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With plenty of fanfare, Airbnb launched its new “Icons” initiative Wednesday, a spin on experiences curated by the short-term rental platform defined as “extraordinary experiences hosted by the greatest names in music, film, television, art, sports and more.”

“Icons take you inside worlds that only existed in your imagination – until now,” said Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder and CEO, at the event. “As life becomes increasingly digital, we’re focused on bringing more magic into the real world. With Icons, we’ve created the most extraordinary experiences on Earth.”

With a reveal that took place at a highly-produced event populated by journalists, influencers and celebrities, it’s not surprising that the company’s launch made headlines.

But the chatter didn’t stop there. The launch generated plenty of responses from voices across the travel industry – some in favor of the company’s new limited-access, unconventional experiences that tie into pop culture while others are feeling underwhelmed.

“They are leaning into one of their perceived strengths – a very real one – which is that they have super unique stays in the short-term rental sector and a lot of travelers can see hotels as generic, especially in the upscale stays,” said Madeline List, senior research analyst for Phocuswright. “But this will never be mainstream. So my question is how are they going to elevate the average stay and deter hosts from setting up properties that don’t feel differentiated?”

Some call it an “AMAZING” innovation

Many were impressed by the STR giant’s latest venture.

“The Icons program is unique and playful; these outlandish stays will generate so much attention and seamlessly play into the experiences sector Airbnb has been pushing,” said Brandreth Canaley, COO at Roami. “It’s one of the most inventive marketing strategies we’ve seen from Airbnb, or any other hospitality provider.”

And plenty of industry heads commented on Airbnb’s move on LinkedIn.

Among them was Luca De Giglio, founder of Trips Community and host of podcast Web3 in Travel. De Giglio, a self-proclaimed Airbnb critic, was blown away by the launch.

“This is AMAZING INNOVATION,” De Giglio wrote. “It’s so out of the box thinking, that it may create a new industry vertical. I’m sure countless people are already thinking about what houses to build, to recreate movie sets, or situations, and maybe even raise money to do so.”

Jamie Lane, senior vice president of analytics and chief economist at AirDNA, was impressed by the launch – and saw it as strategic and purposeful.

“Some product releases help *guests* find interesting listings (categories) or filter to the perfect listing (new amenities). Other product releases help *hosts* list properties more easily, manage their prices more efficiently, or highlight specific features,” Lane wrote on LinkedIn. “This latest release was about building their *brand.* These types of announcements help create new incremental demand for the entire industry. More people download the app for the first time. More people start browsing listings … and more potential guests. These types of releases help grow the overall pie by bringing short-term rentals mainstream. Excited to see what’s next.”

Is Airbnb’s “Icons” a publicity stunt?

Following an event that drew hundreds of eyes in person and undoubtedly many thousands more online, some were left wondering if the “Icons” release was simply for publicity purposes.

Hospitality and online travel tech consultant and strategist Max Starkov brought the question to LinkedIn – sharing his own take: “Icons” is a stunt that won’t add much to Airbnb’s bottom line.

Quote

Once again, Airbnb is going in circles and running out of meaningful ideas that can bring real growth.

Max Starkov, hospitality and online travel tech consultant and strategist

Starkov pointed to the limitations on the experiential stays. “How many people can stay at the Ferrari Museum? A handful.”

Starkov continued: “Once again, Airbnb is going in circles and running out of meaningful ideas that can bring real growth,” he wrote, pointing to a loyalty program as an example of something that may be worthwhile for the company to consider.

And Mitch Bach, co-founder and CEO of TripSchool, called Airbnb “the ultimate tease” in terms of its legitimacy as a provider of experiences.

“At only 4,000 ‘invitations’ to Icons, this launch is just a glorified press release and another tease of a future for non-lodging Airbnb products,” Bach wrote. “We in the tours & activities space remain in an eternal holding pattern of hoping something’s truly next and great with Airbnb Experiences.”

Christian Watts, founder and CEO of Magpie Travel, was also unimpressed. He compared Airbnb’s move to the now defunct Zozi, which he said “started with products like this around 15 years ago, raised $50m, made a few pivots, and fizzled out.”

“Airbnb will be fine, but it’s new ‘Icons’ product just sounds like a bit of buzz,” Watts continued. “It’s a shame, because pre-COVID, Chesky was talking about Experiences being the next big thing. This latest incarnation is not very Airbnb-like. No host
involvement. No community. Not very ‘live-like-a-local.’ Maybe it will evolve? They
have probably the best platform to do something innovative here.”

Leaders in the space discussed the matter further in the comments section of Watts’ post.

Justin Steele, founder and CEO of Local Sauce Tours, called Airbnb’s announcement a “real kick in the teeth” for Airbnb Experience hosts and Community Leaders.

“We’ve been providing Airbnb with so much feedback on what they need to do, but nothing seems to actually move senior leadership to make the necessary changes,” Steele wrote. “Something is coming to Airbnb Experiences, but by the time it does, they will have lost all the goodwill with existing hosts so it seems it will be all for naught. Hugely disappointing as their platform CX is so much better for both hosts and guests than any of the others.”

And Jack Harris, founder of Tally Ho! Experiences who has hosted on Airbnb Experiences since 2017, weighed in too. He compared the “Icons” initiative to its featured “Up” because it is “a lot of hot air.”

“My take: without an open API, Experiences won’t truly take off as there’s too much operational drag,” Harris wrote. “Despite Airbnb’s reputation for innovation, their Experiences ‘Insights’ dashboard has been malfunctioning (showing no sales/revenue data) for nearly 10 months, leaving us without accurate reports. We keep it selling because the revenue is still ok. So will Icons ‘work’? Maybe operationally, since they seem to be low volume focused. But I doubt it will impact their financials much.”

Likewise, Peter Syme, strategic travel and tourism advisor, was not enthused: “It is obviously a PR/Marketing play to raise awareness and get some buzz back into a drifting brand. We all keep expecting something big and new and scaleable
from Airbnb but it never seems to come. Innovation is hard, especially when you
want to double or triple the value of a $98B company.”

And Stephanie Daniel, co-founder and CEO of PhocusWire Hot 25 Travel Startup Legends, sees it both ways. 

“The
Icons launch is well timed – people are desperately seeking experiences that
feel aligned to their interests and passions, and we totally agree that there is
a huge opportunity to ‘translate our digital lives into more magic in the real
world’ as that is exactly what we are doing with Legends TravelDNA
preference profiles to power more personalization across the industry,” she wrote to PhocusWire in an email. “However the launch does feel somewhat buzz focused versus being a
truly scalable new offering with broad impact.”

Growth in a maturing sector?

Starkov also referenced Airbnb’s growth over the company’s life. Since its founding, he wrote, Airbnb has enjoyed what he called “unbridled growth,” noting that even the pandemic – which essentially shut the majority of the travel industry down – benefited the company.

But that’s come as a result of Airbnb’s occupation of the STR space in its nascent form.

“Unfortunately for Airbnb, the short-term rental industry is maturing,” wrote Starkov. “Other STR players like Vrbo and Booking are worthy competitors, so are professional vacation rental management companies like Vacasa and Evolve. On top of that revenge travel is coming to an end. Add to all of that the ongoing residential housing shortages and super high mortgage rates, which means limited inventory entering the market.”



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