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Beyond rooms and homes: Airbnb adding tours and activities

Published:Friday | November 18, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Not content with just renting out spare rooms and vacant homes, Airbnb is adding local tours and activities like surfing lessons and pub crawls to its travel services in major cities around the world.

With the new features announced on Thursday, the fast-growing online rental company is hoping to tap into leisure travellers' desire for distinctive "experiences" that make them feel more connected with the places they visit, travel industry analysts say.

The move also shows the ambitions of a company that's already one of the world's fastest-growing privately held firms. Airbnb, which boasts millions of rental listings around the world, has been valued at US$30 billion - though it has run into growing pains in some cities where local officials complain that the boom in short-term rentals is reducing long-term housing for residents.

Airbnb's new guided activities include things like surfing lessons or cooking classes led by a local chef, a pub crawl through a trendy nightclub district, or even a truffle hunt in Tuscany. The company has been testing the services in a few cities over the last year, enlisting local hosts as guides. It's expanding to 12 cities, while promising 50 by next year.

"They want to be viewed as more of a travel company and not just an alternative lodging firm," said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Atmosphere Research. "Our research shows travellers spend as much as 60 per cent of their travel budget at their destination. So they want to tap into that very large revenue stream."

The new services add to a set of online guides that Airbnb introduced earlier this year that list restaurants, outings, and other attractions recommended by Airbnb hosts. Airbnb says it will also recommend "meet-ups", or impromptu gatherings, and other activities keyed to travellers' interest in topics like food, history, music, or local crafts.

Travellers can already get similar recommendations from a variety of online services, including popular sites like Google and Facebook. But Airbnb hopes travellers will find it easier to use the new services within its own mobile app or website.

Similarly, the company is partnering with online booking app Resy to let travellers make restaurant reservations through Airbnb - in competition with services like OpenTable and Yelp.

Hope to add airline flights

In an interview, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said he hopes to add more services, including the ability to book airline flights.

Since the company was launched in 2008, when the co-founders invited travellers to sleep on an air mattress in their San Francisco loft, Airbnb has grown to be one of the world's most valuable private start-ups by collecting fees when private hosts rent out accommodations listed on the site. It has raised US$3.9 billion from investors, according to CB Insights, which tracks venture funding.

Chesky declined to say if the company is profitable, although the Wall Street Journal reported last year that Airbnb was spending heavily to expand in more cities. The newspaper cited internal projections that forecast Airbnb to have nearly US$1 billion in revenue last year and to become profitable by 2020.

Airbnb has run into regulatory battles in some cities, including New York and San Francisco, but Chesky said he's hopeful to resolve those issues.

The company also recently faced criticism after researchers reported that some hosts appeared to reject rental applications from travellers whose names or photos indicated that they were African-American. In response, Chesky has apologised and said that the company would institute new policies, including sensitivity training and an anti-discrimination pledge for hosts, developed with input from advocacy groups and former US Attorney General Eric Holder.

Chesky said on Thursday that he's committed to addressing discrimination, while adding: "I think this is something that we're not going to be able to fix overnight."

- AP