This week Airbnb announced what the vacation rental giant is calling its “biggest changes in a decade.” That’s not hyperbole.
Alas, the changes don't involve reining in fees (we wish!). But the company will be adding a layer of filtering that will utterly transform its search functionality. Airbnb has also created a promising new type of insurance that will be included with stays.
Search by Home Type
The pandemic transformed how and why people use Airbnb. According to the company, a good 50% of users now stay for more than 30 days, in effect using the site and app to find places to live, not just vacation.
That’s partially because many people can now work from anywhere—including the employees of Airbnb, which recently shifted to a permanently remote work model.
Now, Airbnb says it wants to inspire people to discover where they should be living.
Here’s how that works: In the past, the only option for an Airbnb search was to enter a place name and go from there. But now Airbnb is making it possible to search by home type and other inviting features independent of destination.
You can look for homes with chef’s kitchens, grand pianos, amazing pools, waterfront settings, and access to golf courses. In a video explaining the program, CEO Brian Chesky says he hopes these types of destination-free searches will allow users to find pleasing homes in areas they might not have even thought to explore.
Many of the new filters play to the user’s sense of whimsy and adventure, allowing travelers to search for lodgings in caves, castles, shepherd’s huts, windmills, houseboats, towers, and other unconventional dwellings. One category is simply called “OMG” and it surfaces homes with outrageous architecture, a historic past, a famous architect, or other novelties.
All in all, there are 56 categories to choose from. Notably, "unusually affordable homes" isn't one of them.
There is a filter for shared accommodations, which is a budget-friendly choice. But when I used that filter, the site only showed me home shares in my immediate vicinity—a far different outcome from the other filters that showed me places around the globe.
I began to suspect that these new filters were designed primarily to push travelers to unique—and uniquely pricey—places to stay.
Airbnb is also hoping to get those staying for longer than a night or two to choose what the company is calling “Split Stays." This program uses Airbnb’s AI to help you find two homes rather than one during your trip. It’s an option that will automatically pop up when you’re looking for a stay of longer than a week.
"When presenting you with a pair of homes, Split Stays will automatically take into account your trip start and end dates, the distance between listings, and any filters added," explained Liz DeBold Fusco, a public policy and communications officer for Airbnb. "Our sophisticated algorithm also factors in the desirability of the two locations and the overall quality and value of each home. This results in around 40% more homes every time you search for a longer stay. That way guests can book some of our most highly rated listings that might not otherwise have been available for the whole duration of their trip.”
To give the concrete example Chesky provides in a video introducing Split Stays, a vacationer who’s interested in seeing the national parks of the American West could put in for a week’s stay and find homes near two parks—say Joshua Tree in California and Zion in Utah.
What Airbnb isn’t highlighting in promotional materials is that Split Stays could nearly double your vacation costs.
In many places around the world, Airbnb's hefty fees account for a higher percentage of the overall cost than nightly rates, according to a recent study. And with Split Stays, you'll have to pay the fees twice—two Airbnb service fees and two cleaning fees rather than one.
DeBold Fusco confirmed the doubling to me in an email, writing, “There would be a service fee on each booking—they are treated as two separate reservations.”
But if Split Stays aren't a very economical option for customers, at least Airbnb's final innovation seems like a win.
Through a new program called "Air Coverage," the company will help travelers rebook equivalent lodgings if:
• a host cancels within a month of arrival
• the guest can’t get into the property
• the guest shows up and the home is not what was promised in the listing—e.g., the AC doesn't work, there are two bedrooms when you paid for three, and so on
To help with these issues, the company says it is specially training agents and will give the public access to them 24/7. If the agents are unable to rebook the customer, a full refund will be issued. It will be interesting to see if a refund becomes the standard resolution or if the agents will be able to help dissatisfied customers get new bookings.
There will also be a 24-hour “Safety Line” that guests can call if they feel unsafe.
So the changes mean some wins and some losses for customers. We’ll be keeping an eye on all of these developments.