Airbnb branches into online travel as rental business faces challenges

REUTERS/Yuya Shino/File Photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Airbnb launched a new programme on Thursday called Trips to transform itself into a travel company, marking the most significant expansion since the company was founded eight years ago as a home- and room-renting service.

Chief Executive Brian Chesky kicked off a three-day event in Los Angeles with the announcement that Airbnb would offer travellers the opportunity to create customised itineraries for hours or days that afford a more authentic local experience.

“If you want to travel, you basically end up on a research project,” Chesky said. “We want to fix this.”

The diversification away from its core service, in which people rent out spare rooms or entire apartments and houses to travellers, could be important to the company’s continued growth as it faces a regulatory crackdown across the globe.

Airbnb is betting that revenue from will eventually eclipse its proceeds from lodging, Chesky told Reuters.

“The Airbnb you knew as of yesterday will be a minority of our revenue in the future,” Chesky said in an interview.

Through Trips, customers can book a range of local activities – from a cooking class in Florence to a violin-making workshop in Paris – and find attractions that are not on the tourist circuit. The services are available now as an upgrade to the Airbnb app in 12 cities and will be in more than 50 cities next year, Chesky said. Flight and rental car bookings will also be part of the service eventually.

The new service comes as cities from New York to Amsterdam and Berlin work to limit short-term rentals, which critics say exacerbates housing shortages and drives out lower-income residents. New regulations threaten to erode Airbnb’s revenue and its $30 billion valuation, which far exceeds that of any hotel company.

Airbnb, with some 100 million users in 34,000 cities, drew throngs of hosts from around the world to the event in Los Angeles on Thursday. Several lamented higher taxes and tougher rental restrictions in their cities – but also Airbnb’s failure at times to help them navigate evolving local laws.

“I didn’t get the support I needed, so I had to plod through the politics of Big Bear Lake all alone,” said Ginny Harding-Davis, who with her wife rents out houses in California’s Big Bear Lake and Lake Tahoe area.

Airbnb has, by its own admission, been slow to address cities’ housing concerns. Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that would bar even advertising a rental that violates that existing law, which could help regulators crack down on Airbnb itself in addition to the users of its service.

This week, San Francisco lawmakers voted to further restrict home renting by approving an ordinance that bars hosts from having paying guests in a room, house or apartment for more than 60 days a year. The ordinance still requires the mayor’s approval.

Chesky dismissed San Francisco as an outlier. “We thought that New York and San Francisco were the two cities that would be precedent-setters,” he said. “But one of the common answers I get when I go to cities is ‘I am not San Francisco.'”

Also on Thursday, a US judge said Airbnb and the city of San Francisco must work harder to resolve a court case over a separate city ordinance enacted in August that forbids the company from taking bookings from hosts who have not properly registered their homes.

(Reporting by Heather Somerville; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Cynthia Osterman)

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