Villa dell Angelo in Monsummano Terme, in Tuscany, Italy, is a Luxe property advertised on Airbnb. Picture: Airbnb
Villa dell Angelo in Monsummano Terme, in Tuscany, Italy, is a Luxe property advertised on Airbnb. Picture: Airbnb

Airbnb, the accommodation platform founded on the promise of cheap sleeps in spare rooms and on blow-up beds, is venturing into the world of luxury - offering properties to rent for up to $1m (R14.3m) a week.

The company launched its "Airbnb Luxe" sub-brand this week, with a portfolio of 2,000 upmarket rentals worldwide. They include beachfront villas in the Caribbean, French châteaus and historic Tuscan homes, as well as grand apartments in US and European cities.

The most expensive Airbnb ever listed is Nukutepipi, a private atoll in French Polynesia that sleeps up to 52 and comes with staff including chefs, housekeepers, massage therapists and dive masters - though the Polynesian dance group costs extra.

Rates for Airbnb Luxe properties will average about $2,000 a night, compared to $150 for "Plus" listings, the site's existing designation for smarter rentals.

"This is that next level that was necessary so we can fulfil our 'anyone belongs anywhere' model," says Nick Guezen, Airbnb's director of portfolio strategy. "There are luxury travellers out there who don't want to stay in a shared room or one of the smaller properties on the site; this gives them an offering so anyone can travel with Airbnb."

The platform was set up in 2008 when Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia inflated three airbeds in the living room of their San Francisco apartment. It quickly became a pioneer of the "sharing economy", expanding into offering spare rooms, then entire apartments.

Interaction with the owner, or "host", was a key part of the experience, pitched as a conduit to the best local experiences.

Recent years have seen significant diversification, with the site increasingly offering stays in conventional holiday accommodation - hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and commercially run self-catering properties.

Earlier this month, it moved into tour operating with the launch of Airbnb Adventures, offering camping, hiking and trekking.

A push upmarket has been expected since Airbnb acquired Luxury Retreats, a Canadian vacation rental company, in 2017.

Such expansion has been criticised by some Airbnb hosts for diluting the platform's identity and sense of community. "It's just becoming a quagmire of identikit condos hosted by some entity with 100s of listings and Ikea beds piled high," complained one Seattle host on the platform's discussion forum.

However, the diversification offers the company protection against potential government moves to restrict the rental of privately owned accommodation.

Last week, 10 European cities wrote to the EU to demand more help in combating the growth of short-stay letting platforms, which they argue is pricing out locals.

The company bills the "hand-picked" Luxe properties as "unique and spectacular", saying they are "destinations in themselves". To ensure they meet the required standard, photographs of each have been evaluated against 300 criteria, followed by a visit in person from a 300-strong team of freelance "home consultants" worldwide.

In practice, many are already available through other agents or direct. The Fleming Villa in Jamaica, for example, one of five properties selected by Airbnb to publicise the launch, is actually part of the GoldenEye resort and can be booked direct or through a wide range of established tour operators.

Another, a Kensington house for nine, is listed with rival platform One Fine Stay.

Guezen said "a small set" of the 2,000 Luxe properties were exclusive to the site but declined to give specifics. He said customers were likely to book via the platform rather than direct because of its ease-of-use and familiarity, as well as the trip planning and concierge services available.

Customers are offered a range of extras, including airport transfers, catering, childcare and spa treatments, all at additional cost. A team of 25 "trip designers" based in Montreal will co-ordinate requests.

Airbnb reports a rising demand for upmarket properties, saying rentals costing more than $1,000 a night increased by more than 60% in 2018 compared to the previous year. It hopes to double the number of Luxe listings over the next 12 to 18 months, focusing particularly on urban properties for both short holidays and business trips. - © The Financial Times