‘Travel as We Knew It Is Over,’ Says Airbnb CEO as Bookings Rise

Short-term rentals see a 20% increase in bookings over 2019

airbnb properties
AirDNA, which monitors the short-term rental market, says bookings are up over 2019. Airbnb
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Key insights:

With “zero marketing whatsoever,” Airbnb is seeing travelers come back to the home-sharing platform, with levels equivalent to 2019 in a pre-pandemic world.

“People are saying they want to get out of the house,” Airbnb CEO and founder Brian Chesky told CNBC, which was first to report the news. “Although our business has not recovered, I’ll be really clear, something remarkable happened. At the end of May to early June, we have the same number of bookings as the year before, without any marketing.”

Although the rest of the travel industry has seen slow growth in occupancy and capacity levels—except cruise lines, which can’t sail until Sept. 15—it’s still unclear what these new bookings actually mean: a sustainable recovery, or merely short-term pent-up demand.

Earlier this month during the launch of a campaign aimed at encouraging local travel, Airbnb said it had seen bookings grow between May 17 and June 6, but did not provide the specific figures.

However, AirDNA, a data analysis company that specifically looks at the short-term rental market (Airbnb and Vrbo make up the vast majority of its data), found that bookings were up 20% compared to 2019 during that same period. That growth far surpasses its hotel competitors like Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, which are just now starting to see their occupancy levels rise.

“We always knew that vacation rentals could really flourish in particular environments—that could be an economic environment where people can’t afford hotels or are looking for additional income,” said Scott Shatford, founder and CEO of AirDNA. “The public was quick to catch on to the fact that vacation rentals are the perfect pandemic vacation because they’re just more isolated, there’s more space, there’s no interaction with people at the front desk or other guests.”

Vrbo, which is owned by Expedia, reported that search traffic is outpacing 2019, but didn’t say whether that had translated to bookings.

Most of the new bookings are in the South, according to AirDNA. Mississippi (82%), Delaware (82%) and Florida (41%) are up considerably over 2019 interest. Conversely, New York has seen bookings fall 32% and Illinois by 41%.

Airbnb’s bookings may have also been juiced by the calendar, as May and June are typically when most summer travel plans are booked, according to Shatford. Travel brands won’t fully know if they’ll have a sustainable recovery or not until at least September, when the slow season resumes.

Still, Shatford explains part of the rise in bookings as coming from the simple conversion of travelers who would have traditionally picked a hotel—loyalty programs and points be damned.

“This is something that creates inertia for people to do something different and explore Airbnb,” he said.

But for all the bookings it has gained since the pandemic, Airbnb hasn’t been left unscathed. Although Chesky said on CNBC that the number of hosts had remained consistent, according to AirDNA’s own data, Airbnb lost at least 8% of the hosts on its platform.

When asked about the disparity, Airbnb declined to comment.

The brand has also had to cut nearly $1 billion from its marketing budget and laid off roughly 25% of its staff. Chesky told CNBC he hopes the brand has cut deep enough to avoid further layoffs. “We spent 12 years building all of Airbnb’s business and lost almost all of it in a matter of four to six weeks,” he said.

When asked, Chesky gave a somewhat tightlipped answer about what exactly the future of “travel” would look like, beyond saying that travelers might visit a more diverse array of cities than the typical tier-one heavy hitters like Los Angeles and New York.

Chesky also told CNBC that more than a fifth of Airbnb’s bookings were for long-term stays, a focus the brand has emphasized since the pandemic.

“Travel as we knew it is over. It doesn’t mean travel is over, but the travel we knew is over—and it is never coming back,” Chesky said. “Instead of the world population traveling to only a few cities, there will be a redistribution.”

Shatford is also bullish on Airbnb. “I think Airbnb will only be down by 20% as we get to the end of 2020,” he said.

And that decline, comparatively, is good news. He added: “Any hotel would be pretty excited to only be down 20%.”

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@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.