Airbnb scraps design competition seeking distinctive properties... and 1,900 jobs

Accommodations on hold

Airbnb scraps design competition seeking distinctive properties... and 1,900 jobs

Airbnb has paused a design competition seeking extraordinary short-term rental designs. (Airbnb)

Some bad news for those who were all fired up to embark an outlandish, Airbnb-funded building or renovation project: due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the online travel and hospitality platform has shelved its Airbnb Unique Fund, a $1 million design competition that was set to award 10 current and future hosts with $100,000 each in financing to aid them in realizing “unconventional and unusual” living spaces, which, of course, would ultimately have appeared as Airbnb listings.

Judged by Fokke Moerel of MVRDV and others, the deadline for singular design proposals closed last month with winning submissions to be selected and announced on May 15. Reads an addition to the official contest rules dated April 14:

“In light of the developing news around COVID-19, we thought long and hard about the best way to prioritize entrants’ health and safety, as well as supporting the ability to comply with the various local shelter in place and social distancing rules imposed around the world. While we will continue to examine the global feasibility of carrying out the efforts of the Unique Airbnb Fund, we have decided to suspend the Fund at this time and are hopeful to be able to reopen entries in 2021. Please check back for updates and thank you for your understanding.”

While this turn out of events is no doubt disappointing to those who looked forward to building out wacky short-term rental properties with a potential financial assist from Airbnb, the bigger news—and bigger disappointments—come from the development that the company has laid off roughly a quarter of its global workforce. This staggering cut amounts to 1,900 out of 7,500 total employees across two dozen countries.

“For a company like us whose mission is centered around belonging, this is incredibly difficult to confront, and it will be even harder for those who have to leave Airbnb,” Chesky said in a heartfelt company-wide memo sent out earlier this week.“We are collectively living through the most harrowing crisis of our lifetime, and as it began to unfold, global travel came to a standstill. Airbnb’s business has been hit hard, with revenue this year forecasted to be less than half of what we earned in 2019.”

Chesky noted that in response to the crisis, the company raised $2 billion in capital and “dramatically cut costs that touched nearly every corner of Airbnb.” The company reportedly amassed $4.8 billion in revenue last year.

“While we know Airbnb’s business will fully recover, the changes it will undergo are not temporary or short-lived,” he added. “Because of this, we need to make more fundamental changes to Airbnb by reducing the size of our workforce around a more focused business strategy.”

While Airbnb’s sweeping layoffs were handled with tact and grace, the true heart of the company’s business model, the hosts, are none too pleased with the way things have panned out during the pandemic. As reported by CNBC in late April, hundreds of hosts have complained of not yet receiving payments promised as part of a $250 million relief fund. Many of those who have gotten checks have found them to be on the paltry side, with payments going out in the “tens or hundreds of dollars to cover losses in the thousands.” Thierry Rignol, a host with multiple properties spread across five cities, told CNBC that he received a check for $106.02 to cover $30,500 in lost revenue. Another host, St. Louis-based Amanda O’ Rourke, lost an estimated $14,000 resulting from coronavirus-related cancellations. She was paid $31.38.

“I just think it’s comical,” O’Rourke said. “The whole situation is frustrating, so I’m not bitter at Airbnb for it. But I just found it almost silly.”

More recently, CNBC reported that some unhappy hosts, a majority of them feeling jilted by Airbnb’s reimbursement policies, have revolted from the platform and are launching their own direct booking websites for short-term rentals.

To cater to wanderlust-deprived guests and armchair travelers during the pandemic, Airbnb is offering an assortment of potentially binge-worthy virtual excursions through its zoom-powered Online Experiences platform. (Writing for Outside, Norah Caplan-Bricker documented her rather surreal globe-spanning online travels in this excellent piece.) And, in a similar initiative to its Open Homes program activated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb now offers a special platform that easily enables health care workers and other COVID-19 responders to find safe, fee-free accommodations in proximity to patients and loved ones. The platform allow allows hosts to offer dedicated short-term rentals to these crucial helpers.