Airbnb Open, which landed in Los Angeles in late November, was described as “a community-powered festival of travel and hospitality that celebrates a city and its neighborhoods” by the brand.

The three-day event featured talks, workshops, celebrity appearances and tours, and was held in Los Angeles’ recently reclaimed historic (now hipsterfied) Downtown Los Angeles neighborhood in 1930s baroque theaters or local venues across a series of streets. Star power came in the form of Ashton Kutcher (an Airbnb investor) and Gwyneth Paltrow, alongside keynotes and panels given by founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who is also CEO, as well as senior staff such as CMO Jonathan Mildenhall.

Airbnb Founder & CEO Brian Chesky speaks onstage during Introducing Trips Reveal at Airbnb Open LA on November 17, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Airbnb)

The event culminated in an awards ceremony headed up by TV host and comic James Corden, which celebrated the “brightest and best of the Airbnb community” by championing “their stories of playful creativity, limitless care, and unexpected heroism.” It was capped by a music concert and party.

The event had the feel of a town festival, with hangout zones. Attendees lined up for selfies in front of a giant Airbnb logo sculpture suspended against a white walk-through installation. Free coffee, snacks and bottled water were abundant. Airbnb merchandise was sold at market stands. Curated music or live bands were playing in communal areas. Meanwhile, there were immersive “experience” installations dotted around the neighborhood—such as BNKR, a walk-through experience exploring different words associated with the concept of home.

Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Airbnb
Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Airbnb

The centerpiece of the event from a press perspective, and already much reported, was the launch of Airbnb Trips, a move into branded Airbnb experiences, with the ability to make restaurant bookings in the pipeline. There are also lifestyle guides in the form of online curated guides, as well as a new magazine in partnership with Hearst Media, both created entirely by community members to offer authentic local content. This is all part of a bigger move into 360-degree travel booking, complementing existing partnerships with airlines such as Delta and Virgin America and with American Express.

Experiences for sale include stargazing, truffle hunting, social-good and charity projects and cookery classes, led by Airbnb expert members and packaged with sleek, inspirational photography. Another new app feature is curated travel content, described as “Places”, which not only includes travel guides penned by Airbnb members about local hotspots, but audio walking tours. (To note: Branded content podcasts are also on the rise. Brands are increasingly going audio.) There are also local “meet-ups” on offer, connecting travelers to events that are running when they visit locations. Airbnb is also enhancing the service aspect of its offer—in future “Homes” will allow people to pre-order groceries and book rental cars, not just reserve their accommodation.

This was the third Airbnb Open, and it was a masterclass in brand immersion. It was interesting and timely on several levels. It’s the latest in a rising form of consumer-facing events that blend thought leadership with entertainment. (Oprah’s Live Your Best Life Weekend, which featured talks by celebrities, sponsored head massages by Pantene and yoga classes, is another example.) Revolt Music Conference, held by Sean “Diddy” Combs, is another example, as is Vogue UK’s Festival. They’re becoming a lucrative revenue stream for brands—Airbnb Open cost $345 to attend, plus an additional $60 for the Bélo Awards, and accommodated 6,000 attendees.

The content of the event encompassed everything from tips for adding style to your Airbnb rentals by celebrity designer Kelly Wearstler to enhancing the Airbnb experience for guests. Another aspect was promoting Airbnb’s goals and core philosophy. A talk by policy chief Chris Lehane highlighted how Airbnb and the sharing economy are good for communities, help sustainability and enable people to live in expensive cities. (Airbnb has also been expanding its Home Sharing Clubs where local hosts can meet and support each other.) Other talks were about how Airbnb enhances empathy, or focused on Airbnb projects like Samara—an incubator of sorts, dedicated to finding solutions to town-planning and social challenges.

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Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Airbnb

CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, meanwhile, outlined his ambition for Airbnb to “define a generation” by 2020—presumably experience-loving, sharing economy-advocate millennials. He also showcased Airbnb’s recent campaigns to elevate it from a thrift-oriented travel resource to a credible luxury player. Most recently Airbnb collaborated with Audi on a campaign in the remote Nevada desert. It has also launched several installations at Milan Design Week, usually the preserve of luxury brands and the design community.

As a strategy, Airbnb’s move into experiences echoes the continued prevalence and emphasis on experience culture and authentic travel, driven by millennials but with increasing appeal to all. Given the brand’s challenges with local legislators in numerous countries, it’s also a canny extension from homesharing to a less regulated arena.

For more, see “Travel Action” (#28) in The Future 100: Trends and Change to Watch in 2017.

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