed travel channel, but they’re working on it.”
And then there’s dining, which also seems like a natural extension of Airbnb’s desire to own more of the actual in-destination experience. Already, the platform offers a variety of food- and dining-related experiences via Trips, as well as Guidebooks content that recommends specific restaurants and activities to users. In January, the company led a $13 million investment in the dining reservations app, Resy, an up-and-coming competitor to Priceline Group’s own OpenTable.
“It’s a small investment within there — just another way of attracting people to the site,” Patterson noted. “I think OpenTable and TripAdvisor are very large competitors though. It’s a tough market to get into, but to the extent that they can extract incremental value from having a booking feature available, from working with Resy, it could be great.”
And even beyond dining, there are signs that Airbnb doesn’t just want to be a “travel” brand but more of a lifestyle brand, too. Drawing on his design background, co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia recently launched his own line of modular office furniture, called “Neighborhood.”
Gebbia has been increasingly focused on projects that seem to be more peripheral, than essential, to the company’s business. Last year, he led the establishment of Samara, a design studio. While most media outlets described Samara’s first development, the Yoshino Cedar House in Japan, as Airbnb’s “foray into urban planning,” or a hotel, Airbnb was quick to point out that the facility is not a hotel. It was, however, yet another example of how Airbnb continues to diversify its products while exploring new categories or industries to disrupt.
And by venturing into these new fields and projects, Jacoby wondered if, eventually, Airbnb would be more open to working with other companies instead of trying to launch all of these new things completely on its own.
“I wish they’d open up their ecosystem a little bit more,” said Jacoby. “I think they have a great opportunity to be like a Salesforce that other companies can integrate with. There’s a whole world of other services that they seem to not necessarily be embracing on the integration side. They make it harder for other companies to integrate with them, even though, quite frankly, there are a lot of hosts out there who would rather use Beyond or Wheelhouse or another service to manage their listings, for instance. I’d love for them to be a little more open versus closed and trying to do everything themselves.”
Whether Airbnb will actually pursue that strategy as it diversifies itself, however, seems unlikely, given the company’s past history of very few acquisitions, and the way it tightly manages and controls its business. That could not be better reflected than in how the company manages its brand.
Living the Brand
When you think about the real value of Airbnb, beyond that staggering $31 billion valuation, it’s not just about the number of listings, Trips, or arrivals it’s generated in its nine-year life span that makes it so valuable: It’s the brand.
It’s also the buzz, whether warranted or not, as Smith pointed out. “I feel like we’re covering Airbnb as if it’s a public company, and it’s not,” she said. “It’s getting a buzz that it shouldn’t get, because it’s not giving us information to deserve that buzz. But we do know people use Airbnb and like it.”
A lot of people do use Airbnb and increasingly, a lot more are learning about it, too. And maintaining the brand the company has built is yet another opportunity for Airbnb to grow even more as it matures and reaches that eventual IPO.
Over the years, the company has built a brand identity for itself that’s rooted in the ideals of community, of belonging everywhere, and of welcoming everyone. It’s come a long way from being the upstart startup that proposed an idea that most people, at the time, found to be unconscionable: staying in someone else’s home, mind you a stranger’s home, overnight.
One need only look at the company’s recent Super Bowl television advertisement as proof of the company’s outwardly projected brand identity. Airbnb’s founders decided to run it as a direct response to President Trump’s first attempted travel ban. Not only was it a stirring call-to-action taken by a travel company at a time when many of its peers kept purposefully quiet, but it was a brilliant marketing strategy. It was also a clear signal that the company is big enough to be advertising on the same playing field as its biggest competitors, Expedia and Priceline included.
“As Airbnb has grown pretty significantly, more people talk to their friends and family about it,” Patterson noted. “There’s just this natural, viral element of what exactly Airbnb is, but there are still ways to improve that. I’d view TV advertising as yet another mechanism that they’ve been using to further change the image of how people perceive Airbnb.”
Since the Super Bowl, the company also debuted its solution for meeting its pledge to house more than 100,000 refugees worldwide with its new Open Homes platform in June. And, as noted previously, the company just announced its new partnership with the NAACP last week to encourage more minorities to become Airbnb hosts.
It also formally launched the new consumer travel publication, Airbnbmag, which anyone can purchase on newsstands. It’s yet another way the company is reaching out to consumers and generating buzz for itself as more than just a place to stay.
But maintaining an overwhelmingly positive brand perception and identity is easier said than done, even for a company like Airbnb that has so much brand awareness and such a strong word-of-mouth following. This is especially the case when the same company is also fighting a number of regulatory battles around the world. Its opponents allege that Airbnb isn’t just an economic tool for the middle class but a gentrifier, and a company that enables people to flout local laws and essentially run illegal hotels.
“I think they’ve been doing a better and better job,” said McConnell. “What Airbnb is normally very, very good at is the brand building and storytelling, and it’s not about the 40 to 50 percent of its income that comes from professional managers, whose stories they are telling. It’s the mom-and-pop retired couple that was going to lose their home but Airbnb helped them save it by renting out the spare bedroom. It’s always been the David, in that sense. As you start, very publicly, raising billions of dollars and having a $30 billion valuation, you’ve become the Goliath and that’s where AHLA was successful in coming in and kind of hiding behind this message that Airbnb is killing these neighborhoods or killing the whole local feel.”
Therein lies one of the biggest conundrums for Airbnb: How does it appeal to those more professional hosts without damaging the brand image it has cultivated over the years? How does the company appeal to ultra-rich luxury travelers without forgoing its appeal of being the more affordable alternative to a hotel? How does it grow without losing its identity, or sense of community in the process? Can it succeed in becoming a super brand of travel without alienating the people who helped the company even attempt to achieve such a lofty goal? It’s a careful balance that the company needs to maintain, especially so as it gets bigger, and even more so when it finally goes public.