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Airbnb looks beyond flat-sharing to tickets and travel

Sarah Mishkin

Home-rental start-up Airbnb, recently valued at $10bn, is trying to expand from enabling people to let out their flats or holiday homes to helping their visitors buy and pay for everything from event tickets to travel.

The company's valuation has quadrupled in the past two years as it brought to life the so-called sharing economy, the linking up of individuals who want to temporarily lend what they own to others willing to pay for it.

Chris Weeks | Getty Images for Airbnb

The popularity of sharing economy start-ups – including Lyft, the ride-sharing app, and TaskRabbit, a platform for hiring casual labour – has exploded in recent years, as has the venture capital flowing into them.

But now, said Nate Blecharczyk, Airbnb's co-founder and chief technical officer, the start-up was looking beyond its roots.

The focus is figuring out how to use the service to sell other products to its millions of users in nearly 200 countries.

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"Bottom line, it could eventually be anything, whether you want to book a dinner reservation or plane tickets or whatever we can take your money . . . and we can route it appropriately," said Mr Blecharczyk. "It's definitely something we're actively working on."

Ultimately, said Mr Blecharczyk, it wanted to offer those who used its service to rent strangers' homes, or flats, or in some cases igloos, "the convenience that you might expect of a hotel".

The move into value-added services also comes as the company is fighting legal challenges to its core business, from landlords evicting renters whose leases or zoning codes bar them from sublets and from cities who argue the company should be taxed as are traditional hotels.

Airbnb raises $500 million
Airbnb raises $500 million

Amid those changes, he said, Airbnb users had taken the initiative to get creative in building on the site's core business model. One developer in Philadelphia was constructing a block of flats with a unit specifically permitted for short-term vacation rentals.

"There's probably a lot more opportunity for stuff like that in the future, but we don't necessarily have to be the driving force behind that," said Mr Blecharczyk. "There's a lot of different models you could image even if we don't do it."

Behind the company's move beyond flat-sharing and towards more standard travel services is the ecommerce platform that the site runs on. It can handle nearly 70 currencies – far more than most ecommerce sites – and has credit card or bank information for all of its users.

Read MoreBusiness, luxury travelers turning to Airbnb-type options

The growth of ecommerce has spurred companies from Apple to Google to look at ways to take advantage of the banking details they hold for their tens of millions of users. Airbnb, Mr Blecharczyk argued, had an advantage in using its user data to expand the service because it knew when a person was travelling and – because tourists were predictable – what they were likely to want.

While the company had not yet settled on how it would expand its offering, Mr Blecharczyk said, ultimately the expansion itself would help the company figure out where to go next.

"The more stuff that we handle, the more data we're able to collect about what it is that you are in the market for," he said.