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What Airbnb learned from the pandemic saved its IPO

Daniel Roberts
·Editor-at-Large
·4 min read
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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., when the country entered widespread lockdown and travel screeched to a halt, Airbnb’s business crashed. Its Q2 revenue dove 67% and losses ballooned to $400 million. In May, it laid off 25% of its workforce. Its valuation fell to $18 billion.

Considering that, it’s somewhat shocking Airbnb was able to go public on Thursday at a $101 billion valuation.

In August, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told Yahoo Finance editor in chief Andy Serwer that at the start of the year, he fully expected Airbnb would go public in 2020. Then the pandemic hit. “We took the S-1 document and didn’t file it, we put it on a shelf,” Chesky said. “And recently, we’ve dusted it off.”

Airbnb cofounder and chief strategy officer Nate Blecharczyk echoed the same in an interview on Yahoo Finance Live on Thursday before the stock started trading: “We never expected, back in the spring, that we’d be ending the year this way.”

A shift in customer behavior that started in July, prompted by the pandemic, allowed the IPO to happen.

Customers began booking Airbnb stays again, but at locations drivable from where they live (within 300 miles), and for longer periods of time, thanks to remote work.

Airbnb still booked a net loss of $696.9 million for the first nine months of 2020, more than double its $322 million loss in the first nine months of 2019. Revenue for the first nine months of 2020 dropped 32% to $2.52 billion.

But for Q3, Airbnb saw a profit of $219.3 million, thanks to dramatic spending cuts. The company’s implicit pitch to investors is that the turnaround, amid an ongoing pandemic, proves its resiliency. (Its S-1 filing has a section touting the company’s “resilient model.”)

Airbnb cofounders Nathan Blecharczyk, Joe Gebbia, and CEO Brian Chesky speak at Airbnb Open LA on Nov. 17, 2016 in Los Angeles.  (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Airbnb)
Airbnb cofounders Nathan Blecharczyk, Joe Gebbia, and CEO Brian Chesky speak at Airbnb Open LA on Nov. 17, 2016 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Airbnb)

Airbnb touted some of the data in a blog post as early as April. Between February and April 2020, the average distance between guests’ home addresses and the Airbnb locations they booked decreased by 20%. Longer-term stays also grew by 20% in the second half of March.

Those trends deepened as the pandemic dragged on, and 80% of Airbnb hosts responded by adjusting their options to accept longer-term stays. Half of hosts also started offering discounts for stays longer than one month.

It transformed the short-term outlook for Airbnb. Some experts have predicted it will take until 2023 for air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the company looks able to weather that.

Even once a vaccine is widely distributed, many companies may continue to allow a large number of their employees to work from anywhere, and that too benefits Airbnb. Remote work was already a growing trend before the pandemic, and the future for many workforces could look like a hybrid model. Airbnb is embracing that shift, calling it “Live anywhere.” (The trend has also given a massive boost to shares of work-from-home computing names like Zoom, Slack, Logitech, CrowdStrike, and Snowflake.)

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, is shown on an electronic screen,, center, at the Nasdaq MarketSite, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in New York. The San Francisco-based online vacation rental company holds its IPO Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, is shown on an electronic screen,, center, at the Nasdaq MarketSite, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in New York. The San Francisco-based online vacation rental company holds its IPO Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The company’s executives have said in multiple interviews that the line between work and travel is blurring. That goes hand-in-hand with booking longer stays, since there’s no need to be home by Monday if you can work from an Airbnb.

Wharton professor Mauro Guillen, author of the book “2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything,” predicts a hybrid work model will become the norm even after the pandemic. “Most of what I hear from companies right now is that we're going to go to a hybrid model,” Guillen said on Yahoo Finance Live in August. “So, a majority of American employees who are working from home now, they're saying, ‘Yes, I would like to have a remote component in my work week, but I would like to also go to the office.’”

Airbnb has also learned it can spend a lot less on brand marketing—maybe even next to nothing.

Amid the pandemic, Airbnb slashed its marketing budget in half. The company spent $1.18 billion on sales and marketing in the first nine months of 2019, and just $545 million in the first nine months of 2020. Then it saw a Q3 bookings rebound anyway.

Airbnb has become a household name. The company knows it, and touted it in the S-1 filing: “Our brand is recognized globally, and ‘Airbnb’ is used as a noun and a verb in countries all over the world.”

NOTE: A previous version of this post ran on Nov. 17, 2020, when Airbnb filed to go public.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more about the Airbnb IPO:

Why Airbnb could be ‘the most successful IPO of the last several years’

‘Live anywhere’: How Airbnb is surviving the pandemic

Airbnb announces ‘host advisory board’ and endowment fund ahead of IPO

Airbnb’s cash burn shows the urgency of its IPO

Airbnb has been brutalized by the pandemic, but will IPO anyway in 'forgiving' 2020 market