On January 25, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky teased that his company would soon reveal big changes that would “embrace [its] infinite time horizon.” On Thursday, we finally found out what in God’s name that meant. In addition to a handful of new search features, Airbnb will now offer rentals equipped with basic amenities, so that less adventurous guests can feel more comfortable taking part in the sharing economy. In other words: more coffee makers and toilet paper, less suspect bathroom cabinet lotions and stray cats.
The new feature, named Airbnb Plus, is clearly a play to capture those among us who have no stomach for foreign human hair in a shower drain: the traditional hotel industry’s customer base. But it also serves as a vehicle to fast-track the platform’s more casual hosts into becoming professional power users. Any host can apply to be a member for a one-time fee of $150. According to the travel website Skift, which interviewed some of the hosts who were part of Airbnb Plus’s pilot program, Airbnb then sends out a representative who inspects and photographs the listing. The 35 requirements inspectors look for encompass what the company refers to as “home meets design”: a space that’s stylish, clean, and clutter-free, with essentials like ironing boards, blow dryers, and at least eight coat hangers. In its pilot program, Airbnb set up potential Plus hosts with the interior design firm Havenly, for consultations. In other cases, the company reportedly loaned money to hosts to improve their property. When hosts come out the other side of Airbnb Plus, their homes are meant to look effortlessly chic—shimmering poster properties worthy of billboard ads.
Aside from offering premium places to stay, the Airbnb Plus program doubles as a form of advertising to both customers and hosts. The professional photography and creative home furnishings of its inaugural 2,000 listings are enough to convince me that I absolutely must warm my feet on this wood-burning stove in Toronto in the middle of February, or trek all the way to Topanga, California, just to sleep inside an Instagram-worthy tepee. Simultaneously, the properties also function as aspirational Pinterest boards for hosts in similar marketplaces. As Kyle Chayka wrote for The Verge in 2016, “The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration.” With this new program, Airbnb essentially codifies that unspoken homogenized aesthetic. As in, why doesn’t your Italian getaway have an espresso machine? Where’s the fuzzy dreamcatcher in your mountainside cabin? Being a Plus member also has clear monetary perks, namely the ability to charge a higher nightly fee, and prioritized search results. “In the first hour since we launched Airbnb Plus there were 1,000 host applications just in our 13 launch markets,” Chesky tweeted after Thursday’s announcement. “We will be expanding quickly.”
And therein lies the caveat to the alluring Airbnb Plus universe: expansion. Airbnb wants to convince the world that its platform is full of “finds”—unique spaces designed and decorated to reflect the personality of welcoming locals. But those types of properties are rare, partially because actual people enjoy living in them. There certainly aren’t enough quirky bohemian bungalows to propel an IPO-ripe startup into an “infinite time horizon,” a.k.a. Wall Street. Instead, I suspect Airbnb Plus’s infrastructure is built to incentivize a different kind of Airbnb host—the guy who favors IKEA pinewood over Indonesian teak. Now, the same amateur Airbnb hoteliers who have hollowed out entire apartment buildings in places like New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and New Orleans have a program that will help them professionalize their services and maximize profits. As for the dabblers who’ve always played with the idea of Airbnb-ing for a living? This is just the system that will either encourage them to go all in or squeeze them out.
Airbnb has written a platform constitution that describes its ideal listing, and that ideal listing undeniably resembles a hotel. And although Airbnb Plus has only a couple of thousand members at the moment, the program’s requirements are guaranteed to trickle down to every property interested in succeeding on the platform. Amenity-wise, that’s not a bad thing—blow dryers, fresh towels, and coffee makers are nice things to have, and I welcome them always. But the aesthetic aspects of this streamlining also negates the original point and appeal of Airbnb, for both hosts and guests. Hotels are designed to be neutral fortresses that protect you from every disagreeable part of the place you’re staying. That Airbnb is moving toward that model indicates that the company would much rather bank on reliability over personality in its attempt to scale.
Last year, in a feature that detailed the way hotel-like Airbnbs were causing a community crisis in Nashville, my colleague Victor Luckerson posed a question: “At what point does the technology-given right to ‘live like a local’ start to impede on the lives of the people who actually are locals?” For obvious reasons, any neighborhood that’s suddenly flooded with clusters of generically decorated Airbnb listings is worse off than one that’s not. Not only can an influx of tourists erode a locale’s sense of community, it can actually cause rents to rise. A handful of studies on tight rental markets have found that spikes in Airbnb listings were strongly linked to rent increases in large U.S. metro areas. And it just so happens that the 13 markets where Airbnb Plus launched on Thursday are all major metropolitan cities. Chesky may have finally found a way to achieve Airbnb’s “infinite time horizon,” but it’ll no doubt be at expense of the communities that have made those locations Airbnb-worthy in the first place.