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As millions of people reemerge from a year of lockdown and the travel industry rebounds, Airbnb announced some big changes to the way its platform works. The most important is flexibility: Instead of searching for particular places at particular times in particular locales, Airbnb users can now turn to Airbnb for ideas. The company is also improving its host tools, making it easier for new hosts to get started on Airbnb and to manage an influx of new travelers.
In general, Airbnb doesn't seem to expect a return to pre-pandemic life once everyone is vaccinated and life returns to normal. Instead it seems to expect some key trends to continue, like remote work and long-term stays. Those things have helped keep Airbnb afloat during the pandemic, and have become a core part of the platform going forward.
As more companies let employees work from anywhere, some travelers might switch from taking two vacations a year to just working from somewhere new for a few months. Or they might become digital nomads, working and living from whatever yurt they could find on Airbnb that week. The company has recently been promoting the idea of "trying out a new city" before moving there, for instance, now that lots of people are free to leave the immediate vicinity of their employers.
Nearly a quarter of Airbnb stays were longer than 28 days in the first three months of 2021, the company found in a recent survey, and travel is happening to a much wider range of places. "The lines between travel, living and working are blurring," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in the company's announcement, and Airbnb hopes to make it easier for people to move around the world in whatever way they want.
Airbnb is still largely used like a search engine, but increasingly wants to be more like Pinterest, offering ideas and inspiration for people looking for adventure. That also gives Airbnb an opportunity to show people places and homes they might not otherwise look for, which Chesky said on the company's most recent earnings call was a point of emphasis: "There's a lot of other opportunities for us, I think, to point demand to where we have available supply, which will allow us to steadily increase occupancy," he said.
As ever, the challenge for Airbnb is to balance the needs of hosts and guests. Guests want variability and flexibility, free cancellations and fun off-the-beaten-path places to stay. Hosts want consistent income, predictable demand and helpful communication when something goes wrong. Airbnb announced on Monday that it offers support coverage in new languages, has simplified its cancellation policies, and created a support team just for Superhosts.
The pandemic seems to have broadened Airbnb's sense of its place in the world. It once operated like an alternative to stodgy hotels, but is now embracing the idea that it can be an alternative to permanent housing as well. What WeWork wants to do for offices — unbundle them, and simplify the process of getting and using them — Airbnb wants to do for homes. It's not just out to get the Hyatts and Hiltons of the world anymore. It's coming for the one-year leases and the mortgage payments too.