Skift Take

Airbnb has reentered the Experiences space with the launch of Icons. Editor-in-Chief Sarah Kopit and Head of Research Seth Borko discuss its prospects.

Series: The New Skift Podcast

Editor-in-Chief Sarah Kopit and Head of Research Seth Borko talk travel every week.

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Airbnb recently launched a new category of experiences and stays called Icons that aims to tap into the power of pop culture.

So what can travelers truly expect from Icons? How successful will it be? Skift Editor-in-Chief Sarah Kopit and Head of Research Seth Borko discussed Airbnb’s new product in this week’s Skift Travel Podcast.

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Icons Explained

Sarah Kopit: It’s Airbnb’s reentry into the Experiences space after quietly pulling back on it some time ago. It started with the Barbie Dream house that Airbnb temporarily set up last summer. You probably saw that somewhere on your social media feeds or in the media. It was wildly successful. He talked about that a lot. And so Airbnb decided to double down with more houses designed to fuse light art and pop culture.

First, let’s listen to Chesky himself talk about it to set this up. He had just finished describing the popularity of the real life Barbie House. Here’s a clip:

These experiences. They captured people’s imagination and they allowed people to step into someone else’s world. And at its best, this is what Airbnb does. And it’s what we always have been about. So we asked ourselves, “What if we took this magic to the next level? What if we made these experiences even bigger? Did them all the time?” You could find them directly in the app.

Well, that is exactly what we’ve done. Because today we are introducing Icons. Icons are extraordinary experiences in the world’s greatest icons in music, film, sports and more. Icons take you inside worlds that only existed in your imagination until now. And today, what I’m going to do right now is unveil the first 11 icons. So you ready? It startswith Up.

Wow. I love this audience.

Seth Borko: And that audience that he says he loves so much. You were a part of that audience, right, Sarah? He loves you.

Kopit: There you go. Yeah. So I was there. You know, it really was cool. We were talking about this before we started recording. I was a bit of a skeptic kind of going into it. I knew a little bit about what they were going to launch. But I don’t know … he really he sold me on it.

Like being there in that room. It really was impressive.

Borko: Do you think that he has … that was a straight Apple, Steve Jobs presentation. So yeah, just he had that reality distortion field where you fully bought into the Icons.

Kopit: I mean a little bit this podcast … I would recommend if you can go sit in front of a computer or just pull up some of the visuals that Airbnb has about it. This is going to be a very visual focused conversation because it’s hard to really describe what these Icons really are or why they’re cool — which is kind of why I think they’ve given the press on what we call embargo. Just the press release that they were going to put out about them before I went into that room.

So I knew that they were going to have this product called Icons, and it was going to be Experiences. And it’s a bit of a head scratcher. There were no pictures. And I was like, “What was it like, what is this? What are they going to be doing?” But not only did he go through the 11 icons on the video, he showed videos of them behind them on the big screen.

They actually had the house in … we were in a big movie studio lot. So they had the house. They actually brought it there to Los Angeles. And it was something. It was something how they did this. Because one of the things for the houses that they turned into is from cartoons.

And we’ll talk a little bit about what the icons were in just a second. So there were two houses that they made based on cartoons. So one was Up. The other is X-Men 97. So there’s a house in Westchester County that they turned in to the X-Men 97 house. And so when you walk in and they let us walk into the house there … all of the details, it’s very, very strange.

It almost looks like a Michel Gondry movie, like everything. It’s not that they brought in objects to look like.

Borko: 2D.

Kopit: Right? Yeah. It it looked like a cartoon. Yes, it looked 2D.

Borko: It was a far lower scale reference than the one you just made. But it’s like those backpacks. Have you seen those weird 2D painted animation backpacks? No.

Kopit: No. I’ll look that up later. Sounds interesting.

Icons’ Ties to Pop Culture

Borko: So I watched the clip. I like the Xavier’s mansion one too. I’m a big X-Men fan, so like it was very cool. Again for our listeners, you really do need to see the visual on this one where it’s this like cool, crazy paint effect where the paint comes in as 2D, so they flattened everything.

Kopit: So they flattened everything.

Borko: Exactly. That’s right. Everything’s flat. So what are the Icons? So these Icons are these iconic homes that are available on Airbnb now. So tell us a little more.

Kopit: So they were or they’re not really … I mean some of them were homes. But some of them were like you can go and stay in the place where they make Ferrari. This is the one. If I could go to any of these …

Borko: I was going to ask you that question, Sarah. Which one would you pick?

Kopit: There’s Ferrari or to stay in the Ferrari factory. And they have a bed with 10 Ferraris all around you. That was cool. And then they also have one that’s at a museum on the (Seine) that’s going to be open during the Paris Olympics. So it might be that one just to also kind of go to the Olympics — like that would be cool.

So they have museum stuff or I would say those would maybe the more sophisticated Icons houses. But I’m giong to age myself as I often do. There were a few of them that I had not heard of the Icons.

Borko: Well, it goes both ways. They had that TikTok star … Com. Yeah. I’m not a TikToker.

Kopit: Yeah, exactly.

Borko: You also had Prince or Prince’s estate.

Kopit: Purple Rain. Yep. The Purple Rain house.

Borko: Who was it?

Kopit: Yeah. Kevin Hart. Doja Cat.

Borko: So some of them are really celebrity experiences then. Like some of them are really kind of like behind the scenes of concerts or stand-up comedians and stuff like that.

Kopit: Absolutely. And they’re going to be there. My take on it is for this to be successful for Airbnb. And who am I to doubt them at this point. They’ve been just so wildly successful with their PR and marketing …. picking the intellectual property partners that they’re going to partner with because if they can’t keep the cool factor however they define that for their customers — like if that’s a miss or a misjudgment, it all falls apart.

If it’s not, if they kind of strike that like magic kismet, it’s the Barbie house all over again. Right? And then it, of course, is like the most successful thing they’ve ever done, ever. So I think that’s really the key to making this work. People have to want to share their pictures on social media. If they don’t, it doesn’t work.

Borko: Well, they’re tying themselves very closely to pop culture, right? I think there is a risk like this when a movie comes out and it’s on the box and Cheerios or whatever. I don’t get excited about the Cheerios. I just think it’s what is standard movie market integration. I don’t go to McDonald’s and get the Barbie Happy Meal or whatever.

Yeah, but some people do. Maybe they would.

Kopit: I was going to say children, actually. We have so many, so many at my house.

Borko: That’s my point. That’s the line they have to walk between becoming a Happy Meal toy of just whatever versus a really special and unique experience where people get excited and you’re right, they share it and they enter and they enter. This is, by the way, effectively free, right? There’s no …

Kopit: Yeah, most of them are free. I mean some of them they’re going to charge like 100 bucks, right. I mean, I don’t know why. And they’re doing it kind of like the Willy Wonka golden ticket. They even actually use that golden ticket in their promotional materials. So I believe (that’s) how it works.

I haven’t gone there to try to put my name on to go to the Paris Olympics or the Ferrari thing. But it drops. You put your name on the list and then they select whoever to go.

Borko: I’ve never won a contest in my life, so I don’t think I have …

Kopit: I haven’t either.

Challenges Airbnb Faces With Icons

Borko: I don’t know that I was that impressed, Sarah, to be honest. I’m playing a little bit of a devil’s advocate here, but this is a platform with hundreds of thousands of listings and it’s just 11 homes. I was a little disappointed.

Not disappointed. But it seemed really exciting and really cool. And I get why Brian is excited about it. And certainly if I was selected, all my criticism aside, if I was selected to go to the Paris Olympics, I would be really happy about it. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just right now I think it’s just 11 homes effectively and they’re for free.

You don’t even make any money off of them. So I’m like … I don’t know.

Kopit: Yeah, there are no hosts in this. Yeah. Like you talk about, a possible mission drift or a possible risk. The whole premise of Airbnb really was you have a host, you’re going to share your home, your experience with the world.

And these houses … I think this was one of the things that I kind of mistakenly thought walking in is that it was going to be like the Taylor Swift houses that popped up organically. That isn’t what this is. These are over-the-top Airbnb creations. I can’t even imagine how much money they put into making these things what they are.

Borko: It’s gotta be hundreds of thousands … maybe millions.

Kopit: Yeah, depending upon … because there were some like the Bollywood actress that they have. I believe it’s just kind of going to hear house, which would be amazing. So it would be really neat of her …

Borko: Hanging out?

Kopit: Yeah, hanging out. And so that therein lies the the statement about … it’s really getting the right mix of intellectual property.

Borko: Yeah. And the Kevin Hart one and the Bollywood one in particular very much seem to be — and Doja Cat too — two or about really about hanging out less about the actual property.

Kopit: And then there was another once about going on tour with maybe a DJ. I also didn’t know that one.

Borko: This is not a pop culture podcast. That’s for sure.

Kopit: I feel like I need to open a tab on my screen and pull up the Icons. I should have done that before I came in here, before we started recording.

Entering the Experiences Sector

Seth Borko: So yeah, there was one that was a tour of the DJ, Kevin Hart, Doja Cat, the Bollywood — the Bollywood one sounded kind of great. I think that’d be cool. But like a beautiful home …

So the point here that I think is interesting is that this is in many ways ties back to the Airbnb’s business — maybe some mission trips stuff. This is in many ways an experience more than it is a stay.

Kopit: Absolutely. This is Airbnb’s big push into experiences. And you know, I actually had the opportunity. I talked to Brian before the event, which was which was really interesting because he said that one of the things that he told himself when getting into kind of new avenues, new business ventures, he’s like … I wasn’t going to do it unless I could really commit to it and really do it. And really have it be successful.

And so for Experiences, they tried doing that. And when I talked to him in the fall, he told me he was that’s the big thing in the travel industry (that) is just waiting to crack. Like nobody’s really like broken out with it yet or figured out really how to monetize it and at scale.

And he said — even then at that point — they had not either. And so I didn’t know it, of course. I’m sure he was already thinking about this. But this is their big swing into Experiences.

Borko: Yeah. So you think that we’ll see more … I mean they’ve got to start charging at some point if it’s going to be more of a business.

Kopit: Tht was the impression that I got. They said that they were doing 11 now but that you know there were more to come. And they can’t keep doing this. I assume that I assume that they hope that, you know, I think the Taylor Swift houses were probably it’s the one that keeps on coming to mind that, like, actual hosts just took it upon themselves to decorate their houses just like the Taylor Swift songs for the tour.

I would guess they’re hoping that people see this, they get ideas and they want to kind of launch their own. And they see it as something that could be successful as just a regular host out there in the world.

Borko: And there are homes today on the platform that probably already meet that criteria that just need to be kind of transferred over to this category.

Kopit: Yeah.

The State of Experiences

Chesky: We launched experiences in late 2016. It was doing pretty well. We were getting millions of bookings a year. I thought 2020 was going to be the breakout year for Experiences, and instead suddenly the whole thing got on paused. And so any network-based business that has to pause … it does this and you gotta recrank it and it takes sometimes multiple years to get the network back to where it was.

Experiences are now back to where they were pre-pandemic. And we haven’t made a lot of investment in it. We were really focused on this travel rebound of the century. We thought travel was going to rebound greater than anything we’ve ever seen since World War II. It happened. And so now over the next year or two, we’re going to make some ample investments in Experiences.

And I do think that’s part of the next chapter of Airbnb. So stay tuned. I think there’ll be a product refresh in the future.

Borko: So that was Brian Chesky at our Skift Global Forum in 2022, talking about what made them back off from their previous Experiences, how they’ve had to recrank and restart their business. If you missed those hand motions, there was a negative symbol with the hand that had to be recranked like an old timey engine.

Airbnb’s Marketing Success

Kopit: Icons is all about marketing and PR and excitement. And I know, Seth, you and the researchers at Skift have really done a lot (of) looking at just how this particular company in travel does it better almost than anyone else. How do you think they’ve done that? Why do you think they have been so successful at this?

Borko: Yeah, I think Airbnb has built and this is like my professional opinion, I think that they’ve built probably the strongest single brand in the travel industry. They’ve done an amazing job of it, and they’ve done more than just build a brand for building a brand’s sake — just like some of the people, they’ve used it and they’ve turned it into real profit, and they’ve leveraged it to turn dollars and cents.

And so one of the things I was thinking about when we were talking about Icons and you get the embargo. I said before that I was a little skeptical, a little disappointed (about) Airbnb’s Icons launch — it’s just 11 homes. Who cares? But what I really got (to) thinking is … this is really a big part of their massive PR and branded advertising push and really earned media. Earned media is where the media and the news reports on you and they tell stories about Airbnb rather than paid advertising.

And what we’ve seen so many other travel companies do is they lean incredibly heavy into paid advertising and performance marketing specifically that — we’ll talk about a future podcast, specifically that Google search engine marketing eats up, with no exaggeration, billions and billions and billions of dollars of advertising budgets of those little blue links on Google trying to get people to click on websites.

And Airbnb has totally broken out of that cycle because people come to Airbnb direct because they see these really interesting news stories or activations or things like this. And it has a real, real impactful on the bottom line.

Kopit: Yeah. Chesky told me that the Barbie House … he was saying that it actually even surprised them because when Airbnb went public, for example, IPOs are massively covered. The Airbnb IPO was epic for that industry. He said that the Barbie House organically got 2.5 times the amount of coverage clicks. Just (more) organic media mentions than their IPO did.

Borko: Well, there’s a lot more Barbie fans than there are IPO investors.

Kopit: Right. You and I would not be those two. Yeah I like the Barbie movie. But you know.

Borko: Let me give you some numbers I just pulled before this podcast just like dollars and cents. So this is from SimilarWeb. This is direct traffic. So what percent of traffic is direct to the website? So people type it directly on Expedia and on It’s something like 40 to 50% of traffic is direct. So only half of people who visit Expedia actually typed in Expedia.

On Marriott, it’s something like 40% on Delta is something like 60%. Airbnb gets 70 to 80% of their traffic direct. And so basically there’s a huge amount of clicks that they get for free because of stuff like the Barbie House. And so my initial thought, with my cold, hard Excel financial analysis, “Sounds like this is a waste of money.”

It’s just 11 houses, like who cares? But the more I thought about I was covering this podcast, I was like, “This is really a marketing investment and it’s a really smart market investment.” Rather than spend a couple million dollars building these houses, Expedia is going to spend $2 billion on Google. So there’s a there’s an order of magnitude difference there.

Kopit: And you also get the street cred from like organic marketing as everyone knows. It resonates with humans more than you know. When somebody’s trying to buy your attention.

Borko: Yes. And I think it also works because of the product too. Because they have such insane … it gets you inspired to say, “Well, I can’t stay at this Bollywood home, but maybe I can find a great home in Chennai or something.”

Kopit: Well, one of them that they’ve had before that isn’t one of the Icons, but it started this out … the nostalgia is the Blockbuster House. Have you thought about that one? So there’s only one. Yeah, there’s only one Blockbuster left in the United States. And inside that Blockbuster, they — Airbnb — put a bed and decorated it like the 90s, like my parents’ basement and where we used to go to Blockbuster … all that good stuff.

And they set it up and they put it on Airbnb. It was several years ago. And Chesky told me that they still get people — lots and lots and lots of people requesting to stay there.

They kind of wish they could.

Borko: They could do it again … exit strategy for that Blockbuster Airbnb.

I think that’s such an interesting point to me, which is that it all has to do, in my opinion, with Airbnb’s product. Why doesn’t Expedia just go out and buy a Blockbuster and put a bed in it? I don’t think it would work for Expedia because … you know what you’re getting (with) Expedia, the product is commoditized, whereas Airbnb has this allure of the experience of the host and a unique property.

You’re going to stay a year in a bungalow. And so it feels a little more natural to be like, “Oh, yeah, well, I’m going to book a houseboat on Airbnb. Like, maybe I can book a Blockbuster.” And I don’t think it works as well for Marriott, who’s like, “If Marriott did a Barbie House, you’d still know that when you went to check into your Des Moines Marriott, you’d get a Marriott.”

Kopit: I’m going to interrupt you again. I know you’re trying to get to other stuff, but I’m just going to go back to where it actually started. Like being the seed of this idea was, in the early days of Airbnb, they put a bedroom in an Ikea.

He and his partner were shopping at Ikea as one does. And we’re thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool to stay in this bedroom? I’ve thought about that. And it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so nice, so much nicer than my house.’ And they did. And it was wildly successful. And the rest is history. He we are.

Borko: I guess part of it is that he’s also a creative guy. This comes back to Chesky does not have a traditional CEO pedigree. He’s a designer from the Rhode Island School of Design. His heroes are obviously the Pixar folks.

There’s a reason why it’s multiple Pixar integrations. Anyways…

Kopit: Inside Out too.

Borko: I went to business school. Different set of philosophy, I suppose. We’re talking about the future of Airbnb. And you did get a chance to sit down with Brian Chesky. I’m going to ask him some hitting questions about where they’re going next. So what did you learn from him?

I know you talked about a lot of stuff. Here’s one in my mind for a very long time — loyalty. Is that happening?

Airbnb and a Loyalty Program?

Kopit: Yes. I was curious about that, too. I told him that when I flew to L.A., I flew on American. And I got points and I was staying in a Marriott and I got points. But if I would have stayed in an Airbnb, guess what? No points, no nothing. Just maybe a nicer or cozier experience.

I wasn’t feeling like I was getting that reward that I did for all of these other things. And so he was pretty clear about it. He’s like, “I do not like points. I do not like a point system.” But he did say that they’re certainly thinking about it.

He said and this was an interesting one — I think of all the stuff he said, this was very intriguing. He said that they’re thinking about doing a loyalty program that’s similar to Amazon Prime.

Borko: Wow, Amazon Prime. So Airbnb Plus?

Kopit: I actually had to confirm with him. When I went back and I listened to my interview, I’m like, “A paid membership for Airbnb?” He was like, “Yeah, like Amazon Prime.”

Borko: I assume that it’s not sleeping in a warehouse, right? That’s something different.

Kopit: No. Although that would probably be successful as well. But I digress. Yeah. I don’t know what you would get for your membership. It would be lower rates …

Borko: Interesting. There are a number of online travel companies that have tried paid subscriptions like this. eDreams Odigeo is one of the ones that’s doing the most. They literally call it Prime. You can imagine where they got the inspiration from. It’s a paid (membership).

And then you get discounts. TripAdvisor tried something similar. It didn’t work as well for them. It’s an interesting idea. We have said at Skift Research. We’ve said it our research. We’ve said it in our reports. We do believe that loyalty is an emotion. It’s not appropriate. Yeah. And so often loyalty has become shorthand for a very labyrinthine points program instead of an actual behavior. So that’s interesting.

Kopit: Stay tuned. My gut is that it’s coming and that he wanted to talk about it … You heard it here first.

Airbnb’s AI Plans

Borko: One of the other things he was eager to talk about at (Skift) Global Forum last year was AI and artificial intelligence. They had a chance to integrate with ChatGPT and they passed on it. Have they done much since?

Kopit: I did ask him about this — because a year ago, last May 2023, he talked to our CEO at Skift and told him that this year, right now, you would see a whole new Airbnb and it would be all centered on AI. And so, here we are, May 2024.

And obviously Icons is almost the exact opposite of AI, right? It’s very front of house. It’s flashy — it’s like not tech. It’s the opposite of that. He did say — I love this as a journalist — “I want to be very careful what I say to you because you’re writing this down, you’re going to hold me to it, right?”

So, he said, “Perhaps, we over promised a bit on the AI-like revolution.” But he’s still really bullish on it. It’s just taking a little bit longer than … he didn’t go into specifics about what Airbnb was doing with AI or what kind of like the backend might look like other than what he said in the past, which is that it will be used mostly to be a concierge service.

And one of the things that I really can see about Airbnb and he’s talked about this before … how they would use AI and how it would be incredibly helpful is if when a guest calls in and they have a problem …. every guest thinks that their specific situation is so unique. But if you have like half a billion situations logged into your proprietary large language model, guess what?

There’s going to be more than a few of those people who have had like a very similar situation. And that AI can sort through all of that like a human never would and give the customer service rep like … OK, so these are like 10 situations where we had a good result. Try these like in an instant.

And so that on the customer service end seems like a very, very plausible way that they would use AI.

Borko: Yeah. And I like using the idea of using AI for feedback too because it’s one of those things where … I don’t know if a person who’s locked out of their Airbnb in the middle of wherever wants to talk to a computer. But I do think that those tools can be really useful.

You know like, here’s the top five issues that are hurting us, and one of them is key exchanges. There’s a lot of cool stuff they can do AI with. I know they’re using a lot of the AI behind their categories tabs. That’s not generative AI — that’s old school, machine learning and ….

Kopit: Pre-generative

Borko: Pre-generative AI. I like that word. Pre-generative AI. But I know they’ve built a lot of their categories tabs on that.

Superhosts on Airbnb

Borko: Well, let’s finish up. Let’s finish up what you learned from from Brian here. That’s the one thing we want to hear. I think there’s a few more things. One is about super hosting. Is that still sticking around?

Kopit: So you know, he said that. So there are two designations now. There are super hosts or two big designations for people who are putting their listings on Airbnb. They’re super hosts and there’s guest favorites. So you can kind of be both if you’re a host, but they have different criteria. And some of the hosts that we have talked to — our journalists have talked to — they’re kind of disappointed because they think that guest favorite has kind of eclipsed super host status.

And people work really hard to get super host status. And Chesky told me, “It’s like, you know what? That was kind of by design.” Yeah, it was kind of like they wanted to really give other renters or customers … they wanted to share this information that other guests had shared to really kind of show people what they were going to get.

Like I said to him, I don’t stay in an Airbnb, for example, when I travel because … I mean there are so many things that can go wrong. And when I’m traveling, I just need to be like in and out and a cup of coffee, and I need everything to work.

I was staying at the Sheraton in L.A., and he said, “I guarantee you, if you stayed somewhere at an Airbnb with a guest favorite, it is more reliable than a Sheraton. And you can quote that. So you know, we just know it. We know it because of all of the information we have from guests.”


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Photo credit: Editor-in-Chief Sarah Kopit and Head of Research Seth Borko are the hosts of the Skift Travel Podcast. Skift

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