Airbnb is expanding from a short-term rental service to a full-scale travel agency. The San Francisco-based company upended the hotel business by letting homeowners and leasers rent out rooms and houses. Now, it’s trying to do the same for the travel and tourist industries. The new initiative is called Airbnb Trips, and it now provides the company a way to offer an experience instead of an accommodation. This could a be class or lesson in an obscure subject like ramen making in Tokyo, or a day trip to a secret surfing location in Malibu.
“If you want to have an amazing trip, you end up basically on a research project,” says CEO Brian Chesky, who announced the news onstage today at the company’s annual Airbnb Open conference in Los Angeles. Still, he adds, “you’re in line, you’re lonely, you’re outside, and you’re doing things locals never do.” Airbnb Trips is a way around that, Chesky says. “If you have a passion, an interest, or a hobby, you can share your community with others in the world.” Airbnb is starting with 12 cities, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Paris. The goal is to launch Trips in more than 50 cities by next year.
The new platform lets people offer services that either last many days, called immersions, or a few hours, called single experiences. You can also filter by categories, like food, or switch from the experience you want to have to the place you want to go. As part of the rollout, Airbnb says it partnered with a restaurant reservation startup called Resy to let you book a table at a popular place to eat through its platform. It also pushed out a new timeline feature under the “Trips” tab, which Chesky says will let the company understand where you’re going, what gaps you have in your trip, and what your preferences are to recommend activities to you. These features are now live on Airbnb.com and through its mobile apps.
The goal is to broaden the range of services Airbnb hosts can offer. That way, more travelers think of Airbnb as a destination for finding cool stuff to do in a new city and not just a place to sleep. Meanwhile, Airbnb can court more hosts to its platform that can substitute their knowledge or expertise in place of a room for rent. In a strange twist, Airbnb Trips opens up the possibility that hosts could also offer rides to specific places, putting it in slight competition with ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft.
Because of its rather limited utility as a hotel alternative, Airbnb has often found a sizable amount of its time, energy, and money going toward battling municipal regulations. Cities have fought Airbnb on its contributions to urban gentrification, rising rents, and landlord abuses. Just this past week, the company’s home city of San Francisco ruled that Airbnb hosts could only put up houses and apartments on the rental marketplace for a maximum of 60 days a year — on top of forcing hosts to register with the city. This is mainly to prevent people from operating multiple listings simultaneously in violation of housing regulations, as well as the abuse of local eviction laws.
In October, Airbnb sued the state of New York after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that imposes steep fines on hosts that list empty residences in multi-unit buildings for less than 30 days. The state says these short-term rentals open the door for landlords to operate illegal hotels, a violation of New York law since 2010. Airbnb fears the bill could sink its business in its most lucrative market if it can’t strike some type of compromise.
Uber, with its massive war chest, can afford to fight tooth-and-nail with regulators. As the juggernaut of the industry, Uber is also used more frequently on a day-to-day basis than Airbnb, and it waged war in New York last year using attack ads embedded in its own app to achieve victory over a proposed bill. Airbnb’s similar efforts, included a tone-deaf ad campaign in San Francisco last fall, have often backfired.
So as its legal woes continue to mount, Airbnb is looking beyond accommodations, and into remaking itself as a holistic travel site. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to fight against restrictions on rentals and other municipal measures — it may settle its lawsuit with New York. However, it does illustrate Airbnb’s willingness to branch out beyond the sharing economy and into an entirely new realm of travel and tour guide offerings.
In moving from accommodations to pretty much any kind of real-world service, Airbnb is opening itself up to all sorts of complications. It’s unclear how it will validate new offerings, gauge the expertise of both hosts and guests if activities are life-threatening, or protect against scams and rip-offs. Airbnb has built significant protections — including a $1 million host guarantee and a guest refund policy — into its rental platform. And yet there are still horror stories, including defiant squatters refusing to leave a home and parties causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Those will only intensify when what users are renting is more than a bedroom.
With Trips, Airbnb happens to be going head-to-head with industries almost as — and in some locations more — powerful than the hotel industry. It will be difficult competing with sites like TripAdvisor and Travelocity, and the countless boutique options locals have spent years building. It’s uncharted territory for what was once a fledgling yet stand-out startup in the sharing economy. And whether it’s enough to take Airbnb to new heights, and outside the grip of its legal troubles, will depend on whether it can convince people to offer and sell themselves and their services, and not just their homes.