With Neighborhoods, Airbnb expands its horizons

November 13, 2012: 1:37 PM ET

The hot home-share startup is banking on rich, neighborhood guides to attract and keep more customers.

FORTUNE -- Two weeks ago, the city experts began to arrive at Airbnb's office in downtown San Francisco. They came from Rio de Janeiro and from Paris. They came from London, where a couple of Airbnb hosts had spent days walking a photographer through all of the city's most secret, special spots. Within days, Airbnb had assembled a couple dozen of its most exuberant hosts and hardcore neighborhood lovers to the office to hash out the specifics of its newest product in person. "We had to get it perfect, to make sure that we really understood the product we were building," says Ann Montgomery, the project lead for Airbnb Neighborhoods.

Move over Lonely Planet. There's a new guide in town. Neighborhoods, which launched November 13, is a travel guide designed to help users of the short-term home rental service decide on the best places to stay and visit. Visit one of the seven cities it currently covers, and you'll be invited to filter by a number of different tags like "great transit" or "peace & quiet" or "Loved by Londoners." The product pairs myriad data sources like public transportation information and the number of parks with advice from Airbnb hosts and other users.

MORE: Airbnb: More than a place to crash

But the most distinguishing factor about Neighborhoods is its strong editorial voice. Though Airbnb has a growing community of enthusiastic hosts, it is not relying on user-generated content to fill its guides. To build out the first seven cities on the site—and the 300 neighborhoods within them -- Airbnb hired 70 professional photographers and a slew of content experts. Montgomery and her team worked with them to put together not just well-presented information, but a narrative about each location. Take a walk through Dumbo, the artsy neighborhood that rests just beneath the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, and you are eased through a story about the neighborhood that begins on a sunny morning, tours through cobble-stone streets as well as an assortment of particularly dreamy lofts (and the hosts who list them) and ends with pictures of the sun setting over the bridge itself.

The team behind this new product came from the New York-based startup Nabewise, one of a number of small web services Airbnb has quietly acquired in the past year. Montgomery, and her two cofounders, engineers Ben Hughes and Andy Kramolisch, began working on their hyperlocal city guide in 2010. They had aggregated information about neighborhoods in 25 different cities, providing visitors well-curated information with a strong editorial voice and plenty of tags for sorting. (Tags for my own Park Slope neighborhood include "Yuppies" and "strollers.")

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By the time the acquisition closed on July 10, five members of the six-person Nabewise team had decamped for San Francisco where they have continued their hyperlocal project as part of CEO Brian Chesky's design-heavy team. "It's an adjustment to have a former Google chef cooking for you!" says Montgomery. It's also an adjustment to have access to troves of new data from the 250,000 listings Airbnb now boasts in more than 30,000 cities.

Unlike the glossy travel magazines and travel review sites it mirrors, Neighborhoods offers no advertising opportunities; Airbnb's primary revenue stream continues to be the fees that it collects when users book listings on the site. The beautiful images and stories will likely keep potential travelers on the site longer and lead to more bookings. What's more, Neighborhoods expands Airbnb's position in travel beyond home-share opportunities alone, making it a go-to platform for dreaming up ideas—and putting it more firmly into competition with sites from TripAdvisor to Frommers, which Google (GOOG) has agreed to acquire. It begins to open up the opportunities for Airbnb to expand into other travel-related services. (Local tour guide, anyone?) And it creates new opportunities for the 21st century travel journalists, a couple dozen of which are still hanging around Airbnb's offices this week.

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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