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How Airbnb is trying to adapt to a new travel reality

May 24, 2021, 5:49 PM UTC

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Airbnb business went into free fall. With customers hunkering down at home, revenue tumbled 72% year over year and quarterly losses ballooned to $576 million.

To stop some of the bleeding, the company laid off a quarter of its workforce.

But then, Airbnb’s business started picking up as did hope for a full rebound from the COVID lockdown days—to the point that the company held a blockbuster IPO. Now, Airbnb is gearing up for its next phase: Travel in a post-pandemic world. 

“People are getting vaccinated, travel restrictions are lifting, people want to connect,” Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO, said during a call with journalists on Monday. “Travel is coming back … But [it] will be really different than before.”

Airbnb detailed a series of changes on Monday to adapt for what it believes will be a new travel reality: People booking longer trips, or even living away from home for months. It’s a big change from before, when it was all about business trips or brief vacations during specific times of the year like summer. 

Among Airbnb’s new features is giving users who search for accommodations is to return results that are just outside their search parameters. So if users select flexible matches, they may get a result for a condo in Miami for $320 nightly even though they set their price range below $300.

Similarly, Airbnb’s new flexible destinations, available June 30, will try to connect people to accommodations they may not have thought of themselves like yurts, lake houses, private islands, or even caves.

The two features follow Airbnb introducing in February the ability for users to search using flexible dates.

On Monday, the company also debuted ways to make it faster for guests to check out of their accommodations, easier for property owners to become hosts, and added to the checklist of things that guests can review about where they’ve stayed. It also doubled the number of customer service agents—a group that was slashed during the cutbacks last year—to help hosts, who previously complained that Airbnb didn’t give them sufficient help during the pandemic when bookings slowed.

Since its IPO in December, travel has somewhat rebounded as people started working remotely—often away from home—and take more weekend getaways. The new trends helped Airbnb increase its first-quarter revenue 5% year over year—even though its loss tripled due to pandemic related debt and restructuring fees.

The revenue gain, though modest, is a big turnaround from the 22% sales decline in the previous quarter. 

In January, Chesky said he believed the pandemic had changed travel forever. He suggested three main trends would continue long after the coronavirus ended: People will travel less for business and more for pleasure, more travelers will look outside top destinations and consider smaller communities, and that they’ll be more interested in meaningful travel versus tourist spots.

In practice, according to Airbnb, many people who live in big cities will travel to rural areas. In the U.S., Airbnb expects some top destinations to be Hilton Head Island, S.C., West Yellowstone, Mont., and Acadia National Park, Maine. And those who do travel to cities will likely stay longer, Airbnb said. Popular international cities for long-term stays include Melbourne, Australia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Montreal, Canada. 

Chesky said he expects the travel rebound to be the “biggest” in a century as cities reopen and people finally take the trips they had been waiting for.

“Yes, travel is changing,” Chesky said. “But what people have always needed, those things will never change, and they’ll always be made possible by hosts.”

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