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Will Airbnb Do to Small Towns What It Did to New York and Barcelona?

The company’s big-city “experiences” were crippled by the pandemic. Now it’s looking to capitalize on the urban flight to rural retreats.

ILLUSTRATION BY LEANNE RULE

In August, despite a global pandemic that had caused a nosedive in travel revenue, Airbnb filed initial public offering paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In an interview with CNBC, CEO Brian Chesky was emphatic: “Travel as we knew it is over.” He had spent the spring overhauling his business model; laying off roughly a quarter of his global workforce; touting his rentals as work spaces, not just vacation homes; and shifting Airbnb’s marketing focus from the urban core to more rural destinations like small towns in Texas and the Catskills, together with national parks, where families could enjoy socially distanced vacations. Cleverly, Chesky framed these efforts as an opportunity to return to his original vision for Airbnb, which he had started in 2008, renting out air mattresses on the floor of his San Francisco apartment: “This crisis,” he said in a letter to employees in May, “has sharpened our focus to get back to our roots, back to the basics, back to what is truly special about Airbnb—everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences.” For years, Airbnb had promised customers that it sold an experience rather than a glorified hotel room. On its website, you can not only browse rooms for the night but also dip into such “experiences” as “Go on a Leopard Safari in Sri Lanka” ($12) and “Follow a Plague Doctor Through Prague” ($18).

When the pandemic hit, Airbnb moved these classes online (you can now explore the winding medieval blocks of Paris by day and crash underground parties by night, all from the comfort of your sofa). In the process, though, the company unintentionally revealed a white lie in the narrative it has told about itself since day one. Chesky maintains that Airbnb is “truly special,” but he has essentially created a boutique hotel chain with an added perk: online streaming seminars. The company had made a fortune by mass-producing the unique and selling “one-of-a-kind” experiences to hundreds of thousands of people—and in doing so, it pioneered a brand of marketing geared toward millennial consumers that reifies the act of consumption, transforming it into a statement of adventure and authenticity. But if you think about it, promising guided tours in Prague and leopard-spotting in Sri Lanka exposes the truth, which is that Airbnb is hawking plain, old-fashioned tourism—no different from what any other travel agent offers, but cloaked in a stew of buzzwords and twee design.

The irony of Airbnb is that it promises authenticity but often ruins that authenticity by the sheer force of its own omnipresent branding. The company has been credited with everything from ushering in a bland new minimalist design aesthetic to overrunning previously quiet communities in cities like Vancouver and Amsterdam with tourists looking for a more “genuine” or photogenic vacation experience. These tourists have put a strain on residents and municipalities alike. To take just one example, after Airbnb’s site started listing the Quarry Rock trail in Vancouver as an “experience,” the route became so overrun with tourists that the city stopped promoting it altogether.

As pandemic-stressed urbanites start renting Airbnbs in small towns, they, too, will be sucked into the same political battles against displacement and gentrification that Airbnb has triggered in such cities as New York and Barcelona. But at least we can expect to see a shift in what’s idealized. Before Covid hit, much of Airbnb’s brand strategy had revolved around cities, turning once-quiet spaces and under-the-radar dive bars into status symbols to be consumed as Instagram rites of passage. But as the travel industry attempts to cash in on the millennial consumers longing to make Zoom calls from a barn in Albany instead of an overpriced apartment in Manhattan, the narrative that the urban condition can be bought and sold will become—like Covid itself, God willing—something that we can finally be inoculated against.