“Everyone can belong anywhere” – behind the scenes at Airbnb

Airbnb’s growth has been meteoric, so where can the company go next?

The rise has been staggering. Since being founded in San Francisco in 2008, Airbnb has passed 300 million bookings, with 4 million listings in 191 countries, and is one of the most recognisable brands in the world. The name has become a verb, (“Where are you staying?” “We’re going to Airbnb it”) the mark of true cultural acceptance. It’s been involved in legal wrangles and backlashes from communities, all without doing its reputation any lasting damage. So what’s next for this tourism game-changer?

“Even after all this growth, Airbnb is still considered an ‘alternative’,” says Nathan Blecharczyk, one of the co-founders of the company, speaking at the ITB Travel Trade Show in Berlin. “It’s not for everyone. Our mission is to say that everyone can belong anywhere.” He smiles. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job with the ‘anywhere’ part, but we still haven’t achieved the ‘everyone’ part. But that’s going to change.”

Airbnb will recategorise all their listings to make the best place for you easier to find – Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock Blecharczyk Airbnb
Airbnb will recategorise all their listings to make it easier for you to find the best place – Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock

Airbnb have announced updates that they believe will make them the go-to site for basically, as Blecharczyk says, everyone.

“It starts with our hosts, and our plans start with giving the best rewards to our best hosts. I mean, they’re our partners, right?” he says.

The idea is to build a strong community of hosts, and increase the quality and service by recognising the best. This is done through the Superhost programme – a selection of hosts who are the most consistently highly-rated. There are around 400,000 Superhosts on the site, and they receive benefits such as a badge on the site to mark them out as special, travel vouchers as a thank you, and so forth. Currently, this scheme is being expanded to supply 14 new benefits, taking the total to 19.

But what about guests? “We get asked that all the time!” Blecharczyk laughs, “and that’s fair; I mean, if we have a world of benefits for our best hosts, why not for our best guests?” So, for 2018, Airbnb are launching Superguest (“Yeah, pretty original, I know!”). The company surveyed their hosts and straight out asked them: what would you offer to someone who was a Superguest? The majority said they’d offer discounts, exclusive inventories and last-minute booking, purely because they knew the guest was someone – for want of a better word – special.

The San Francisco based company will now add Superguests to complement their Superhosts – Shutterstock Blecharczyk Airbnb
The San Francisco-based company will now add Superguests to complement their Superhosts – Shutterstock

All this isn’t coming purely from hosts either. They’ve also had numerous companies willing to provide services such as airport transfers, flight upgrades, or use of airport lounges for someone listed on the site as a Superguest. The scheme is being piloted this Spring to 10,000 lucky users, with a full rollout expected in the summer.

What of the product itself though? Well, it seems there’s going to be a fairly radical overhaul of the entire thing. Blecharczyk says: “What happened was, we discovered a problem. Airbnb was designed for a time when we were much smaller; each city would have, say, a hundred homes, and that’s all it was. A list of listings. And, to be honest, it hasn’t changed that much. That’s still what it is – a list of listings. But after ten years, the site has expanded to over 4.5 million listings, and this means that we still think every guest has their perfect place, it’s just now… it’s probably going to be really, really hard to find!”

Right now, the site separates listings into three categories: Shared Room, Private Room, and Entire House. 4.5 million listings divided into three categories is clearly not a workable system any more, so the site will be introducing four more of what they call top level category types. These will be Vacation Homes (things like ski chalets, for example), Bed & Breakfasts, Boutiques (professional hospitality businesses), and the temptingly mysterious Unique (tree houses, boats, even yurts).

Airbnb has 65,000 listings in Paris, so how do you make it easier to find somewhere comfortable to lay your head – Shutterstock Blecharczyk Airbnb
Airbnb has 65,000 listings in Paris, so how do you make it easier to find somewhere comfortable to lay your head? – Shutterstock

But even seven categories is not hugely specific. Blecharczyk uses Paris as an example. “Okay, so we have 65,000 listings in Paris. You can apply categories – say, a private room in an apartment – now we’re down to 10,000. This is where we’ve added new sub-categories. Like, one of them is Architectural Style; you can type in, say, Rustic, and that’ll filter some more. I want a balcony, I can now add that. To make things more interesting, let’s say I want to stay with a musician. These are all now options available. Want to stay in a family home in Seattle, with a chef’s kitchen and a baby’s crib, near a zoo? No problem. We’re adding thousands of new sub-categories.”

On top of this, there will be a new collection of nine listings called Airbnb Collections. What they’ve done is survey the reasons why people travel, and have sorted a bunch of properties into pre-filtered categories. Each property has a minimum rating of 4.8 out of 5, and fulfills a number of criteria specific to that reason for travel. Travelling for work? The Work Collection contains listings that have, for example, a flexible cancellation policy, self check-in, a desk, and reliable wifi. All the other Collections – Family, City Break, and so forth – will be tailored to that precise type of traveller.

The next point of discussion is Airbnb Plus. “These are the people who really have gone above and beyond to make their home an amazing destination,” Blecharczyk says. “Their personality is clearly stamped upon it, and they’re… well, they’re insanely nice!”

They’re both amazing homes and exceptional hosts; in fact, Airbnb sends a team to carry out a hundred-point inspection of the property to make sure it qualifies. Airbnb Plus hosts will also benefit from a higher search ranking and full phone and online support in case of any problems, as well as design consultation, personal verification and professional photography to really show off your property. Travellers will obviously be willing to pay more for such a bespoke destination, so it’s one step up from being a Superhost, even. “It’s all the comforts of home, plus more.”

Blecharczyk says Airbnb will try to match the best of the hospitality world to their users – Shutterstock Blecharczyk Airbnb
Blecharczyk says Airbnb will try to match the best of the hospitality world to their users – Shutterstock

“But we asked ourselves one final question. What if we went beyond even that?” Blecharczyk grins. “A year or so, we acquired a company called Luxury Retreats, and they have some of the world’s nicest homes. So what if we brought together their experience in hospitality with the world’s largest travel community, to create the ultimate travel package?”

The idea is that it won’t just be a property to live in. It’ll be the trip of a lifetime, custom-designed. An amazing place to stay, coupled with local experiences. Truffle hunting and Italian cookery while staying in a beautiful Tuscan farmhouse? No problem. Yoga and mindfulness from a luxury treehouse in Bali? Done.

Blecharczyk is adamant all the changes showcased will benefit travellers across the board, regardless of budget, or how they use the service. “All these developments together, it shouldn’t matter who you are; we really do now believe we have a home for everyone.”