As a company based around traveling like a local, Airbnb was in a bind. In March, seemingly overnight, flights were grounded, and vacations, some booked years in advance, were canceled. It would’ve been easy for the home-sharing service to follow suit—after all, if people aren’t traveling, what good is a vacation rental?
But instead of shutting down, the short-term rental behemoth quickly adapted, announcing new cleaning and cancellation policies, free and discounted stays to first responders, and setting aside $250 million to compensate hosts for lost business early in the shutdown. In April, they launched virtual experiences, with activities like making sangria with drag queens in Lisbon and touring Chernobyl with a researcher dedicated to protecting its wild dogs.
"I really want Airbnb to use this crisis to sharpen our focus, to get back to basics, back to the core of everyday hosts that offer homes and experiences," CEO Brian Chesky said in an interview with the Associated Press in May. “And I think the people who really yearn for that are going to want to stay in places that are really authentic and personal. We’re going to put in as many or more resources than before.”
The company bet on the likelihood that travelers would be more comfortable staying at home rentals than hotels during the pandemic, and they haven’t been wrong. According to a March 2020 survey of prospective Airbnb guests, roughly three out of four guests said they would be more comfortable staying with their families in a vacation home rental than in a hotel with other people.
“Homes have become a place of shelter, and the future of travel will also rely on a new comfort zone, with the privacy and benefits of a home away from home, without crowds or high turnovers,” said Greg Greeley, President of Homes at Airbnb, in an April 2020 press release.
Renters like Elena Debellis, a first-time Airbnb user who rented a home in East Hampton, New York in September, agreed. “Staying in a rental house afforded my group of four a good way to maintain space from each other by having separate bedrooms and a large backyard with a pool, without running the risk of interacting with other hotel guests,” said Debellis. “After such a positive experience in East Hampton, I think renting homes through Airbnb will be my way of exploring for the near future.”
So how did Airbnb instill and maintain trust with its customers?
First, on March 10, Airbnb announced that it would have a more flexible reservations policy, acknowledging that both owners and renters were affected in different ways due to the lockdowns occurring because of the COVID-19 outbreak. For hosts, they waived their standard three percent host fee on listings that offered flexible cancellation policies through June 1, 2020, and they promoted those properties more heavily to help drive new bookings. They launched new tools for hosts to authorize additional refunds through the platform directly, too. Meanwhile, guests who had booked a stay on or before March 14, 2020 were offered a full refund. Airbnb also added filters to help guests search for properties with flexible cancellation policies, and enabled hosts to automatically block out bookings between stays to disinfect and air out rentals thoroughly.
On April 27, Airbnb announced its new cleaning protocols, with guidance from former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy based on the recommended CDC guidelines. Although owners were not required to follow these protocols, they could enroll in a certification program, which guests could see on listings. And according to Debellis’ experience, guests could ask for a refund if certified hosts did not comply. By the end of August, more than a million of the platform’s 7 million listings were enrolled in the program.
Tim Ryan, who currently has four listings in Racine, Wisconsin, chose to list on Airbnb in 2019 due to their strong presence and marketing in the short-term rental space. He appreciated the company’s response during the lockdown and the fact that they didn’t shut down. “They jumped on the cleaning processes quickly, which allowed us hosts to continue bookings,” said Ryan.
But not all hosts agreed with their approach to health safety. Golan Tambor, who has about 60 listings with Airbnb in Israel, was not impressed with their cleaning protocols. "It wasn’t a must to agree to the protocols, nor to do the test—they left it up to the hosts to decide how to behave," said Tambor. "I think they should have used a different approach, where it is mandatory to have a 48-hour break between reservations and take the cleaning test."
Tambor got his wish on Oct. 7, when Airbnb announced hosts and guests must agree to follow Airbnb’s COVID-19 Safety Practices, which include wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and, for hosts, abiding by Airbnb’s five-step enhanced cleaning process. All hosts will be prompted to implement these precautions by Nov. 20, 2020.
Airbnb was also quick to jump on helping healthcare workers who needed to quarantine from their family or who traveled to hard-hit areas to help, launching their Frontline Stays program in March. They partnered with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East—the largest healthcare union in the nation—to provide free housing to medical first responders in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Georgia. Airbnb then extended the program in August to cover Florida and other hard-hit states.
“People across the nation owe their lives to frontline workers like the heroic members of 1199SEIU,” said Chesky in an August press release. “Airbnb is proud to support first responders during this unprecedented crisis and grateful to our host community for their ongoing generosity in providing places to stay.”
And Chesky put his money where his mouth is, pledging $2 million of his money to fund these free stays. To date, hosts on Airbnb have offered more than 200,000 places to stay and have hosted more than 100,000 nights for responders around the world since March.
Airbnb Experiences also posed a problem for the company during the pandemic. Launched in 2016, Airbnb Experiences is a platform for locals worldwide to offer events like tours, cooking classes, weaving, and foraging hikes. Experience hosts didn’t need to have rental listings, and the network quickly grew to thousands of people offering innovative and fun activities. The pandemic forced Airbnb to shut down its Experiences in most countries, but instead of giving up, the company decided to go virtual.
Launched in April, Airbnb Online Experiences soon had activities like meditation with a Japanese Buddhist Monk, a coffee master class with the CEO of a coffee shop in Mexico City, a workshop to learn how to identify Sri Lankan leopards, and a tour with a plague doctor through Prague. In the first two weeks after launching, 20,000 seats were booked for Online Experiences, giving travelers a way to enjoy their favorite places still, discover new ones, and learn new skills and hobbies.
Natalya Smolenskaya first started hosting a Secret Cocktail Experience in Hoi An, Vietnam, about two years ago. The excursion involved exploring the city’s hidden alleyways, with five stops for custom cocktails and a few small bites. Smolenskaya and her partners would tell guests about the influence of the French, Japanese, and Chinese cultures on Hoi An and how they came together to create the unique and charming destination the city is today.
When Airbnb introduced the Online Experiences, Smolenskaya spent about three months setting up a virtual version of her popular Experience and getting it approved. For Cocktails and Stories of Vietnam, she partnered with Christopher Cheveruil, a professional mixologist based in Hoi An. While Cheveruil teaches guests how to make three classic cocktails and three with a Vietnamese twist, Smolenskaya shares the stories of Hoi An that she used to share on the in-person tour.
“I support the idea of Airbnb connecting travelers and local insiders,” said Smolenskaya. “I appreciate that they help people set up closer connections, and I have made friends with some of my customers and hosts.”
Judy Frankel, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, was gifted an Airbnb Online Experience by her husband and kids for her birthday in July. The family joined a Mexican cooking class and learned to make tacos and salsa from a professional chef in Mexico City. The host “was able to give both consultation and advice while cooking the dish at the same time,” said Frankel. “She was very charming and had interesting stories to share about life in Mexico City.” Frankel thought it was an excellent value for the price ($20 per person), especially compared to the high cost of in-person cooking classes.
Between the new cleaning protocols, free stays for healthcare workers, and the virtual experiences, Airbnb has found a way to move forward, even if it looks slightly different from before. The new processes and offerings allow people to safely interact and discover new things, keeping Airbnb’s core values intact.
Chesky, for one, is hopeful about the future of travel. “I think travel is going to feel special again,” Chesky told the Associated Press. “We won’t take it as for granted as we did before.”
Main Photo: Courtesy of Airbnb; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang