AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A company that started as a single air mattress for rent in a San Francisco apartment is now worth almost $100 billion. Today, Airbnb sold stock to the public for the first time. NPR's Bobby Allyn takes a closer look at why the company made the move now, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Airbnb has been bookended by economic downturns. The company was founded during the Great Recession, when a spare room on the cheap appealed to frugal travelers. This year, a global pandemic crashed its business.
NATHAN BLECHARCZYK: Revenues dropped 80% in the span of two weeks. And, you know, the most difficult thing was we didn't know how long it was going to last.
ALLYN: That's Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk. In April, Airbnb saw more cancellations than new bookings. I mean, think about it. Staying in a stranger's home during a virus outbreak - people felt kind of icky about it. Airbnb laid off nearly 2,000 employees, took out billions in loans and retooled its website to promote beachfront getaways and cabins in the woods.
BLECHARCZYK: So oftentimes, this just meant getting in the car and driving to a rural area, you know, if they like the idea of having a home all to themselves, where they could be in their own bubble and where they could have a kitchen and prepare their own food.
ALLYN: And it worked. Airbnb bookings haven't fully recovered, but the company is doing much better than most hotel chains. Take Louis Koorndyk, a retired post office worker who runs two Airbnb in the Las Vegas area.
LOUIS KOORNDYK: We're getting bookings much closer to home. People aren't necessarily flying in - especially people like to do more of a staycation.
ALLYN: Staycation, but also working remotely - very COVID times. Koorndyk says he's adapted.
KOORNDYK: I had to really upgrade my Wi-Fi and provide 20 feet of Ethernet cable for people doing Zoom meetings and such.
ALLYN: Koorndyk has seen bookings rise about 50% since hitting bottom, and he's optimistic about the future. That can't be said about all hosts. Lawyer Enrico Schaefer is representing Airbnb hosts in a class action lawsuit who say the company ripped them off during the pandemic.
ENRICO SCHAEFER: They're really good at saying, we got your backs. We're going to take care of you. We're partners in all of this. But from a lot of hosts' point of view, that's never been true, and it's never been less true than today.
ALLYN: Airbnb is not much without its 4 million hosts around the world, and many were angered when it surprised them by fully refunding guests a billion dollars' worth of bookings.
SCHAEFER: Some hosts got a little pittance back. Most hosts did not. And it was only for a very short period of time.
ALLYN: Keeping the trust of hosts is huge to the future of Airbnb, so some of them still seeing sluggish bookings, they're asking, why go public right now? Airbnb says it's because they always had planned to. But travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says there are other reasons.
HENRY HARTEVELDT: The market for IPOs is red hot, and so they are striking while that iron is hot.
ALLYN: Another thing - employees have stock in the company that expires this year. If Airbnb didn't go public, they might never be able to cash out. Harteveldt says it was a big issue for Airbnb.
HARTEVELDT: So they just concluded, better to go out now.
ALLYN: Instead of ringing the bell on the floor of the Nasdaq, Airbnb released a video of hosts around the world ringing their doorbells.
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ALLYN: Co-founder Brian Chesky then thanked employees and the Airbnb community for sticking with them through a roller-coaster year.
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BRIAN CHESKY: And finally, to our investors, thank you for believing in us, even when it wasn't always the obvious thing to do.
ALLYN: Investors have responded. Airbnb's stock price doubled in early trading.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.