It was supposed to be the year that changed everything for Airbnb. Founded in 2008, the company had known pretty much nothing but a bull market since it was birthed from the brain of Brian Chesky, and its most recent valuation pegged it at an eye-watering $31 billion. A legendary IPO was looming for the San-Franciscan super-unicorn.

And then, It Happened. I don’t even want to type it. I don’t even need to type it. 

But it did. And now, after over a decade of successfully flipping the hospitality sector on its head, Airbnb is the one that’s all shaken up. In the past two months:

  • Its valuation has almost halved, according to the WSJ
  • It raised a further $1bn of finance, paying around 9% interest
  • It set up a $250m relief fund for hosts. Sounds extremely generous. Has not got the press Chesky was probably hoping for
  • Chesky wrote an open letter to Airbnb’s employees confirming that around a quarter of the workforce would be laid off

So I suppose my first sentence still stands. It did change everything. 

I’ve used Airbnb for years. At first, it was just cheaper. Then, it was better. I’ve used it to stay in properties I’d never usually be able to afford across Indonesia, Malaysia, California, Europe and the most glamorous of all, Mid Wales.  I’ve met people who have amazed me with their kindness and satiated me with food unmatched in flavour. I’ve only ever had one bad experience and I’ll be honest, that was partly down to me being a bit melodramatic. 

And I’m by no means alone in holding generally fond memories. But now, things are different. Not just temporarily – for the foreseeable future. Success in the hospitality sector will be measured not only by age-old standards but also by a new, crucial factor: trust. 

Who do I trust more to ensure my room, studio, or villa is cleaned to within an inch of its life? Carlos, my really lovely Balinese host, or the Marriott’s Cleanliness Council (actually a thing)?  Where will I get the space to social distance that I not only need but am required to maintain: in a private room with shared kitchen of that Filipino villa, or the vast DoubleTree? 

Chesky knows that making these decisions will be difficult for travellers, and in his open letter, confirmed Airbnb would be more or less cutting off all but the core limbs of the business, which had expanded into Experiences, Lux and Hotels amongst other branches in recent years.  In his words, “[t]ravel in this new world will look different, and we need to evolve Airbnb accordingly. People will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable”.  But travellers favoured Airbnb because it offered something different, and so how will Airbnb – and the hosts that make up its offering – continue to provide the extraordinary whilst needing to spend as much time as humanly possible focussing on Dettol-ing the bathroom sink, in line with the company’s new Enhanced Cleaning Initiative?  How many limbs can Airbnb cut off before there’s nothing left to chop at?

I’ve no doubt that travel will bounce back as soon as world leaders give the green light. We’ve become used to the fact that no corner of the earth is out of our reach, and especially in respect of my generation, see vacations as a right, not a luxury. But it will take something special to make us comfortable returning to individually-owned properties with limited resources over traditional hotels. Something like a super-unicorn, maybe.  

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