Airbnb: A Digital Pioneer Ages Gracefully

There’s nothing like a long beach vacation to get a person thinking — about the meaning of life, the nature of time and tides — and a looming column deadline. I could go on and on about the beach: Kenai, Alaska, on Cook Inlet, with spectacular views of Mount Redoubt, the region’s iconic glacier-encrusted volcano.

But it also got me thinking about Airbnb, the brand providing my beach chair.

Airbnb, the company that popularized the “sharing economy” before Uber existed, holds a special place in digital D2C success stories.

It’s the second-most-valuable startup after Uber, which investors estimate in the neighborhood of $31 billion. Last year, consumers spent more to stay in Airbnb properties than they did at Hilton, according to Second Measure, a technology measurement company. And Airbnb is gaining fast on Marriott, the hospitality market leader.

In some ways, the brand lies a bit below the radar -- at least partially because it’s not rushing toward an initial public offering. (Of course, it's very much on the minds of officials at the many local governments sucked into Airbnb's "guerilla" lawsuits over tax payments, but that’s another story.)

Two announcements caught my eye while I was looking out at those majestic Alaska Mountains (and yes, the listing’s WiFi was just as reliable as the host promised). First, Airbnb announced a dramatic increase in its luxury travel offerings, citing a 60% increase in bookings that cost $1,000 a night or more last year. Among them? A private atoll in French Polynesia for more than $146,000 a night, a medieval farm in Tuscany for $6,100 and a New Zealand lake house for a mere $2,500.

Not a huge surprise, since Airbnb has been beefing up its higher-end offerings and experiences for years now. But the announcement shows just how far the brand has come from its air-mattress-on-some-guy’s floor roots. And in its willingness to dive deeper into the luxury travel market, it’s also dancing away from its millennial mindset: While younger travelers are coming on strong,  high-end travel is still dominated by older consumers. 

And speaking of age, the second announcement also made an impact on my fully reclined vacationing self. Many D2C brands have showered the LGBTQ market with love and pushed gender boundaries. For example, Harry’s has given us a trans shaving experience and "A Man Like You,"  while Bonobos has its wonderful #Evolvethedefinition. That makes sense, given these companies' mostly millennial audiences, who insist brands they deal with support their “love is love” beliefs. 

But this year, Airbnb put its Pride muscle behind a much-older LGBTQ message, including Stonewall-era pioneers. A five-minute film highlights some ageist schisms in that community -- a divide between those who think of Pride as a month of Rainbow Jell-O shots and those who remember being beaten with billy clubs. Some have spent hours pondering personal pronouns and an ever-expanding alphabet of expression; others thought it was a miracle just to be able to say the word “gay.”

Even better, Airbnb is working with SAGE, the oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people, bringing the Stonewall elders to pop-up experiences during New York’s World Pride events. Besides focusing on aging challenges, the organization is building affordable housing for these seniors.

The cynical among us might say that the brand’s "We Belong Together" campaign, which it says aims to “bridge generational divides within the LGBTQ+ community,” is the least it could do, given the considerable amount of money it makes each year from the LGBT travel market. 

But my take? The 11-year-old company — which must be 11,000 in startup years, right? — is further opening its arms to all the people, in all the generations. Even 50-something old farts who are contemplating Alaska’s never-ending sunlight.

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