Behind Airbnb's bet on show business to hook travellers

PHOTO: Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO - Hollywood has a new suitor in Silicon Valley.

Airbnb Inc, the high-flying startup for booking home rentals around the world, has ambitions to develop a slate of original shows to whet customers' appetite for travel, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The strategy, previously unreported, is crucial for the company, which is privately valued at US$31 billion (S$42.2 billion) and is gearing up for an initial public offering of stock expected next year. Airbnb must distinguish itself from Booking.com, Expedia and others in the fiercely competitive and consolidating travel industry, where apartment-renting services are increasingly common.

Chief Executive Brian Chesky is driving the idea, three of the people said, arguing that creative content is important for Airbnb's brand even if the business case is not always clear.

"Brian wants to create a studio," one of the people said. The mentality: "Let's do shows. Let's do films, because we want to be travel-everything."

Chesky, who co-founded the company, "likes big splashy things," another person said.

For at least three years, Airbnb has batted around ideas for creating or licensing mini-series and documentaries about travel, and shows featuring Airbnb homes, guests and hosts, one of the people said. It has discussed working with studios as well as starting its own.

The company has worked on a television show slated for Apple Inc's upcoming streaming service: "Home," a docuseries featuring unique abodes around the world and the people behind them. One executive producer of the show is Joe Poulin, a company vice president who ran Luxury Retreats when Airbnb acquired the booking site in 2017.

Airbnb announced last week it had developed and produced the documentary "Gay Chorus Deep South," which follows the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus on a tour across the Southeastern United States, and will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. Airbnb told Reuters it provided funding for the project.

In an interview, Airbnb's top policy and communications executive, Chris Lehane, said the company is considering streaming films and shows through its app as well as through other video platforms.

"We're very much in the R&D phase here," said Lehane. "It's not just limited to video. It could be audible. It could be physical."

"The more we put content out there, the more you're going to bring people to the platform," he said.

Original shows could also entice customers even before they have decided where to go on vacation and demystify Airbnb for travellers, including Wall Street investors, who have stuck to familiar hotel chains.

TECH INDUSTRY PLAYBOOK

Airbnb has yet to cement all the details related to its timeline, programme financing or even lineup. Its work so far has ranged from the Tribeca documentary to a YouTube show about travel trends and other video marketing efforts.

Offering original content and other media is an increasingly popular strategy in Silicon Valley, where technology companies are desperate for deeper relationships with internet users and their lucrative data.

Apple last month unveiled a TV streaming service and joined a long list of companies attracted to Hollywood's glitter, including Amazon.com Inc and even Walmart Inc. The big-box retailer had said it will partner with US movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to make content for its video-on-demand service, Vudu.

Such bets are expensive, but often justified by executives for their marketing value. Airbnb said its network of half a billion travellers is drawing partners who wish to produce and finance content for the company.

Airbnb's original magazine remains central to this effort. Published by media conglomerate Hearst since May 2017, the Airbnb Magazine will be a jumping off point for other content that the company develops. It is the darling of CEO Chesky, something the billionaire founder hopes will become a collector's item like old print editions of "Rolling Stone," Lehane said.

Films and streaming content would mark the next iteration of a business that has steadily expanded to get customers to use its app for more parts of their travel experience. Airbnb added restaurant reservations and said it would branch into transportation services, so customers remain in its orbit long after they have picked a place to stay.

The company even explored building its own flight-booking feature and acquiring travel fare aggregator Skyscanner before retreating from that idea, said another person with knowledge of the matter.

A key player in the video effort is Kim Kingsley, co-founder of news site Politico. Kingsley joined Airbnb last summer and is in charge of the firm's content strategy, according to her LinkedIn profile. Meanwhile, Airbnb's magazine lead, Ben Kasman, has helped grow the publication to more than a million readers.

Even by technology startups' standards, Airbnb is not afraid to spend large sums on marketing. It hired Ready State, a high-end agency in San Francisco, whose employees flew to Europe to create videos for Airbnb. The firm was also hired to promote tours sold on Airbnb's website, known as "Experiences," even though many of those are cheap.

"It's all part of the efforts to broaden the base," said one person close to the company, "to make what they do more mainstream."

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