LOS ANGELES — Airbnb broadened its offerings Thursday with news the short-term rental site will now also allow hosts to hire themselves out as tour guides. The company is calling its new product Airbnb Trips.
The announcement came as efforts to regulate its rentals in San Francisco and elsewhere took another spin through the court system, reflective of the protracted tussle between Airbnb and other "sharing economy" companies and the municipalities that want to tax and regulate them.
Airbnb's new service is part of a larger effort on the part of the company to expand its offerings beyond simply housing and at the same time give its hosts another way to make money on the platform. The company will receive an unspecified portion of the new service's cost.
Eventually, the service could give Airbnb the ability to let people sell anything, such as attendance at concerts and rides.
Brian Chesky, the venture-backed company’s 35-year-old co-founder and CEO, made the announcement at the company’s annual Festival of Hosting in Los Angeles Thursday.
“We designed this to be both magical and easy,” Chesky said. "The key thing is that you don't just observe, you participate. You immerse."
Users can book experiences that range from a few hours to several days. Examples included a star-gazing trip with an astrophotographer, a guided tour of Detroit’s nighttime hotspots, a truffle-hunting trip in Tuscany and a lesson in Korean embroidery.
The service will begin in 12 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, London, Detroit, Nairobi and Cape Town, the company said. Half of the trips will be priced below $200, Chesky said.
Protest fizzle, court battle simmers
While Chesky spoke, a group of four housing activists and hotel workers stood outside the event venue passing out flyers. They complained the platform takes needed housing off the rental market, driving up rents and making popular cities unaffordable for residents.
Their small protest is a piece of a much larger battle waged by housing activists and the hotel industry to rein in Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms in the U.S. and internationally.
Airbnb, the largest of the short-term rental sites, has fought these efforts in the courts and by rallying and organizing its hosts, many of whom have used the rentals as a source of income.
“Airbnb is really feeling this is a huge threat to its business model,” said Andra Ghent, a professor of real estate and land use economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
That battle is particularly hot in San Francisco, Airbnb's hometown. The company lost a round there on Thursday when a judge declined to allow Airbnb and another short-term rental site Homestay to send a suit they are pursuing against the city straight to appeal. The judge instead ordered the company and the city to meet Friday with a magistrate judge, who will act as a mediator.
The city has been pushing Airbnb, Homestay and others to create systems that will let officials check that hosts are properly registered with the city before they are allowed to offer rentals on the sites. The system is designed to place on Airbnb and Homestay the burden of making sure hosts follow city rules about the number of days they can rent units.
The city has argued that Airbnb and other short-term rental sites are taking long-term rental stock off the market.
Airbnb has called the city’s current registration system “broken" and says, as a digital platform, it shouldn't be held accountable for the actions of its hosts. It recently hired Donald Verrilli, who served as Solicitor General of the United States until June, as part of the legal team working on the case, suggesting it will fight hard against San Francisco's new rules.
Housing impact unclear
The overall argument that short-term rental platforms contribute to the lack of affordable housing by pushing people out of homes and apartments that are turned into more lucrative short-term rentals has not been proven, said Thomas Davidoff, a professor of housing economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“I haven’t seen anybody put forth reasonable numbers that indicate that there is large price impact for people struggling with affordability. Not to say it isn’t there, but I haven’t seen convincing documentation,” he said.
The real issue in many of these cities is the difficulty in building more housing, not the loss of units to short-term rentals, said Wisconsin’s Ghent.
“Trying to solve your housing shortage problem by taking aim at Airbnb seems like a wasted effort,” she said.