From the perspective of March 2020, you might have thought the pandemic would be a disaster for Airbnb. With vacation travel canceled indefinitely, how could a company dedicated largely to renting out holiday homes survive?
In the short-term at least, these fears were well founded. Airbnb took a beating in the initial months of the pandemic and had to lay off around 25 percent of its staff. But once that initial crisis was over, the pandemic has been surprisingly good to the company.
With the mass move to remote work, more and more people started using Airbnb to escape cramped homes and test out new places to live and work while they were untethered from the office. As I reported last August, this led the company to predict a significant rise in the number of digital nomads once the pandemic ran its course.
According to a fascinating new article from Protocol editor David Pierce, the passing months have only caused Airbnb to double down on these predictions.
Blurring the lines between home and away
More and more "the lines between travel, living and working are blurring," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky recently proclaimed.
Internal company data shows that people are booking longer stays on the platform to a greater variety of places. That's not just a sign that more workers now have the flexibility to work from wherever they want. It might be a first step toward more of us rethinking the concept of home entirely.
Airbnb "once operated like an alternative to stodgy hotels, but is now embracing the idea that it can be an alternative to permanent housing as well," Pierce writes. "What WeWork wants to do for offices -- unbundle them, and simplify the process of getting and using them -- Airbnb wants to do for homes. It's not just out to get the Hyatts and Hiltons of the world anymore. It's coming for the one-year leases and the mortgage payments too."
The future of travel according to this vision isn't a switch to one kind of vacation over another. It's that the idea that vacations and home start to lose their boundaries entirely. You live and work wherever you happen to want to be that month, creating one great swirl of leisure and work, home and away.
Speaking as someone who lived much this way for the better part of a decade when I was younger, it's easy enough to spot the limits of these predictions. Having school-age kids generally brings nomadic lifestyles to a screeching halt, and having that freedom in the first place is out of reach for many for financial and practical reasons. Plus, while short-term nomadism can be a mind-expanding adventure, longer term the downsides of the lifestyle start to reveal themselves. A lack of investment in any particular community can leave you feeling rootless, lonely, insubstantial, even like a bit of a freeloader on the hard work of building a fair and functional society.
So will everyone who gained location flexibility out of the crucible of the pandemic end up breaking their lease to jet off to Bali or Bermuda for months on end? Clearly not. But will more of us decide to do an extended house swap when the kids are on summer break or bounce around for a few years in our twenties (or sixties)? Airbnb is betting on it.