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Airbnb exec denies competition with hotels, says an Airbnb trip 'changes you'

An Airbnb trip "doesn't end when you leave -- when you go home it changes you somehow," says head of engineering Mike Curtis.

Airbnb launched a major marketing campaign in New York City over the summer, hanging upbeat posters in the city's subways. CNET

Airbnb is one of the success stories of the current dot-com boom. Valued at more than $10 billion, the company has rocketed its founders onto the Forbes billionaires list, even while negotiating fierce resistance from the hotel industry and the odd regulatory spat with local governments.

But one Airbnb boss denies that the service is even in competition with hotels.

Founded in 2008, Airbnb is a service that allows you to rent out your apartment or house for others to stay in. Airbnb VP of Engineering Mike Curtis was speaking at 4 Years From Now, a startup conference held in parallel to Mobile World Congress 2015, an annual gathering in Barcelona of phone, tablet and wearable manufacturers and other mobile-related companies.

"We're always working with local governments to do things the right way that's beneficial to the cities where we operate", Curtis said. He also played down the friction between Airbnb and regulators in places like Berlin and New York. "When a new idea comes along to a place where local laws existed before the new idea," he said, "you're bound to run into some edge cases where things need to be worked out."

He also plays down the conflict with the hotel industry. "They're in the business of renting out accommodation, and we're in the business of renting out accommodation", he said, "so there's a feeling of some sort of conflict or competition." (Well yeah, that seems pretty clear.) "But that assumes travel is a zero sum game. And I don't think it is", he continued.

"Our business is expanding and the hotel business is expanding", Curtis points out. He believes Airbnb appeals to people who might not opt for a traditional hotel stay: "We're helping people travel in a new way. I don't view it as a direct competition with hotels."

As an example, Curtis was at the event having come straight off the plane from Asia, where he was learning more about a huge potential market of young people who are much more interested in international travel. Airbnb customers, he believes, "choose to travel with Airbnb to connect more with the local area where they're visiting in a way you couldn't with a prepackaged deal."

"We've all taken trips where you visit a city and you stay in the hotel and you go out and see a couple of sights and you come back to the hotel bar and you think you've seen a place, he said, "but you haven't."

By contrast, "Airbnb connects you to the local area. You're not just booking the place you're going to sleep but you're planning a trip. The trip doesn't end when you leave. When you go home, it changes you somehow."

He sees Airbnb as part of a movement in online services helping people to find offline experiences: "An interesting trend that I hope continues is that there are more companies coming up that are about connecting people to the physical world rather than drawing you into a screen. It's not about gluing you to a mobile device."

One concern with Airbnb is the safety, security and behaviour of both hosts and guests. Curtis outlines some of Airbnb's measures to make sure bookings are on the up-and-up, with a points-based algorithm evaluating every booking. The system asks if there's "something fishy" about the booking, assigns a probability score, "and if it scores over a certain threshold we'll review it."

The success of Airbnb could herald a whole swathe of people renting their stuff or their work directly to others. Discussing the potential of this so-called "sharing economy", Curtis admitted that "the very idea of sharing is still a relatively new concept, so we're just starting to figure out what verticals you can apply it to." He point out that the world is full of "people out there who are qualified and capable but can't find work" and could benefit from being part of an Airbnb-style community of micro-entrepreneurs to offer their talents or their stuff where they're needed.

"As soon as a new idea comes out you try and solve every problem with that new idea", he said. "Over the next couple of years we'll see tens of companies trying to do that. Some will stick, some probably won't."