Airbnb has navigated the pandemic better than its rivals — but the company's uncertain future depends heavily on forces beyond its control
Airbnbmade its initial-public-offering filing available to the public on Monday, revealing exactly how the pandemic had devastated its business.
- The company reported nearly $700 million in losses in the first nine months of 2020, more than double its losses for the same period in 2019.
- While Airbnb made some key strategic decisions that helped it fare better than competitors, it also disclosed a long list of risk factors that could impair its recovery — and, possibly, its path to profitability.
- Some of its biggest headwinds — such as the pandemic, regulations, Google, and a potential billion-dollar tax bill — are forces Airbnb can't heavily influence and highlight the uncertainty it's facing.
Airbnb made its initial-public-offering documents available to the public Monday, revealing $696.6 million in losses during the first three quarters of what has been a tumultuous year for the company.
At one point, Airbnb's bookings in Beijing — an early COVID-19 hot spot as well as a key growth market for the company — had plummeted 96% from pre-pandemic levels. Airbnb was forced to drastically cut costs worldwide, including laying off 25% of its workers, cutting all marketing spending, and raising $2 billion in emergency funding.But Airbnb and its CEO,
"We used to do a lot of travel for work, and then we entertained ourselves on screens. That's going to inverse," Chesky told Business Insider in August. "I think we'll work more on screens and entertain ourselves in the real world."Chesky also returned Airbnb's focus to its core business of vacation rentals after a push the past few years to expand into everything from branded hotels to producing travel content. The company's losses had ballooned to $674 million in 2019, more than the previous four years combined.
So far, Airbnb's positioning — both by choice and by circumstance — seems to be paying off.Airbnb's third-quarter revenue was down roughly 18% from the same quarter in 2019, a significant recovery compared with the 72% year-over-year decline in the second quarter. Crucially, Airbnb's third-quarter performance was substantially better than Airbnb's competitors — Booking.com was still down 48% in year-over-year revenue, and Expedia was down 58% — as well as the traditional hotel industry. Hilton was down 61%, and Marriott was down 57%.
Even considering Airbnb's current relative strength, however, its road ahead is filled with uncertainty, and much of that comes from risk factors that Chesky and his team won't be able to influence.
Airbnb cited the pandemic among a lengthy list of risk factors in its IPO filing on Monday.That list mentioned several risks common to maturing startups like Airbnb, such as slowing rates of revenue growth, rising costs, increasing competitiveness from incumbents, and complex challenges around keeping its platform safe and fraud-free.
But some of its biggest and most notable challenges — the
The company acknowledged in the filing that with COVID-19 cases surging heading into winter, it's projecting higher year-over-year declines in bookings and cancellations during the fourth quarter than in the third quarter. Since Airbnb already made huge cuts, its profitability will be even more reliant on driving revenue growth.But with several US states already reversing reopening plans and issuing new travel advisories, and public-health experts warning that the next few months could be far worse than the spring, Airbnb could see tough times beyond December.
In recent years, the company has faced significant pushback, both from residents — who sometimes complain that Airbnb guests aren't the best neighbors and that the platform drives up rent prices — as well as from hotel owners and local governments, which argue that Airbnb should be taxed and regulated like traditional hotels (this is similar to the dynamic between the taxi industry and companies like Uber and Lyft).
Cities continue to crack down on AirbnbAs a result, some cities initially banned short-term rentals. Others have enacted steep taxes or imposed restrictions on who can operate Airbnb listings, where, and for how long. While Airbnb has fought cities that try to regulate it — often through litigation — many of them have still cracked down, and if they continue to do so, it could eat into the profitability of both Airbnb and its hosts.
As with other "platform" companies like Uber, Amazon, and Google, Airbnb's competitors span a variety of industries. Thus far, it has stood out among those competitors in part because of its strong brand — the company said 91% of its traffic came through unpaid or organic channels. But now that brand is up against an even better-known one: Google.Airbnb said in its IPO filing that Google's push into the travel sector, through the launch of price-comparison tools that are displayed prominently in its search engine, had hurt its standing in search. That could require Airbnb to increase its marketing spend significantly to keep reaching customers. When it comes to Airbnb's competitors, "it might be Booking.com right now, but the biggest competitor will be Google — that's the one Airbnb's afraid of," Dennis Schaal, the executive editor at Skift, a travel-industry news and research site, told Business Insider in March.
Airbnb's best hope to avoid bleeding money and customers to Google, however, may rest with regulators in the European Union or the US, who have expressed a growing interest in reining in Google's dominance over internet searches.
Finally, Airbnb is also awaiting the results of an IRS investigation into whether it owes an additional $1.4 billion in taxes over how it valued the sale of its international intellectual property to a subsidiary.Considering the $2 billion in emergency funding it raised earlier this year, that's a bill Airbnb wouldn't be excited to see.
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