As Airbnb prepares to go public this year, the home-sharing
giant has done anything but lay low. The company drew its fair share of buzz in
2018 with actions that ranged from launching its Airbnb Plus program to ramping
up focus on its Airbnb for Work business travel offerings and officially
opening its platform to hotel distribution.
Few of the company's recent headline-grabbing moves,
however, have generated as much curiosity as its December announcement that it
was entering the home-design space.
Known as the Backyard project, the initiative is billed as
an effort to "prototype new ways that homes can be designed, built and
shared." The program is being spearheaded by Airbnb's Samara division, an
experimental product development team led by Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, who
plans to start testing prototype units as early as this fall.
Further details have yet to be released, though Airbnb said
that Backyard would seek to innovate on a variety of design and construction
fronts, including manufacturing techniques and smart-home technologies.
The news sparked speculation that Airbnb is planning to
eventually manufacture its own lodging, perhaps even sell real estate. An
Airbnb spokesperson denied such speculation, asserting that the Backyard
project "is not an initiative to manufacture or sell homes at scale."
Still, analysts say a foray into design and manufacturing would be in line with
Airbnb's efforts to create a more consistent and controlled hospitality
"We're seeing Airbnb moving more toward trying to
establish quality assurance and offer more professionalized experiences,"
said Daniel Guttentag, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism
management at the College of Charleston's School of Business and director of
the department's Office of Tourism Analysis. "In terms of them developing
their own property assets, it's certainly not in their precise wheelhouse, but
given how willing they are to innovate, it wouldn't be surprising."
Guttentag drew comparisons between the Backyard initiative
and Airbnb's recent partnership with apartment developer Niido, under which the
pair have opened Airbnb-branded apartment complexes expressly designed to
accommodate short-term rental subleases. Airbnb has Niido properties in
Nashville and Orlando.
"There's value in the idea that a building, from day
one, is going to be conducive to vacation rentals and that a person can live
there or use it as a rental," Guttentag said.
Likewise, Makarand Mody, assistant professor of hospitality
marketing at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration, pointed
out that it's not the first time Airbnb's Gebbia has dabbled in home design. In
2017, he said, Gebbia collaborated with Japanese architect Go Hasegawa and the
rural community of Yoshino, Japan, to open the Yoshino Cedar House, a home
built to function as both an Airbnb short-term rental and a cafe.
Still, Mody questioned the company's ability to move its
Backyard prototypes or a Yoshino Cedar House-style experience into the
"Airbnb's success over the years has been due to its
ability to scale up very, very quickly," Mody said. "I wonder how
scalable they can make something like [Backyard]. I can see this working in
isolated situations, like in the case of the Japanese house, but I'm wondering
how Airbnb will think about scaling this across the world and even in different
Having the ability to quickly build Airbnb-designed units,
however, could be a boon to the company's growth plans, especially as Airbnb
starts to face challenges in adding new inventory.
Guttentag said he didn't think that Airbnb's "growth in
listings is moving at rocket speed anymore, especially in traditional markets
where the service may have caught on earlier." He added that the company's
decision to add boutique hotels to its listings is likely a play to both grow
its inventory and hedge against potential regulatory crackdowns.
Mody said he views Airbnb's pushes into verticals like
business travel, boutique hotels and even home design as part of a broader
diversification strategy, especially as the home-sharing landscape reaches what
he calls "a bit of a saturation point."
"Airbnb right now is really one brand," Mody said.
"But I think they're looking at more of a sub-branding approach as their
supply and business become more varied. In a way, Airbnb is getting into the
business of soft branding. Airbnb is also realizing it's not just a
home-sharing brand or even just an accommodations brand. It's a brand that