SAN FRANCISCO — Airbnb has transformed travel for millions of people around the world, and it’s now making a big push to become a “hospitality” company in which a high-quality stay is at the center of the experience.
Today at an event at its new office, Airbnb’s top management talked about what it’s been working on over the past year and what’s ahead for the billion-dollar company.
“We thought of ourselves as a travel company, but what we do is deeper,” cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky said onstage. “Every day as hosts, you welcome people into your home — that is hospitality, and it is a much older idea than hotels.”
‘We are a hospitality company’
The interest in hospitality inspired the new products that Airbnb launched today — the superhost program, stories, and groups for hosts. The company also released a “reimagined” mobile app, with more robust features for hosts.
Airbnb is a peer-to-peer community where people rent out available space in their home. Listings range from couches to castles and provide travelers with an alternative to a hotel. Many people who are hosts are also guests, and vice-versa.
The superhost program is actually an old feature that Airbnb is bringing back. It is an alliance of “extraordinary” Airbnb hosts who create unique and meaningful stays for their guests.
Cofounder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia introduced the “Stories” feature, where hosts and travelers can share their personal experiences with Airbnb.
“Thousands of connections are made every day, and behind everyone of those great connections is a story,” Gebbia said. “We created a place where people from Airbnb can come to life and can tell their stories.”
Dougles Atkin, Airbnb’s head of community, demonstrated “groups for hosts,” where hosts can connect with other hosts nearby. This could lead to better communication and a better Airbnb community.
“With groups, you can learn how to be a better host from people like you,” Atkin said. “These are self-organized groups, where people can ask questions like ‘Can anyone accommodate six guests ‘ or ‘Does anyone know a good cleaner?'”
Going mobile: A must for travelers
VP of engineering Mike Curtis told VentureBeat in a recent interview that Airbnb has spent the past year building its mobile app. Fifty-six percent of travelers check Airbnb while on their journey, and the main request from hosts was to add more features for them into the mobile app.
The new mobile app aims to give hosts all the tools they need to post and manage listings from their phone.
“The future is mobile, and our most successful hosts are are on mobile,” Chesky said. “The new ‘host home’ is a smarter way to host. It is no longer complicated to have a lot of reservations. ”
Other features include recommendations for host groups to join, a calendar feature so hosts can quickly make availability devisions, push notifications when guests are arriving, and quick in-app messaging features.
Airbnb also built a dedicated section of the app for travelers. Search results are presented in a stream of high-quality photos with the price in the corner, and all relevant information, including the host’s background, location, and amenities.
For anyone who doesn’t use Airbnb on mobile, the company is launching a program called “Get Mobile” in January. The goal is to get all the hosts on mobile by the end of next year. It is designed to make it easier for web customers to become mobile customers. They can look at advice and tips for using the apps, and even receive financial help buying a new phone if they need it.
“We think the reservations will help pay for cost of phone,” Chesky said.
Airbnb hosts are partners, not customers
During a roundtable discussion afterward, chief technical officer Nathan Blecharczyk said that most these new products are geared toward helping Airbnb’s existing community push forward so-called “best hospitality practices.”
“We think of ourselves as business partners with the hosts,” he said. “There is a big delta between people who have been doing this for two to three years and new hosts. We want to accelerate the process of becoming a great host.”
Another feature coming in 2014 is a host rewards program.
Airbnb recently relocated its office, moving into a cavernous space in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood that today is flooded with travelers, hosts, and employees from around the world.
The work space on the fourth floor is open and lined with conference and workrooms that replicate actual Airbnb rooms from around the world: places such as Milan, Paris, Copenhagen, and Bali. Even the women’s bathroom is charming, designed to resemble a “glamping” tent (a trend that mixes luxury with camping).
Airbnb has raised $326 million in venture capital over the years and has hosted more than 9 million guests in 30,000 cities around the world. Its site features more than half a billion listings, and on a peak night this past summer, 175,000 people stayed in Airbnb properties on one night.
Curtis told VentureBeat that in the future, Airbnb is also looking to interact with travelers throughout the entire travel experience, not just in the beginning when they are searching and booking.
“We want people to have sense of belonging wherever they go,” Curtis said. “For that to be a reality, you have to have things supporting you — it has to be easy to get around, and easy to know where to go. We want to enable more instant gratification for more complex services.”