Last year, the travel site made a teeny-tiny change that was emblematic of a gigantic shift: It replaced the star icon on its listings--which people used to bookmark places they're interested in renting--with little hearts instead. "A star can't capture the magic of staying in a castle, or the whimsy of staying in a tree house," says CEO Brian Chesky. And those unique spaces have become key to the four-year-old company's growth. Rather than being just a utility through which to rent someone's spare bedroom in a pinch, Airbnb has transformed itself into a hub of vacation dreams. The site reached 5 million bookings in January 2012, then in the next five months notched 5 million more. Estimates of its 2012 revenue are as high as $240 million.
Airbnb now lists more than 250,000 properties in 192 countries, from Airstreams in Spain to igloos in Austria. The company hit a new milestone on August 4, 2012: In one day, 60,000 people booked. To keep up with such rapid expansion, Airbnb has opened nine offices worldwide, facilitating 24-hour customer support, a $1 million host guarantee, and a slew of professional photographers ready to shoot new listings within 48 hours of registration. The site now focuses on "wish lists," including private islands and rustic retreats, letting users share their dream vacations and browse others. This year, Airbnb is moving beyond rentals to partner with local communities and enhance the entire travel experience. "Our product isn't just our website; it's also our hosts, listings, users, photographers, and employees," Chesky says. "Our product is the entire community."
Kathleen Gerber and Lori Nix recreated this popular private room in an igloo village using materials like styrofoam and fabric: