Airbnb seeing a surge in demand

Airbnb is seeing a surge in rental demand as those that have been staying inside their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic are looking for getaways  - these are the first signs that life is returning to an industry that essentially ground to a halt in March.

"People, after having been stuck in their homes for a few months, do want to get out of their houses; that's really, really clear," Airbnb Inc Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky said in an interview. "But they don't necessarily want to get on an airplane and are not yet comfortable leaving their countries."

Between May 17 and June 3, Airbnb saw more nights booked in the US than the same period in 2019 - this trend has carried over in domestic travel globally.

Chesky had said that instead of international travels booked months in advance, people are booking impulsive road trips a day before and weekend getaways are now becoming weeks-long breaks.

Adding that instead of a New Yorker going to Paris for a week in June, they are heading out to the Catskills for a month - "work from home is becoming working from any home."

Air travel passenger traffic fell by 95% and saw the tourism industry being gutted, which even Airbnb couldn't withstand as they cut a quarter of their workforces. Chesky had said in May that he expects revenue this year to be half of 2019's level.

In the US, Airbnb has more listings now than it did before the crisis. The top destinations in the US on Airbnb are almost exclusively traditional vacation rental markets such as Big Bear Lake in southern California, the Smoky Mountains, along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and Port Aransas in Texas, according to the company.

Since the pandemic began, the percentage of bookings on Airbnb within 322km - a round trip travelers can typically complete on one tank of gas - has grown from a third in February to more than 50% in May. Travel in a post-COVID world is shifting "from airplane to car, big city to a small location, hotel to home," Chesky said.

Hotels aren't as prevalent in more rural locations. And even where they are, travelers are preferring to stay in vacation homes so they can cook in their own kitchens, control who comes and goes and avoid crowded common areas like lobbies. Airbnb has also enforced new standards for cleaning and also including flexible cancellations.

"It's going to be a while before people start crossing borders, getting into planes or traveling for business," Chesky said. The big question on his mind now, as he weighs taking his startup public, is whether the spike in recent bookings turns into a sustainable trend.

"The long-term question is what does it look like in a year or five years and that's really anyone's guess," he said. Chesky won't be celebrating until the market stabilizes. "I had a rule that even in our darkest of hours I wouldn't get too low because that's just a moment in time," he said. "And if I can't get too low, then I can't get too up."

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