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Airbnb adds loyalty program, site inspections as new rules restrict core business

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SAN FRANCISCO — In an era when it’s facing increasing regulation and scrutiny, Airbnb on Thursday announced a new slate of offerings aimed at helping travelers find exactly what they want, with a new hotel-like incentive to come back. 

The company is adding four new property types to its existing line up, new tiers of service, a “Collections” listing for homes that fit specific types of travelers and a guest membership loyalty program. 

When Airbnb was founded in 2008, it offered a platform for people to rent out their rooms, apartments or homes to strangers as a way to earn extra cash.Those spaces were divided into just three types — shared spaces, private rooms or entire home.

Now that Airbnb has grown into a travel platform with 4.5 million offerings in 191 countries, it has become harder for travelers to find exactly what they were looking for, the company said. So it’s adding four new property types — vacation homes, unique spaces, bed and breakfast and boutiques, the company said.

The tools to categorize properties went live for hosts on Thursday and will show up on the site this summer, the company said.

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For those looking for a specific type of house to rent, Airbnb will also be launching what it calls Collections, homes that fit the needs of different groups. Launching Thursday are Airbnb for Family and Airbnb for Work. Later this year the platform will add collections for social stays, weddings, honeymoons, group getaways and dinner parties, Airbnb said. 

For those who want a little more security and aren’t quite as willing to book a stay in a stranger’s unseen house, Airbnb will also add a new tier of homes called Airbnb Plus that have been personally visited by an Airbnb inspector and verified for quality and comfort. The program will begin with 2,000 homes in 13 cities and expand over time. 

In a bid for the luxury crowd, another new offering is Beyond by Airbnb, which will offer custom-designed trips in what the service touts as “the world’s finest homes.” It comes after Airbnb last year acquired Luxury Retreats, which offered professionally inspected villas across the globe aimed at high-end travelers. 

Finally, Airbnb is launching a loyalty program for its most frequent guests with a membership program that offers as-yet unnamed benefits. Airbnb plans to launch it this summer with a 100,000 guest trial before rolling it out globally before the end of the year.

The loyalty program is something Airbnb needs to offer to compete with online travel agencies such as Hotels.com and Expedia, and that program and the new segments should give it a better edge against hotel rivals, says Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel industry research company Atmosphere Research Group.

The challenge for Airbnb is that unlike traditional hotels, Airbnb is not a frequency-based business. “The loyalty program will have to be constructed in such a way that someone who’s booking one and two times a year can earn a reward meaningful enough to want to return,” he said.

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The new additions comes as the Silicon Valley darling, currently valued by investors at more than $30 billion, faces increasing curbs by municipalities on how and where it can function.

The company’s rapid growth and profits stemmed in part from the fact that it operated in an as-yet unregulated arena, able to sidestep many of the legal requirements placed on hotels and hostels. That has been shifting over the past few years as municipalities push back against the short-term rentals.

For example, its hometown of San Francisco put strict rules in place for short-term rentals this year to deal with what the city said were too many rental units being turned into hotel in an area in the midst of a severe housing crisis. Airbnb listings fell by almost half when the rules went into effect.

Earlier this month Detroit instituted a new ordinance that bans short term rental of rooms single family and duplex homes, though the ordinance is currently under legal review and is not yet being enforced.

The company has also been under fire for racial discrimination on the part of some hosts. In 2016 it launched far-reaching anti-discrimination policies to combat the problem. 

Anticipation has been growing over when Airbnb will go public, but CEO Brian Chesky said earlier this month that it would not launch an initial public offering in 2018.

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