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Airbnb is debuting an 'Up' house that levitates and 10 other pop-culture-themed rentals

By Bill Peters

'These properties ... have been a great source of traffic and engagement for Airbnb,' Bernstein analysts say

After its "Barbie" Malibu Dreamhouse house last year lit up the internet, Airbnb Inc. wants to make going viral a more regular thing, announcing on Wednesday a new category dedicated solely to pop-culture-themed rentals inspired by films like "Up" and "Purple Rain" and celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Doja Cat.

The online rental platform made that announcement as spending on travel continues to clash with spending on groceries and other basics. But some Wall Street analysts say the new segment, called Icons, could help bring new and existing users to the online rental platform.

Airbnb shares (ABNB) rose 1.4% on Thursday, and are up about 16% year to date.

The company also suggested the rentals could attract more interest abroad. And similar to the "Barbie" house - which was part of the "Barbie" movie's gargantuan marketing campaign last year - those locations could be used as promotional tools for other films, shows and celebrities.

"There are natural moments when culture celebrates these people, and that's when we want to participate," Hiroki Asai, global head of marketing at Airbnb, said in an interview at a launch event in a studio in Los Angeles. "And that's when we want people to use the platform."

Among the new rentals that are either available for booking requests now or will be later this year: A replica of Carl's house from the Disney (DIS) and Pixar movie "Up," with more than 8,000 balloons attached to the roof, that levitates via crane; a recreation of the X-Mansion in Westchester, N.Y., whose interior and furnishings have been painted over to look like the "X-Men" comic; and the house in Minneapolis from "Purple Rain," with which Airbnb worked with Prince's estate, and where fans can listen to unreleased Prince tracks. The musical duo Wendy & Lisa, who played in the Revolution - Prince's backing band during some of his biggest hits in the 1980s - will host.

Asai said that the launch of the X-Mansion, which people can request now, and the Purple Rain house, available for booking requests starting in August, were timed roughly to coincide with the Disney+ animated series "X-Men '97," whose first season ends May 15, and the 40th anniversary of "Purple Rain."

Others, like a stay at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, are timed with the Summer Olympics. That stay will offer a private tour of of the museum's Impressionist collection, and the bedroom terrace will offer a view of the Olympics' opening ceremony along the Seine.

Asai said that other events - including a stay hosted by Bollywood star Janhvi Kapoor in Chennai, India, and a week on tour with reggaeton artist Feid - would help Airbnb broaden its appeal in India and Latin America.

Other events offered by the Icons segment include a game night with TikToker Khaby Lame in Milan. Airbnb users can also sign up for a tequila tasting with comedian Kevin Hart and a living-room performance by the artist Doja Cat.

During a presentation at the launch event - which offered a walk-through tour of the "Up" house replica - Chief Executive Brian Chesky said the Icons segment was "a decade in the making." And he said it arrived after the company found success in rentals modeled after an Ikea bedroom, the nation's last remaining Blockbuster Video outlet in Oregon and the Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse.

"What if we made these experiences even bigger, did them all the time, and you could find them directly in the app?" Chesky said. "Well, that is exactly what we've done."

Bernstein analysts suggested the new Icons category could be used to help engagement.

"These properties (for example, the Barbie Dreamhouse) have been a great source of traffic and engagement for Airbnb," they said in a research note on Wednesday.

"Airbnb [is] suggesting that these limited-time properties will now be announced on Airbnb first, encouraging users to regularly check into the site to make sure nothing is missed," they added.

Anyone interested in one of the Icons stays will have to submit a request saying why they want to go. Airbnb, via the help of an outside group, will select visitors based on what they write in that request. How long that selection process takes depends on the location.

It was unclear whether Airbnb might break out any financials for the segment, or exactly how many Icons offerings would be made after the 11 announced on Wednesday. But Jay Carney, Airbnb's global head of policy and communications, said the category would be sticking around.

The bigger move into such stays has meant that Airbnb has had to reach further into new spaces like set design, event planning and construction. Chesky said that for the "Up" house, the company had to work with structural engineers in an effort to ensure the house would stay intact while lifted by a crane usually used to lift windmills (and don't worry, guests won't be inside when it's raised but can watch from the ground). The interior of the X-Mansion, he said, included the props and the plants, was hand-painted.

Carney said that the company contracts out the builds on some of those properties, and said the teams they worked with were the same as those on its "Barbie" and "Shrek" properties. The seeming ubiquity of the "Barbie" house, he suggested, was a reason to move forward with other properties like it.

"When you're onto something, you should probably double down on it," Carney said.

-Bill Peters

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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05-02-24 1845ET

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