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In the battle for the hearts and minds of travelers, Airbnb, the $31 billion company that built its business on homesharing, is turning to a time-tested medium that tugs at our wanderlust.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported Airbnb is investing heavily into original programming to develop and produce shows and films. It’s an idea that the company has contemplated to varying degrees for at least the past three years, including possibly launching an Airbnb content studio.
The Reuters article reports that Airbnb is working on a television show for the upcoming Apple streaming service. The show, to be called “Home,” will feature unique homes and their hosts, and is being executive produced by the Joe Poulin, the founder of Luxury Retreats, a luxury vacation rental platform that Airbnb bought back in 2017.
The company also announced last week that it developed and produced a documentary that is premiering at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival, called “Gay Chorus Deep South.” It profiles the journey of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as it travels throughout the Southeastern U.S.
This isn’t the first time that Airbnb has looked to media channels as a form of marketing. In November 2014, the company debuted Pineapple, a literary journal that also doubled as a guidebook. Pineapple was short-lived, however, and was eventually replaced by the current Airbnb Magazine, formerly known as Airbnbmag, for which Airbnb teamed up with publisher Hearst in 2016. That magazine was originally designed to not only be a consumer-focused travel media brand, but a sort of in-room magazine that Airbnb’s hosts could leave for their guests. Reuters reported that the magazine, which is also for sale on newsstands, has since reached a readership of more than a million readers.
Entering into film and TV seems like a natural extension for a company that sees itself as becoming an end-to-end travel platform, especially for the branding benefits and engagement with consumers. There’s a natural synergy between aspirational television and film programming that highlights the benefits of travel, as we’ve seen in the popularity of a number of recent programs that have included Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” and even the development of something like the Travel Channel. The more people interact with content that inspires them to travel, the more likely they’ll turn to Airbnb to fulfill those aspirations, whether to find a place to stay or something to do while they travel.
And this brand differentiation is especially important for a company readying for a widely anticipated initial public offering, as well as fending off competition from other online travel behemoths like Booking.com and Expedia, which owns HomeAway and VRBO.
In fact, Booking.com has backed its own web series, formerly called “A Sense of Place,” and now called “The Vacation Rental Show With Matt Landau,” which is a travel program focused on the vacation rental market. And there’s a small but growing number of vacation-rental focused series emerging, including “Stay Here” by Netflix and “Vacation Rental Potential” by HomeAway.
It’s not entirely clear, however, that Airbnb will pursue a specific vacation rental or travel focus with its entertainment strategy, and it’s a strategy that still seems to be in its earliest stages of formation.
“We are early in the R+D [research and development] phase of this process,” said Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s senior vice president of global policy and communications, in a statement. “While we are not looking to create a traditional 20th century model, as a global people-to-people platform with tremendous organic traffic to our site, we know that that experiential content in a variety of forms is important to engagement and we are focused on finding and supporting the kind of tastemaker content — like the Airbnb Magazine — that is consistent with our mission of belonging.”
As far back as 2016, it was clear that Airbnb had visual media on its mind. In a conversation with Chip Conley, who now serves as Airbnb’s strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership but was the former global head of hospitality and strategy, he spoke about the power of video during the November 2016 Airbnb Open event where Airbnb Trips, now known as Airbnb Experiences, was launched. And he hinted at the company’s desire to use video more and more going forward.
To promote Trips at the time, Airbnb embarked on a visual campaign that detailed its debut Trips in cinematic styles. The inaugural Trips were marketed with vintage movie-like poster images.
“It is cinematic in terms of the visual,” Conley told Skift in 2016, regarding the launch of Trips. “Know that video is more and more important on the Internet. It’s going to be more and more important for us for Trips and Experiences. Why wouldn’t it not be for other things as well? That’s about as much as I can say.”
Conley said that Airbnb has historically placed a great emphasis on visuals; it’s why the company hired professional photographers to photograph home listings early on.
“Similarly, if we believe things are going in the video direction, we’ll go more in that direction,” Conley said. “How do we keep the quality control there? How do you scale it? These are big questions. I don’t have the answer to that yet. We have some ideas of it, but we’ll see if we’re on the right path. I think you’ll see more other companies trying to do the same thing.”
Investing in original entertainment and programming, as well as making investments in a variety of other businesses — from last-minute hotel booking sites (HotelTonight) and co-working spaces (The Wing) to Indian hotel networks (Oyo Rooms) and property management companies (Luckey Homes) — might seem like an odd move for a company that got its start in homesharing. But these disparate investments do make some sense in the company’s larger aims for being a true end-to-end platform, and capitalizing on engagement with travelers from around the world.
Conley’s prescient words from 2016 seem only to emphasize that notion about the importance of “video” and visual platforms. As with almost all aspects of travel, telling the actual story of travel is one of its most important and universal foundations — that emotional component of travel is one of this industry’s most powerful tools. And it certainly doesn’t hurt your business to use those stories to drive more people to your platform, whether in print or on our screens.