NEW YORK • Antsy city dwellers seeking to escape their Covid-19 refuges are road-tripping to nearby vacation rentals in surprisingly strong numbers, in the first sign of life for an industry that essentially ground to a halt in March.
"People, after having been stuck in their homes for a few months, do want to get out of their houses. That's really, really clear," Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky said in an interview. "But they don't necessarily want to get on an airplane and are not yet comfortable leaving their countries."
Airbnb saw more nights booked for United States listings between May 17 and June 3 than in the same period last year, as well as a similar boost in domestic travel globally.
The San Francisco-based home-share company is seeing an increase in demand for domestic bookings in countries such as Germany, Portugal, South Korea and New Zealand.
Other companies, including Expedia Group's Vrbo and Booking Holdings, are also seeing a jump in domestic vacation-rental reservations.
US searches for Vrbo are now up compared with this time last year, according to a note by Cowen & Co analyst Kevin Kopelman on Monday, and Airbnb queries are down by around only 10 per cent.
But hotels and the wider Expedia brand have yet to get any summer relief, with searches still down by more than 60 per cent.
International sojourns usually planned months in advance are being replaced with impulsive road trips booked a day before, and weekend getaways are turning into weeks-long respite, Mr Chesky said.
Previously, a New Yorker might have headed to Paris for a week in June. Now they are going to the Catskill Mountains in New York state itself for a month.
"Work from home is becoming working from any home," he said.
Still, any rebound is coming from a very low base. The travel sector was gutted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Online travel agencies struggled to withstand unprecedented cancellations and a decline of 95 per cent in air travel passenger traffic.
Tripadvisor and Airbnb cut a quarter of their workforces, and Mr Chesky said last month that he expects revenue this year to be half of last year's. Booking was forced to apply for government aid.
In an annual shareholder report last week, Booking chief executive Glenn Fogel said the pandemic would impact global travel more than the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic and the 2008 financial crisis combined.
But pent-up demand over the past few months is leading to a rush of summer reservations. The top destinations in the US on Airbnb are almost exclusively traditional vacation rental markets such as Big Bear Lake in southern California, the Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and Port Aransas in Texas, according to the company.
The unexpected speed of the comeback has kept Airbnb's plans for a 2020 public market debut afloat. Mr Chesky had originally planned to file paperwork for an offering on March 31, but the pandemic-related market turmoil led to speculation that the listing would be shelved until next year.
But Mr Chesky says it is still an option. "We're not ruling out going public this year and we're not committing to it," he said.
Airbnb was valued at US$31 billion (S$43 billion) in its most recent private fund-raising round, though recent debt issuance to shore up its finances have significantly reduced that valuation.
Travel in a post-Covid-19 world is shifting "from airplane to car, big city to small location, hotel to home", Mr Chesky said.
Vrbo is seeing similar trends as popular tourist states such as Florida and Maine reopen.