In which we try to make some sense out of what we know Airbnb is doing now — and what it hopes to be doing over the next 10 years.
Homesharing is how Airbnb got its start, with a couple of air mattresses on the floor of the San Francisco apartment CEO Brian Chesky and co-founder Joe Gebbia shared back in 2008.
Ten years later, however, it’s fair to say that the majority of Airbnb’s 4.5 million listings are not for air mattresses anymore. And as executives spelled out Thursday, Airbnb is planning for major long-term growth, with greater integration of hotels, the addition of professional standards, a new loyalty program, and other tweaks that signal the company is growing up.
But even as homesharing moves to its own neighborhood on the Airbnb platform — now categorized as a “social stay” — one co-founder insists the company is not abandoning that original concept or losing its identity.
“A consistent theme throughout everything we do is that we’ve been creating experiences that are unique, local, and authentic. Most often that is delivered by individuals who, before Airbnb, had no background in hospitality, and that’s traditional homesharing,” said Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb co-founder and Airbnb China chairman. “We also acknowledge, though, that there are a lot of great bed-and-breakfasts, and even boutique hotels, that can also meet this criteria. That is on the margins of our core business, which is homesharing.”
As one of the most disruptive forces in travel in the past decade, especially in lodging, Airbnb has reshaped the travel experience for millions of people around the world. It’s helped to normalize the concept of couchsurfing, or homesharing, and it reset travelers’ expectations for what an accommodation could be. Like Uber, it’s become a verb, one that describes a particular way to travel with the implication that you’re “living like a local” and that you can “belong anywhere.”
Now that the $31 billion company is turning 10, Chesky and his co-founders’ vision for Airbnb to be a “21st century company” operating on an “infinite time horizon” is becoming a bit clearer based on the new products and initiatives he announced on Feb. 22.
But are these new additions creating a sort of existential crisis for the company? Even as Chesky claims he is trying to “empower a host-led world,” are the changes inherently opposed to what the company was founded on?
After Thursday’s event, San Francisco-based Airbnb host Ivan Abeshaus, who has been hosting since 2009, sang the praises of Airbnb’s original model, and said he worried about the latest changes as the company tries to reach audiences who haven’t yet embraced it.
“Instead of trying to market this wonderful idea [of homesharing] to more people, and changing their minds, Airbnb is changing the product so it fits what those others want,” Abeshaus said. “I know there are still listings like ours on the site, but we’ll be listed below all the standardized Airbnb Plus listings. It’s backwards, short-sighted, and definitely not part of a ‘host led world,’ whatever that means.”
Skift spoke to Blecharczyk after Chesky’s presentation on Thursday to get a sense of what the company wants to become, how it plans to evolve, and what it wants to stay the same.
The company’s newest product, Airbnb Plus, highlights listings that are inspected and guaranteed to meet certain standards. Hosts of these homes can generally command higher nightly rates than other Airbnb listings, and while there are only 2,000 of these listings in 13 cities now, the company plans to have 75,000 in 50 designations by the end of the year.
Chesky also announced a loyalty program, new tools for hosts, and features that make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for on the platform.
By 2028, Airbnb hopes to have hosted more than 1 billion travelers on its platform annually. For context, in the company’s first 10 years, it has hosted more than 300 million guest arrivals.
As the company eyes that growth, executives aren’t saying when they will take the company public. However Chesky has said an initial public offering isn’t happening this year.
For Blecharczyk, going public isn’t a measure of true growth or success.
“We’ve been operating the company with the level of discipline that you would expect of a public company already,” Blecharczyk said. “We are well-positioned to go down that road whenever we choose, but the ball’s, frankly, in our court. Our investors haven’t really put a lot of pressure on us to go public. They’ve been very happy with the performance. They’re not necessarily looking to sell. So, we have taken our time.”
He said success means fostering a sense of belonging in the world for anyone who uses Airbnb — and giving more people that ability through the company’s growth.
“I don’t think of Airbnb as something that needs to be an alternative,” Blecharczyk said. “I think Airbnb can be the mainstream option, and I don’t really foresee a ceiling.”
Growth, whether or not it’s being accomplished in the eventual pursuit of an IPO, is vital for Airbnb, as it is for any high-profile company.
Throughout Chesky’s presentation, it was clear that in his view, what’s happening on Airbnb is not really about “professionalization” or borrowing from what hotels and other established travel businesses have done for decades. The way he sees it, as Airbnb grows, it’s closer to being “for everyone” and offering 4.5 million and more choices in homes and thousands of experiences for all those people.
Some may argue that what Airbnb is undergoing is a natural progression for any company, especially one in travel: that as the company grows and matures, it’s only natural for it to offer people more variety of options and choices. Others, however, view what’s happening as a creeping commercialization.
Offering Something for Everyone, Anywhere
Collectively, Airbnb Plus and other recent announcements that the company has made point to the increasing “professionalization” or maturation of Airbnb as a company, which is a far cry from the AirbedandBreakfast.com site that debuted on Aug. 11, 2008.
Now, for instance, beyond guest and host reviews, certain listings, which are part of Airbnb Plus, are homes that come with quality assurance. And today, you’ll find plenty more hotels and actual bed-and-breakfasts on the platform than you ever did in the early days, as well. No doubt, the product mix is maturing to include more professional or standardized accommodations, whether from hosts or from actual hotels.
Blecharczyk doesn’t see the addition of Airbnb Plus as a sign that Airbnb is favoring more professional hospitality providers or hosts.
“This is really an opportunity to recognize our best hosts and allow them to stand out, and allow guests who are more discerning and really want that kind of experience to find it,” he said. “We’re just creating a lot more structure for navigating, a lot more merchandising capability for people to self-select into what it is they’re looking for.”
“This is not about professionals,” he added. “You can operate private rooms and still qualify for Airbnb Plus. It’s not just about higher price points, because those private rooms are lower price points. But it is saying that some hosts have really checked all the boxes in terms of the things that someone might be looking for. Let’s call that out if they do that.”
In a separate conversation with Cameron Houser, Airbnb’s hotels program manager, Houser didn’t deny the possibility that boutique hotels may eventually be added to the Airbnb Plus brand, or to its upcoming luxury brand, Beyond by Airbnb.
“At this point, it is homes,” she said. “We are trying to figure out what collections generally, hotels might fall into. Plus is a consideration, obviously. Beyond could be a consideration. So, I think that’s all in the future. I’ve got to get a lot done before we’re probably at that point.”
If boutique hotels are eventually added to the Airbnb Plus program, in addition to already being advertised generally on the platform, what will keep Airbnb all that different from any other online travel company?
A Different Kind of Travel Brand
Even as the company attempts to attract more hotels onto its platform, the company isn’t limiting itself to just accommodations. It already offers tours and activities through Airbnb Trips, more commonly now known as Airbnb Experiences, which debuted in 2016. To date, it has Trips in 60 destinations worldwide. By the end of 2018, it hopes to have them in 1,000. And the company has invested in restaurant reservations platform Resy to enable users to book restaurants on its platform.
As Chesky and his co-founders have noted before, Airbnb — at least to them — isn’t just about finding a place to stay.
“This vision of becoming a platform for the entire trip is a really huge one,” Blecharczyk said in September. “And we’ve only just started, with homes, experiences, and now restaurants. But everything else that you need when you travel we think belongs in the Airbnb app. We want to be that one-stop shop.”
So, what exactly did Blecharczyk mean when he described Airbnb as a “one-stop shop”? Or what did former Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall and current Airbnb strategic advisor Chip Conley mean when they referred to the company as a “super brand of travel” in the past?
Some have interpreted those statements to mean that Airbnb is becoming a new breed of online travel agency and in many ways, it’s setting itself up to be a major competitor to the duopoly of online travel giants Booking.com and Expedia.
Because of its commission structure — Airbnb collects 3 to 5 percent from the host (or hotel) and 5 to 15 percent of the total cost from the guest — the platform is an attractive distribution channel for hotels. However, it should be noted that Airbnb’s commission structure is somewhat similar to those offered by TripAdvisor and Expedia’s own HomeAway. Other online travel agencies like Booking.com and Expedia, for instance, charge commission rates that go up to 25 percent or more whenever a consumer books an accommodation through their channels. Whether Airbnb’s commission model stays in place as the company gets bigger remains to be seen.
And while it’s clear that TripAdvisor and Expedia’s HomeAway are also very obvious competitors to Airbnb, public comments made by Chesky appear to suggest that he sees Booking and Expedia as Airbnb’s primary competitors.
Like the booking sites, Airbnb has entered familiar territory beyond accommodations. While Booking Holdings (formerly known as the Priceline Group until just this week) has OpenTable, Airbnb has an investment in Resy, and a tech integration with it that allows you to directly book restaurants on Airbnb’s platform. Where TripAdvisor has Viator, Airbnb boasts its peer-led Experiences. Chesky has also publicly expressed his hopes of having Airbnb do something in aviation, beyond just being a sort of booking platform or metasearch for flights.
But given the way Chesky and his co-founders have described the company, it appears that they envision Airbnb as being much more than just another online travel agency, or twist on the traditional booking site model.
Blecharczyk said that while an online travel agency sells a commoditized product that can be found on other sites, Airbnb’s offerings are mostly proprietary — despite the addition of boutique hotels and vacation homes that may also be bookable elsewhere.
“Our homesharing community is proprietary and unique to us; that’s what makes Airbnb different from an OTA,” he said. “That’s not going to change, and just because we have 25,000 boutique hotel rooms doesn’t take away from the fact that we have 4.5 million homes. It shouldn’t. Sometimes people treat that as one taking away from the other, but I actually think they can be very complementary.”
Needless to say, while some of Airbnb’s inventory, especially those that fall under homesharing, may be exclusive to the platform, a majority of its accommodations can likely be found on its competitors’ sites, including Booking.com, VRBO, and many others. So at least, for now, is the company proving itself to be all that different from its online travel predecessors who have also sought to be end-to-end travel brands?
More than eventually getting into flights and other aspects of the travel experience, it’s clear that Airbnb wants to leverage its brand awareness to be a on par with a Google, Amazon, or Apple. The goal is to be a brand or experience platform that consumers will eventually use 24/7, not just when we’re traveling.
Step by step, we’re seeing the beginnings of that end-to-end platorm evolution take place: It’s in Airbnb Plus. It’s in the Resy integration that enables users to make restaurant reservations in the Airbnb app. It’s Airbnb Experiences. It’s Airbnb’s technology partnership with SiteMinder that makes it easier for hotels to advertise their rooms.
It’s in the acquisition of Luxury Retreats, a platform for luxury alternative accommodations and accompanying services and the soon-to-launch Beyond by Airbnb brand. It’s in Airbnb’s efforts to court the traditional vacation rental industry. It’s in efforts to attract more business travelers through Business Travel Ready listings, and partnerships with WeWork. It’s in the debut of the new Superguest loyalty program.
All of the above — and what’s yet to come — constitute the vision that Chesky and his co-founders have for Airbnb but, as he noted in his open letter on Jan. 25, just fulfilling that vision isn’t enough.
“We must realize our vision and ensure our vision is good for society,” Chesky wrote. “This means that we must have the best interest of three stakeholders in mind: Airbnb the company (employees and shareholders), Airbnb the community (guests and hosts) and the world outside of Airbnb.”
So, while the company is, perhaps, on its way toward realizing its grand vision of becoming the ultimate travel disruptor, or the one brand consumers will ever need, you have to wonder: Is it doing so in a way that benefits all of those stakeholders without doing harm?
Addressing Unintended Consequences
As Airbnb has matured, it’s also confronted a number of challenges, many of which relate to regulatory battles around the world. And while Airbnb is often credited with democratizing travel and giving some people an additional source of income, some have argued that it contributes to gentrification and further deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots.
As much as the company touts its economic contributions to the middle class and to emerging markets, the truth is that it’s hard to earn money using Airbnb unless you have the ability to rent out a space, or the ability to host one of the company’s tours and activities programs.
In recent years, the company has also had to contend with issues of discrimination and bias taking place on its platform.
Chesky, in an interview with Reuters, said the company wants to take responsibility for its impact on housing and cities.
“When Airbnb started 10 years ago it was kind of the culture that you really can’t take responsibility for what happens on your platform,” he said. “We changed our point of view.”
Still, as critics have pointed out, Airbnb has historically wielded laws such as the Communications Decency Act to portray itself as purely a marketplace and not an active participant in commercial activity. While detractors might call the recent talk of responsibility too little, too late, the company is hammering the message.
After Chesky’s keynote, the company’s head of global policy, Chris Lehane, told journalists that technology companies like Airbnb have a responsibility to be “global citizens” and try, as much as possible, to tackle global challenges like economic inequality.
And Blecharczyk said the company is dedicated to making sure that it “proactively addresses any unintended consequences of our growth.”
When it comes to regulations, for one, he said, “We really do try to lean into that, and create partnerships and create compromises, and collect taxes, and do all that, to be a good partner with cities.”
But critics note that those partnerships, of which there are more than 400 worldwide, are generally tax collection agreements, and not necessarily commitments to actively limit or restrict short-term rental activity in crowded, housing-crunched cities.
Blecharczyk, however, said the company has good relationships with many city governments and has collected more than $500 million in taxes on behalf of cities.
“We’ve made a lot of progress and we’ll continue to do so, but a lot of folks like the AHLA [American Hotel & Lodging Association] and the constituents love to tell a different story, and not acknowledge that progress,” he said. “I think that progress really is illustrative of our intent.”
The hotel association lashed out at Airbnb’s recent announcements. In a statement, Troy Flanagan, the group’s vice president of state and local government affairs, said: “Airbnb’s latest scheme is just further proof the company is trying to play in the hoteling space while evading industry regulations.”
Flanagan said destinations should be asking the following question: “Will these ‘Plus’ or ‘Boutique’ listings include commercial operators exploiting Airbnb’s platform to run illegal hoteling schemes that have fractured our communities, raised serious safety concerns and increased the price of rent while depleting affordable housing options?”
Blecharczyk said the association, which he described as “an indirect stakeholder,” has been spending “tens of millions of dollars a year to aggressively go after us.”
“This regulation business should be left between Airbnb and cities; those are the direct stakeholders in this,” he said. “It’s really, I would say, inappropriate that they invest so much effort into disrupting the productive conversations between Airbnb and cities.”
Though Blecharczyk said larger societal problems have “nothing specific to do with Airbnb,” he gave the company’s standard line that it is “empowering people who might not have access to traditional opportunities.”
In China, for example, where he serves as chairman of the company’s regional business unit, the company has partnered with a rural village to see if Airbnb can help “drive tourism to this village that’s probably never seen a tourist before.”
The Next 10 Years
If the road to achieving success is one that operates on that “infinite time horizon” that Chesky outlined in his open letter, then what will the next 10 years look like for Airbnb?
Blecharczyk didn’t give specifics, but he said, “I look forward and think the next 10 years are going to be incredibly exciting, in that even 10 years from now, we’ll probably only be a fraction of the way toward success,” Blecharczyk said. “I guess the hard thing is when you ask me that question is, the further you go, the further you realize you can go, and you want to go.”
Photo credit: Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb co-founder, said the company is not going to abandon its foundation of homesharing even as it adds a considerable number of new products. Bloomberg