The booking platform Airbnb has overhauled its website in what Brian Chesky, its chief executive, called the “biggest change in a decade” — a risky move for a site that has 150 million users and hosts 5.6 million listings. The revamp led to the creation of 56 new categories, from “Off-The-Grid” to “OMG!”; the latter including everything from yellow submarines to UFO-shaped homes.
Airbnb says that the driving factor behind this was alleviating overtourism in certain locations — somewhat rich coming from a company that must take some responsibility for the phenomenon; in New York there are more Airbnb listings than apartments for rent. But there’s little doubt that market forces are also at play here: the company cut a quarter of its staff during the pandemic and, like most of the travel industry, is desperate to turn a profit again.
The number of Airbnb wish lists containing the word “design” grew significantly in 2021
And the change will surely have been data-led. Some 50 per cent of Airbnb users are millennials, laser-focused on quirky listings, which were added to almost 20 million Airbnb wish lists last year. The number of wish lists containing the word “design” grew 175 per cent last year compared with 2019, and it now forms a category in its own right, comprising 20,000 homes created by architects including Le Corbusier.
“The way we travel has changed,” said Amanda Cupples, the company’s general manager for northern Europe. “People are more flexible about where and when they can travel, and are taking longer trips than ever before.”
Hesleyside Huts is a glampsite in Northumberland
Instagram is also a powerful driving force behind this trend, of course, and staying in a property that sings on social media is becoming more important than the destination itself. Last week I stayed at Hesleyside Huts, a glampsite in Northumberland that I had spotted on a former colleague’s Facebook feed. When I shared it with a friend his response was, “Let’s book, imagine the photos we’ll get.”
Has where we choose to stay really come down to how good it will look on our feeds? Apparently so — Anna Charlton, the Hesleyside owner, told me that 70 per cent of her bookings come from Instagram. “It’s not Northumberland they come for; it’s the chance to stay somewhere that their friends haven’t been to and will look great in photos,” she said.
In February the luxury camping and glamping website Canopy & Stars listed the Beach House, a stilted hut on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent; within days it had been booked for the remainder of the year. And this trend has played out across multiple properties, with bookings for the company’s treehouse collection increasing by a third since before the pandemic. “The more creative owners get with building features such as rooms behind bookcases and human-sized beehives, the more demand grows for out-of-the-ordinary stays,” said Emily Enright, one if its directors.
Flight bookings are going the same way: the top destination searched on Skyscanner for this summer is “Everywhere”, and 45 per cent of its users — a third of whom are aged 25 to 34 — do not have a specific place in mind when they start planning a holiday. After two years of rules and red lists, “anywhere” has never looked more appealing.
Companies that put together bespoke holidays in which the destination is only revealed to clients at the airport are also reporting an upsurge — the Srprs.me site has recorded a 57 per cent increase in bookings on 2019 figures and customers are spending double the amount on trips. “It took the faff out of planning, sorting out flights and researching where to go,” said Louise Joy, who booked one of these packages and ended up in Milan. “I was happy paying a little extra to have the excitement of not knowing where I was going to end up.”
The big operators are noticing a similar swing away from destination-based booking. “There will always be a thirst for big bucket-list trips,” said Rachel O’Reilly of Kuoni. “But there’s also a huge demand for holidays where people don’t have to leave the hotel” — and about half of customers call without a destination in mind.
Holiday savings from the pandemic are being channelled towards hotel upgrades, and the higher the price tag the higher the likelihood that guests will want their money’s worth out of where they’re staying. “Not everyone wants to spend hours rushing between places and ticking off a massive sightseeing list — a lot of people are happy to have quality time together in a gorgeous setting,” O’Reilly said. “That’s why customers call us after seeing an amazing photo of a beachfront hotel or fairylight-covered treehouse on social media or in a brochure and, say, ‘I don’t care where it is, I want to stay there.’ ”