When Airbnb launched in 2008, it was about one thing, and one thing only: Finding a place to stay, such as someone’s spare bedroom, that was cheaper than a hotel.
That wasn’t very glamorous, and neither was the site. And over the years, its look and feel haven’t changed much: CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky told me that its utilitarian interface has been similar to that of travel research sites such as Kayak.
Four years and ten million nights of stays later, Airbnb is not what it was. The budget-priced hotel alternatives are still there. But so are castles. And homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And private islands. And a “mushroom house” in Aptos, California that’s the single most popular property in Airbnb history. And a whole lot of other places to stay that are destinations in themselves, often as intriguing as the cities they’re in.
Today, Airbnb is launching a major redesign (and a revamp of its iPhone app) designed to catch up with the diversity of the 200,000-plus listings it currently hosts. It lets Airbnb users–and Airbnb–collect and share the site’s most interesting listings, so it becomes a place for open-ended exploration as well as straightforward searching. Chesky, who gave me a sneak peek earlier this week, says that with the new site, users will “start with the unique property instead of the destination.”
Wish Lists grew out of two existing features–one which let users star any listing for future reference, and another which provided them with collections of noteworthy properties selected by Airbnb. The star is now a heart symbol; clicking it lets you save the venue, which is added to a public list that other people can see (unless you’ve chosen to make it private). Airbnb gives you two standard Wish Lists–Dream Homes and Vacation Places–and you can create your own.
You can still use the feature to queue up places you’re thinking of staying, but as the name “Wish List” indicates, Airbnb hopes that you’ll also use it to share places you’d love to stay, whether or not they’re actually in your budget. The Borgia Castle in Tuscany, for instance, accommodates 14 guests and rents out for $1416 a night.
Airbnb is also creating themed Wish Lists of its own, such as Airstreams and Modernist Marvels, which it’s dressed up with custom typography so they look like magazine features. It’s also solicited lists from celebs such as actor/Airbnb investor Ashton Kutcher and designer Yves Behar, and will spotlight lists that members compile.
Even the new, much more engaging Airbnb homepage is a Wish List of a sort–a never-ending one, which lets you scroll through lush oversized photos of exceptional listings. (Thanks to Airbnb’s offer of free professional photo shoots for properties people list on the site, it has plenty of slick high-resolution imagery.)
If I sound impressed, it’s not because I was already smitten with Airbnb. Actually, I’ve never used the service; I’ve always been just as happy to stay in a nice, predictable hotel, and nervous about lodging with some stranger. But now that Airbnb is emphasizing that it’s got plenty of options that are cooler than a hotel rather than simply cheaper, I’m more tempted to give it a whirl.
Oh, and one footnote from my visit to Airbnb’s San Francisco office. Lots of tech startups have conference rooms with cleverly-themed names. Airbnb, however, has turned its meeting spaces into homey replicas of actual properties listed on the site. There’s one based on a New York home, for instance, and another inspired by one in Berlin. They’re nice. But the one that’s startling is the one that’s based on the most popular single Airbnb listing of them all. You know–that one for a mushroom-shaped cabin in Aptos, California.