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Exclusive: Lessons From Airbnb’s First Foray Into Urban Renewal

Last year, Airbnb unveiled a community center designed to help revitalize a shrinking town in Japan. A year later, CPO Joe Gebbia shares what the company has learned–and what it has planned next.

Exclusive: Lessons From Airbnb’s First Foray Into Urban Renewal
[Photo: courtesy Airbnb]

It was almost exactly a year ago that Airbnb started taking reservations on perhaps it’s strangest listing of all: the Yoshino Cedar House, which the company had built itself in a tiny little logging town in Japan way off the tourist beat.

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Joe Gebbia [Photo: courtesy Airbnb]
The project was meant to help revitalize the town, and provide a means of support to its aging population–who could in turn immerse travelers in their culture. “Yoshino is there and has amazing things to offer. The problem was finding out about it,” says Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s cofounder and guiding force behind the company’s humanitarian efforts. “The hypothesis was that we could stimulate regions by plugging them into the Airbnb network.”

The results seem promising. Airbnb just released an annual report on the Yoshino Cedar House (YCH): 346 guests have stayed so far, hailing from 30 countries. Total bookings came to nearly $25,000; those from other hosts who’ve popped up in the area amounted to another $50,000.

The dollar yields aren’t large, but they may be large enough to be interesting to Yoshino–and to Airbnb. As economists have noted for decades, a single new dollar spent can be then re-spent several times. If I earn $100 then spend it at a local shop, the shopkeeper can then spend that $100 again (minus costs), and so on. The take-home money that hosts see after Airbnb takes its share may indeed be a nice shot to Yoshino’s economy. But for Airbnb, the YCH project represents a novel approach to corporate social responsibility. Instead of merely giving away money, they’re using the tools available to them to create an economic stimulus. In the bargain, they get marketing that helps the brand, good will among communities, a potential new avenue for growth, and–not least–a test bed for new business models.

[Photo: courtesy Airbnb]

Of course, the scale and sustainability of these ventures is still to be determined. If the YCH were a strictly for-profit venture, it would probably be hard to justify the cost of hiring a world-class architect and building a custom building. Are there enough travelers willing to stray from the path of tried-and-true tourist destinations? “We’re going to keep checking in, because we’re attempting to shift some really slow numbers,” Gebbia points out.

But dollars alone, says Gebbia, weren’t the sole purpose. Rather, the hope is to offer at least one solution to the problem of small towns shrinking away as their townsfolk age. The takeaways might be meaningful not just to Yoshino and Airbnb, but also to any of the myriad community planners dealing with the global problem of declining small towns.

[Photo: courtesy Airbnb]
Even better if that solution can help spread cultural memory. Guests can book various activities around Yoshino, ranging from fishing to sushi making, and even a carpentry workshop, using the famed local cedar.

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Going in, Gebbia says the biggest fear was that the hosts in Yoshino wouldn’t be able to communicate well enough with travelers around the world to make the experience memorable. That hasn’t seemed to be the case so far, for a surprising reason. The YCH was set up as a co-op, with 31 hosts from around the town sharing the hosting responsibilities. So far, it appears that having so many people cycle through the house means that language gaps tend not to be a problem–since between the travelers themselves and the townspeople, someone seems to always be able to serve as the translator and fixer. The lesson: Make sure there’s a structure in place so that the community can run the venture.

Looking forward, Airbnb’s plan is to keep studying how YCH affects the town, and to codify what’s worked into a playbook that’s disseminated to city officials around the world. “I hope that people know that this is an invitation to reach out if they know any place that might benefit from the model,” says Gebbia.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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