Airbnb is dispatching inspectors to thousands of properties for new 'Plus' program

The new program, aimed at winning over travelers who aren't sure they can trust the star rating system, comes at at time when the company's growth has been slowing. 

Eric Risberg/AP
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks at an event on Feb. 22, 2018 in San Francisco. In addition to announcing the new inspection program, Mr. Chesky acknowledged his company's effect on rapidly rising housing markets around the world.

Airbnb is dispatching inspectors to rate thousands of the properties listed on its home-rental service in an effort to reassure travelers they're booking nice places to stay.

The Plus program, unveiled Thursday, is aimed at winning over travelers who aren't sure they can trust the current rating system drawn from the opinions posted by past guests. The misleading pictures drawn by Airbnb's rating system have become a big enough problem to spawn a website devoted to horror stories spanning from an overcrowded, dirty "hippy commune " in Pasadena, California, to a Paris vacation ruined in a moldy, bug-infested apartment.

"You realize over time that you do have to take more responsibility for your platform, you have to be hands on, you have to make judgments," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The hands-on touch built into the Plus program comes 10 years after Mr. Chesky and his former roommate started Airbnb in a San Francisco apartment in hopes of bringing in more money to pay their own rent.

Airbnb's internal surveys have found nearly three-fourths of the travelers on its service are willing to pay more for inspector-certified properties, allowing homeowners and apartment dwellers to quickly recoup a $149 fee to participate in Plus.

Human inspectors will review properties based on a 100-point checklist covering everything from the speed of the Wi-Fi to the comfort of the bedding. Properties that fail can still be part of Airbnb's regular listings; the company will also offer advice on improvements to qualify.

The program will initially cover about 2,000 properties in 13 cities – Austin, Texas; Barcelona, Spain; Cape Town, South Africa; Chicago; Los Angeles; London; Melbourne, Australia; Milan; Rome; San Francisco; Shanghai, Sydney, and Toronto. That's a small fraction of the roughly 4.5 million properties listed on Airbnb in 81,000 cities worldwide. By the end of the year, Chesky foresees verifying 75,000 homes in 50 cities.

Airbnb is shaking things up at a time when its growth has been slowing, a trend the company would like to reverse before it sells its stock in an initial public offering expected within the next two years. Despite its popularity, Airbnb remains unprofitable, with a loss of $75 million on revenue of nearly $2.6 billion last year, according to financial statements reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

During a presentation in San Francisco, Chesky announced other steps designed to make Airbnb more like a traditional hospitality company instead of an industry renegade that has siphoned business away from major hotels. Frequent travelers will quality for discounts and other perks. The company is also adding other rental categories, including bed-and-breakfast inns and boutique hotels.

A major hotel industry group slammed Airbnb's expansion as a sham.

"Airbnb's latest scheme is just further proof the company is trying to play in the hoteling space while evading industry regulations," said Troy Flanagan of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. "If Airbnb wants to enter the hoteling business, then it needs to be regulated, taxed, and subject to the same safety compliances."

Airbnb's success since its inception a decade ago has drawn fire from city officials upset about lost revenue from hotel taxes. It has also stirred protests from long-time renters of homes that are being converted into short-term places to stay instead. Airbnb's critics contend the latter trend has been making it even more difficult to find a place to live in cities such as San Francisco, where housing is already scarce and expensive.

"There are things that we have done that have had negative impacts on cities and we need to confront that," Chesky conceded. But he said he still believes communities have mostly benefited from Airbnb's existence because it has helped people stay in their homes, thanks to the additional money brought in from renting some of the space whenever they want.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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