The genius behind Airbnb’s redesign

More than a PR move

A couple of weeks ago, Airbnb announced a redesign of its app.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky teased the update the night before

The biggest change, ‘Categories’, is a refreshing and simple update to booking stays on Airbnb:

  • In the ‘old’ Airbnb, one started with location: Where can I stay in LA this weekend?
  • ‘Categories’ flips the model by prompting users to search by type of experience first: I want to stay in a castle. I want a beach house. I want a city adventure.

‘Categories’ makes for great branding. It solidifies one of Airbnb’s key differentiators: unique spaces you cannot find anywhere else. Want a boring hotel — sure, go to Hyatt. Want a one-of-a-kind getaway? You know where to search.

Airbnb Categories

Not everyone was impressed. Some minimised categories as meaningless innovation.

But ‘Categories’ is more than a PR campaign for Airbnb’s backlog of interesting homes for rent. It’s an attempt to reshuffle the entire digital travel journey. It’s Airbnb not just asserting dominance in home rental, but beginning to compete with airlines.

🧐 Airbnb Categories as airline competition? How does that work?

Imagine you’re about to book a weekend getaway. What is the first thing you book? If you’re like most people, your first booking is the transportation. Or rather, the flight. You might have a place in mind, and you hop on Skyscanner or Google flights to see what flights are available. Or, you’re open to places, and you use a search feature to assess the price of different locations. Marrakech.. two transfers.. No thanks. Direct flight to Barcelona? Why not…

What this means is that airlines have an online advantage. If I book a flight on United, United knows where I am going. So United can then use that data to sell me a car rental, a hotel, an activity, and more. Hotels and tour companies would pay handsomely for this info. But hotel and tour companies don’t want to be at the behest of the airlines. They want to be first.

Marriott wants is to be the app you go to when you are first thinking about travel. Start by booking with Marriott. Find your dream hotel with us. Lock in your reward points with a booking. Then find a way to get there. If you book with Marriott first, then Marriott can sell the travel add ons like tours and restaurants and airport transfers. And the add ons are coming. Like Airbnb, Marriott is getting into the experiences game, with tours and activities that are part of Marriott’s Bonvoy Rewards program. In the future, Marriott will shift from hotel app to travel superapp. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marriott Bonvoy drops ‘Marriott’ from its name and begins operating solely as Bonvoy to complete its transition to travel company.

Marriott’s experiences page

Which brings us back to Airbnb and their similar ambition. Instead of first booking flight, then accommodation and activities, Airbnb wants to reverse course. Get inspired on the Airbnb app. Find the triangle rooftop home of your Instagram dreams. Then add on a cool local cooking activity nearby. Then book your flight. In the future, maybe you even book your flight within Airbnb. In the short run, Airbnb could take a cut with the flight companies to link to their websites. Or better, Airbnb can launch their own travel rewards card so they take a cut of your flight purchase directly. Airbnb Chase Sapphire, anyone?

An Airbnb triangle roof home for rent

Competition is high…

‘Categories’ may seem like a simple shift in app design. But it is a pillar of a larger strategy to take on the travel industry and become the travel super-app. It won’t be easy. Travel players Marriott, Expedia, Booking, Hopper are all moving this direction, while credit card companies and fin-tech firms like Revolut have also integrated end-to-end travel booking with rewards into their apps. And let’s not forget that Google has positioned itself nicely as the search layer for initiating travel.

Interesting new attempt by Airbnb to rethink how people search and discover on its product and likely to finally spur some innovation in travel search and booking.

Rafat Ali, Skift

…But Airbnb is positioned well

Airbnb is one of the few brands who can become the travel super-app. That’s because Airbnb has distinctive inventory. An Airbnb home or experience is a reason for a trip in itself. It’s a place to get inspired and convince friends to join the trip. Whereas a Marriott hotel is simply a commodity on the way to a destination. Net: with ‘Categories,’ Airbnb could displace not just Marriott, not just United, but Google as the search bar for travel if consumers start searching directly on Airbnb. Their ‘PR move’ style announcement is a smart way to jumpstart ‘Categories’ as the new way to search for trips. And a prime example of brand/marketing, product, and strategy coming together.

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