Airbnb's core service--which lets travelers find and book rooms in other people's homes--has turned the company into the biggest lodging provider in the world. But nothing lasts forever.
That's why the company, which is right now reportedly raising money at a $30 billion valuation, is branching out. Airbnb announced Tuesday that it has created an in-house innovation and design studio--dubbed "Samara"--to work on finding the ideas that will move it beyond the home and apartment rentals that have made it so hugely successful.
According to Fast Company, co-founders Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky, and Nathan Blecharczyk realized the project was necessary when they saw a list of the top 10 tech companies of the '90s--and nine of them were defunct or close to it. Samara follows in the footsteps of companies like Google, which has invested in a separate arm to pursue ambitious side projects known as "moonshots."
The Samara lab's first project is a community center in Yoshino, a tiny town in Japan. Inspired by a Japanese woman who started an Airbnb in a rural location and enlisted her neighbors as hiking and tour guides, the community center will be designed as a hub for guests staying in the area. The building, which was constructed on land donated by the town, has a kitchen, a living room, and a 16-foot dining table, as well as rentable bedrooms upstairs. It's right near a forest that was already a popular tourist spot, so the hope is it will inject life into the economy--all the while gently encouraging the locals to list their homes on the rental site.
The center could serve as a proof of concept for Airbnb to build future hubs. Japan, like much of Asia and Europe, is experiencing rapid population decline in many of its small towns as young people flock toward cities, so Airbnb says the country is ripe for the experiment.
The move is particularly interesting in light of some of the resistance Airbnb has run up against in a number of communities. Some cities are starting to take steps to ban or at least limit short-term rentals. Santa Monica, California, for example, passed an ordinance last year outlawing "vacation rentals" of less than 30 days. New York City is close to passing a measure that bans rentals within apartment buildings, preventing those structures from turning into mini hotels. And Berlin recently banned rentals of more than 50 percent of a given unit.
The fear is that turning an area into a vacation town zaps it of its natural flavor. "When a landlord or other property owner takes a unit off the housing market and uses it for vacation rental," Santa Monica mayor Kevin McKeown told NPR, "there is no permanent resident on the site; we've lost that part of the fabric of our community."
With that context, critics say you could see these community centers as a new kind of rental for the company. The Yoshino community center will have rentable rooms, as The Verge points out, which means Airbnb may have just created what is essentially its first hotel. Airbnb says that the community will operate Yoshino and the proceeds "will be used to strengthen the cultural legacy and future of the town." If Yoshino and other centers are successful, it's not a huge leap to assume that surely Airbnb will also profit from them.
It's also interesting where Airbnb plans to place future community centers. The company says it's targeting locations that could benefit from its presence. "Since we started, we've gotten calls from people in the U.K., China, Korea, Spain, France, and Italy, all with the same problem" of shrinking towns that also lack a convenient place for tourists to stay, Gebbia told Fast Company. Noticeably absent from the list is the United States, where suburbs are growing at a faster rate than cities.
It's not yet known what other projects might be on Samara's radar. How things pan out in Yoshino remains to be seen. But Airbnb is certainly doing what it can to remain relevant for a long, long time.