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Midway through 2020, Expedia Group and its Vrbo short-term rental unit took the high road by not wanting to appear to be taking advantage of host anger at Airbnb's early-pandemic refund policies. But when your new host recruitment plan targets "superhosts," it's clear those calculations are long gone.

After months of downplaying efforts to take advantage of anger among some Airbnb hosts, Expedia Group’s Vrbo unit conceded it had opened a dedicated phone line to handle what it calls an “influx” of defectors.

Cyril Ranque, president of Expedia’s Travel Partner Group, said short-term rentals have been a hot market over the last year following the onset of the pandemic, and that “a lot” of hosts from Airbnb have sought to join Vrbo’s ranks.

Asked to quantify those alleged gains, a spokeswoman would only say that Vrbo had more than two million whole home listings at the end of 2020. She declined to cite how many Airbnb hosts Vrbo has signed, but added, “I can tell you there was a significant influx from March (2020) onwards. We did open a dedicated phone line for Airbnb hosts to join Vrbo because of this influx.”

Expedia Group announced on Monday a new host recruitment program, Fast Start, and the spokeswoman characterized it as specifically responding to the requests of Airbnb hosts joining Vrbo.

Although Expedia Group CEO Peter Kern said in May that his company was not seeking “to drive a wedge” between Airbnb and disgruntled hosts, who disagreed with Airbnb’s refund policies to guests at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the strategy has apparently become more aggressive.

Pointedly, Expedia said the program would be open to “any superhost or host,” including individual owners and those with multiple properties, who have at least a 4.5 out of 5.0 review rating that Expedia culls across other travel websites, and has earned a minimum of $3,000 from vacation rentals over the last year.

The term “superhost” is an Airbnb designation, and its use is a further indication that Vrbo is wooing Airbnb hosts. Among various criteria, Airbnb superhosts have to meet volume requirements, have a 4.8 review score or higher, and they then are supposed to receive certain incentives.

The Fast Start program offers an elevated position in the way Vrbo displays its listings, and an appended “New to Vrbo” badge for 90 days.

The program, which is currently being rolled out in the U.S. after a 3-month pilot with 1,600 U.S.-based hosts that started in December, will be introduced globally over the next few months, according to Vrbo. Hosts who participated in the Fast Start pilot saw a 25 percent increase in bookings on average, a 50 percent boost in booked nights, and a 140 percent jump in gross booking value compared with eligible hosts who were not part of the test, Expedia said.

Vrbo’s launch of Fast Start, coupled with Airbnb’s first major global marketing campaign in several years to recruit hosts, highlights how the next phase in the competition among short-term rental brands will be to woo hosts to jumpstart growth.

Rather than proceeding with pre-pandemic goals of launching a flights’ business or digging deeper into hotel offerings like other online travel agencies, Airbnb is focusing on host recruitment as a growth strategy.

Another major player, Booking.com, has likewise cited the need to woo more individual hosts, and CEO Glenn Fogel has characterized it as a positive sign that many are enlisting property managers to professionalize their businesses.

Vrbo Is Way Smaller Than Airbnb

To be sure, Vrbo is a fraction of the size of Airbnb, and with its largely U.S. bent, has little of Airbnb’s global reach. Expedia Group does indeed, though, have other short-term rental brands, such as Stayz in Australia.

Vrbo, with its emphasis on whole homes in non-urban areas, is likewise a much different business than Airbnb, which skews toward apartment listings, many in urban locations.

While Expedia Group referenced having more than 2 million whole home listings at the end of 2020, the impact of the pandemic on Airbnb’s host roster is far from clear.

Although Airbnb lost 5 percent of its listings from January to June 2020, it now has 5.4 million active listings, and has grown its roster 2.5 percent from pre-Covid levels, according to AirDNA, a short-term rental analytics business.

Many hosts promote their short-term rentals across multiple sites so just because some Airbnb hosts may be signing on with Vrbo doesn’t mean they are necessarily abandoning Airbnb.

As AirDNA points out, Airbnb hosts who may be sitting out the pandemic during lockdowns and a travel hiatus, or who may transition to more traditional long-term rentals, could revive their short-term rentals on Airbnb when the economy picks up.

More Balanced Approach?

Ranque of Expedia Group claimed that new Vrbo hosts with one listing during the nine months in 2020 since the pandemic took off earned more than $6,000 per property on average, and that was 50 percent more revenue than on other travel websites, including Airbnb.

Expedia benchmarked its claim against an Airbnb report that its new hosts earned about $3,900 on average during the nine months since the pandemic’s beginnings in the U.S. in March 2020. The comparison is not an apples to apples one because Vrbo predominately offers whole homes, which skew toward higher rates, while Airbnb leans toward apartments, although it has whole homes, as well.

“We are making the ’50 percent more than’ assertion based on current data available and public as of today,” an Expedia Group spokeswoman said.

Asked whether Vrbo will conduct a marketing campaign — such as Airbnb’s multimillion dollar global digital and TV campaign in five countries — to tout Fast Start, Ranque said it wouldn’t. “For us, it is not so much marketing but actual fact,” Ranque said.

Ranque didn’t mention, however, that Vrbo has been a major TV advertiser among online travel agencies in the United States in 2021.

“’Airbnb’ is used as a noun and verb in countries all over the world, and our brand is already deeply embedded in pop culture,” Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said. “According to Google Trends, from January 2016 through September 2020, ‘Airbnb’ was searched worldwide more often than any other major travel brand.”

Nulty pointed to Airbnb’s marketing advantages, making an a reference to the advertising personality of a sister Vrbo brand, Hotels.com.

“You don’t have to be Captain Obvious to know the traditional OTA (online travel agency) model is based on advertisement arbitrage, while Airbnb is doubling down on driving organic traffic to our platform through our global brand, which is synonymous with short-term rentals, and the word-of-mouth generated by our community of hosts and guests,” Nulty said.

Ranque cited Vrbo’s pandemic cancellation policy, which tilted toward guest vouchers for future travel rather than Airbnb’s guest refunds, to argue that Expedia worked more cooperatively with regulators as factors in Vrbo’s alleged inroads.

“A lot of people have noticed we were more host-friendly, with more balance,” Ranque said.

On the regulatory front, Expedia led a drive in June to legalize short-term rentals in San Diego by coming to terms with the City Council and a local hotel union. Airbnb eventually endorsed the basics of the move although it argued for upping the number of permissible short-term rentals.

In November 2020, Expedia signed a memorandum with Honolulu to track and regulate short-term rentals, and Airbnb signed it, as well.

However, Airbnb in recent years has led the way in coming to terms with several jurisdictions, such as a settlement it reached with New York City after a lengthy dispute.

Airbnb and Expedia/Vrbo have cooperated in several regulatory disputes globally, and in some jurisdictions, where Vrbo doesn’t have a strong presence, Airbnb took the lead.

Devastated by the absence of travelers early in the pandemic, hosts may find it ironic that suddenly the largest travel companies in the world are wooing them in earnest.

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Tags: advertising, airbnb, booking.com, expedia, hosts, marketing, short-term rentals, vrbo

Photo Credit: A Vrbo advertisement. The company is wooing Airbnb hosts to join Vrbo's ranks. Vrbo