With new roadmap, Airbnb casts itself a veritable travel company, not an intermediary

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky on stage at The Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. Photo credit: Airbnb

SAN FRANCISCO — Airbnb is a decade old, a far cry from when founders Brian Chesky and Nathan Blecharczyk inflated airbeds and hosted three travelers in their Rausch Street apartment in San Francisco. Today, Airbnb is a dynamo, a global social experiment that has implanted itself into the collective imagination of the some 300 million people that have stayed in an Airbnb listing to date. 

Airbnb's penetration is staggering: it currently has 4.5 million listings, more than four times the number of rooms controlled by Marriott International. And over the last 10 years, Airbnb hosts reportedly earned more than $41 billion.

With all that growth and command of inventory, projections were that Airbnb could ultimately become just another online travel agency, selling rooms and homes for a percentage off rate. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, took to the stage, here at the The Masonic Auditorium, to dispel any notion that Airbnb is bound to become a routine OTA.

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Dressed head to toe in black, and greeted with a king's welcome by an adoring crowd of Airbnb hosts, Chesky announced new additions and initiatives the company is rolling out to further promulgate itself as a full-fledged travel experience company—built for everyone. That's because Chesky, in a moment of admission, said Airbnb is still not for everyone, but new measures by the company left him commenting that "now it is."

They revolve around four main updates and additions, the biggest pronouncements since Airbnb launched Trips in 2016.  

Chief among them is Airbnb Plus, a new tier of homes that have been personally verified for quality and comfort via a 100-plus point checklist that covers cleanliness, comfort and design, to name just three. "We even test the Wi-Fi," Chesky said.

The program is starting with 2,000 homes in 13 cities that are available to book now. 

"Many hosts go above and beyond even the Superhost level. We want to recognize them," Chesky said of Airbnb Plus. "[These listings] have all the comforts of home, plus more. All are verified for quality, for personality and for thoughtful design."

Airbnb Plus listings will also have top placement on Airbnb.com, equating into better search rankings. Hosts within this tier have 4.8 ratings are higher. Other benefits of Airbnb Plus include professional photography and customer support. Listings within this tier should also command a premium rate, Chesky said. "Seventy-three guests said they'd pay more for a verified home."

There is a one time $149 application fee to apply for Plus status.

Airbnb said that within an hour of the Airbnb Plus announcement, more than 1,000 people applied to be part of the program.

Typecasted

Up to now, searching on Airbnb has been admittedly narrow with three property types: Shared Space, Private Room and Entire Home. That's changing. Airbnb is adding four new property types to its platform: Vacation Home, Unique Space, B&B and Boutique. All seven property types will launch to guests this summer.

Airbnb is also improving search. With millions of listings, it can be rather difficult and cumbersome for a traveler to find the ideal accommodation. "How do we get more specific?" Chesky asked. Consider the some 65,000 listings in Paris. Now, guests can drill down further into what they are looking for with search features that include category styles under architecture and being able to refine search down to "balcony."

Chesky said the company would be adding as many as 1000 new categories.

Collective Thinking

Airbnb was originally designed for "when we were much smaller," Chesky said. "This is a problem." When Airbnb was first launched, the idea was 100 homes per city—a list of listings, as Chesky put it. Things have meteorically changed since Airbnb's 2008 inception. "Our core design has not changed, it's still a list of listings, but things have changed," Chesky said, alluding to the now wealth of accommodations on its site. "We have something for everyone, but it's hard to find anything," he added.

To combat that, Airbnb is launching Collections, to "connect every guest to their perfect home and meet the needs of such a diverse range of travelers." Launching today are Airbnb for Family and Airbnb for Work with Collections for Social stays, Weddings, Honeymoons, Group getaways and Dinner parties coming later this year.

And following its acquisition of Luxury Retreats in February 2016, Airbnb this spring will launch Beyond by Airbnb, which will offer "custom designed trips of a lifetime," as Chesky referred to it. "To go beyond with must-have magical experiences, like truffle hunting, for instance." 

Above and Beyond

The Superhost program is also getting an overhaul. Superhosts are considered Airbnb's most iconic hosts with 400,000 of them globally. Airbnb is adding 11 benefits for them to accompany the seven that already exist. These include webinars to help build your business, additional cash bonuses for referring new hosts and, one of the more prominent additions, custom URLs for listings.

"The number one thing our Superhosts ask for is more promotion, visibility and exposure," Chesky said. Superhosts will also now also have access to 30 percent off Nest home devices through a partnership Airbnb signed with the company.

Airbnb is also shifting more focus on its guests. Later this year, Airbnb will unveil a new guest membership program offering benefits across the entire trip. The Superguest program will launch initially to 10,000 guests as a trial this summer before being rolled out to Airbnb’s wider guest community before the end of the year.

Last year, Chesky asked on Twitter what a guest membership program should look like. Hundreds of replies came back with ideas such as stocked fridges and airport pickups. "If we are going to have benefits for hosts, we should have benefits for guests across the travel journey," Chesky said. 

Opposition

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about Airbnb as Airbnb is. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, the lobbying arm of the hotel industry, fired off a terse statement from Troy Flanagan, VP of state & local government affairs, subsequent to Airbnb's morning announcements. It read:

"Whether it’s called Plus or Boutique program, Airbnb's latest scheme is just further proof the company is trying to play in the hoteling space while evading industry regulations. If Airbnb wants to enter the hoteling business, then it needs to be regulated, taxed and subject to the same safety compliances and oversight that law-abiding hotel companies adhere to each and every day.
 
"The question that cities and neighborhoods should be asking—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?"

The AH&LA and Airbnb have long been at odds, with the former campaigning for a level playing field. Airbnb, for its part, has accused hotel companies of taking tax money to help subsidize hotel construction.

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