​Forget home rentals, Airbnb wants to be your travel agent

With the launch of "Trips," travelers can make restaurant reservations, book insider tours and find a place to stay all from Airbnb's website.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read
Watch this: Airbnb wants to be your travel agent

Amol Surve was Airbnb 's first guest in 2007. He slept on an air mattress in Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia's San Francisco apartment. But, Surve said, that trip was about much more than having a place to sleep. It was about spending time with locals and getting to know their city.

Airbnb now wants to bring that sort of experience to all travelers. The site said Thursday it's expanding beyond home rentals to also include personalized tours and trip planning.

Basically, Airbnb wants to be a travel agent.

"Homes are just one small part of a great journey," Chesky said during an event at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. "We realized we needed to create a holistic experience."

Airbnb has gone from a site for couch surfers to a massive online presence in the past nine years. It lists roughly 3 million homes for rent in more than 34,000 cities in nearly 200 countries.

That growth, however, has come with challenges.

The company has waged extended battles with regulators in major cities around the world, including San Francisco, New York, Paris, Berlin and Barcelona. On Tuesday, San Francisco capped all short-term home rentals in the city at 60 days per calendar year. The cap could mean a loss of income for Airbnb because the company makes between nine and 15 percent of each rental. An expanded focus to full travel experiences could help Airbnb mitigate such cutbacks.

During Airbnb's event on Thursday, Chesky looked back at his childhood in upstate New York and talked about what travel meant to him.

His first big trip was to St. Louis and "it was totally magical," he said. "It opened my eyes because it made me realize the world is so much bigger." But what's magical about travel isn't being carted around on tour buses, Chesky said, it's about meeting locals and having authentic experiences.

Airbnb's new "Trips" platform, introduced on Thursday, which includes "experiences," "places" and "homes" tabs on its website and mobile app. The "homes" tab is the home rental portion of the site, but the "experiences" and "places" are new.

With "experiences," guests can choose from hundreds of different excursions put together by local hosts. The trips can be multi-day or just short adventures. Such "experiences" include surfing in Malibu, learning about Nelson Mandela in Cape Town and truffle hunting in Tuscany. Chesky said more than half of the excursions are under $200.

"It's all about immersing in local communities," Chesky said. "These aren't tours, you actually participate."

Airbnb is also offering "social impact experiences," hosted by nonprofits, in which all proceeds from the activity go to the nonprofits without Airbnb taking a cut. Initially, "experiences" will be available in 12 cities: Detroit, London, Paris, Nairobi, Havana, San Francisco, Cape Town, Florence, Miami, Seoul, Tokyo and Los Angeles. But Airbnb plans to add more than 50 cities in the next year.

"Dominant hoteliers such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt built their reputations on ensuring that guests could expect consistently, predictable experiences anywhere in the world, but connected consumers now want the opposite of that," said Brian Solis, principal analyst for Altimeter Group. "As much as Airbnb commercialized personal space, the real play was to get to the root of what consumers really want...experiences."

The "places" portion of Airbnb's website is where locals give travelers tips and recommendations about their cities, as well as offer meet ups. Restaurant reservations can now also be made through Airbnb. And all restaurant, tour and home bookings will be saved to an itinerary on the site. Eventually, Chesky said, the company will also add airline flights and services, like car rentals and grocery delivery.

"Airbnb also hopes this will help them better compete against Expedia, TripAdvisor, Priceline, and other online travel companies that offer destination activities," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group. "What's unknown is how much net profit Airbnb will make. There's often not much margin in sightseeing tours and other destination activities. For this to be viable, it must be scalable."

Chesky seems confident Airbnb won't have a problem scaling, he said his aim is to eventually have "Trips" in every city around the world.

"This is just a small preview of things to come," he said. "This is literally just the beginning."

Update, 4:19 p.m.: Adds comment from Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group.

Update, November 18, 11:15 a.m.: Adds comment from Brian Solis, principal analyst for Altimeter Group.