Airbnb, the service that makes it easy for anyone to convert their extra space into an income-generating vacation rental, is experimenting with a new emphasis on short trips and last-minute bookings. The new features are available in San Francisco and Los Angeles and will be introduced in other cities if all goes well. But while the focus on convenience is likely to please users and investors, it’s an interesting choice for a startup that has traditionally touted uniqueness over utility.
Before the redesign, the Airbnb app opened on a stream of beautiful listings without taking into account location or user preferences. The app might show a cozy bed and breakfast in Ruch, France above a historic mansion in Oregon, followed by a link to all properties designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It was enticing, but it wasn’t always actionable.
Most people who open the app are looking for a place to stay tonight
Airbnb redesigned the app with one key piece of data it gathered this past year: most people who open the app are looking for a place to stay tonight. That meant most people were immediately skipping past the stream of random listings, only to be forced to navigate through a slew of menus before they could book a place. Even then, the host might decline the request and leave the user stranded. Compared to the ease of booking an Uber car, Seamless food order, or a room at the Marriott, Airbnb was slow.
The new app opens up to a simplified screen divided into three sections and customized to the user’s location. The first section is a one-click search for listings that are nearby and guaranteed available that same night. These listings are only available in San Francisco and Los Angeles for now, where the company has confirmed which hosts will take last-minute bookings.
The second section, "This Weekend," is "more aspirational," head of product Joe Zadeh tells The Verge. This is a list of suggested weekend trips to nearby getaways, meant to function like a travel magazine and "inspire trips that wouldn’t have otherwise taken place," he says. The third section takes you directly into all listings.
Adding convenience makes Airbnb more and more hotel-like
The changes put Airbnb in more direct competition with Hotel Tonight, the last-minute booking app that has been growing fast and raised $45 million for global expansion in September. The Airbnb changes weren’t inspired by Hotel Tonight, Zadeh says, but rather by changing expectations. "Less people want to plan far in advance," he says. "I get a car on demand. Why can’t I book a place on demand?"
The last-minute booking feature is actually a return to the past; users were prompted to book something for that night in the first version of the app. However, it was solely based on location and there was no guarantee that the listing would be available.
"It’s one of the most significant things that we’ve done," Zadeh says. "It leverages our core listings, but it’s almost an adjacent market, an adjacent need."
Airbnb started out as a more professional version of the crust punk-y travel site Couchsurfing.com, where you’d show up at someone’s house and crash in their extra room, or couch, or pile of mattresses on the floor. The startup commercialized that idea of person-to-person hosting, sending professional photographers to hosts’ apartments and facilitating payment, and it’s had enormous success.
"It’s almost an adjacent market, an adjacent need."
But as the company has grown, guests are demanding more conveniences — like middle-of-the-night booking — that make the experience more hotel-like. That tension between cottage industry and corporatization is playing out right now in New York, where the company says it’s helping ordinary people make a little extra money on the side, while the attorney general says Airbnb hosts are running illegal hotels.
Personality — of the hosts and the listings — is still a major selling point for Airbnb. But as it adapts to consumer demand, it’s looking more and more like the hotels it aims to disrupt. That has implications for its fight to avoid being regulated as a hotel, but it also reflects a more existential question: what’s lost when the sharing economy scales?