Airbnb seemingly has it all. If you want a Dolly Parton-themed pad for a Nashville bachelorette party or just a bed and pillow to crash as you work your way around the world, chances are you can find some version of what you’re looking for in the home-sharing site’s arsenal of over 7 million listings.
For many travelers, the first step in planning a trip is heading to the company’s site or app and searching the intended destination for the listing that best fits their needs: the coolest, the cheapest, the most Instagram-friendly, the closest, the most remote, or even just the only one that was available.
But while Airbnb almost always feels accessible, it’s the company’s most exclusive offerings, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities “Only On” Airbnb, like spending the night in an over-the-top, real-life version of Barbie’s Malibu Dream House or a movie-filled sleepover in the world’s last Blockbuster, that continuously have people talking.
“To say once [in] a lifetime is technically an understatement because once in a lifetime presumes that many people could do that once in their life,” Airbnb CEO and co-founder, Brian Chesky, told Travel + Leisure, “and truthfully it’s one person or one family could do this once in their lifetime. So it’s even more exclusive than that.”
Chesky and his team aren’t purposefully trying to be exclusive. They’re trying to tug at heartstrings and capture people’s attention by infusing their social media feeds with a quick but powerful hit of nostalgia.
“My hope is that… things from your childhood could become real,” Chesky said, “and we could be able to step in those again and kind of relive those moments.”
And that’s exactly what the soon-to-be publicly traded company is doing. Just last week, Airbnb launched its latest experience of the kind, joining forces with megastar Will Smith to transform the real-life mansion from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a temporary listing — with Smith as the host — to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary. And the fans reacted: Smith’s Instagram post about the announcement racked up over 3.5 million likes.
Like Airbnb, Only On experiences are rooted in a simple idea: One night on a walk, over a decade ago, according to Chesky, he passed an illuminated furniture showroom sparking the vision to transform the company’s offices into recreations of actual Airbnb listings. Then, “within a year or two,” he told T+L, “we decided, what if we took the idea even further?”
Furniture, it seemed, was a constant theme in the early days. On a trip to Ikea with co-founder Joe Gebbia, the pair joked it would “be really funny if you could book one of the Ikea rooms on Airbnb.” Eventually, Chesky recalled, an Airbnb team in Australia made it happen, transforming a Sydney store into a one-night-only listing for three lucky families.
“Ikea hired a classical quintet or something to play the violin over their bed while they were sleeping,” Chesky said of that first experience. “It was this kind of ridiculous thing — and we just kept going even crazier.”
The ideas started to pour, shifting from the obvious — haven’t we all wanted to spend the night in an Ikea showroom? — to complex ideas that a normal person or brand could probably never recreate. “What if you could sleep in Portugal [on] a ski slope? You know, what if you’d sleep here and there,” Chesky said. “And the idea is to start getting more fantastic.”
“At its best, Airbnb homes aren’t just spaces, they’re experiences,” Chesky said, and he’s relying on the creativity of the Airbnb community to continue to innovate and grow to inspire the next round of Only On Airbnb experiences. Brands near and far are vying to create partnerships together, which Chesky sees as a “win-win.” But it’s also investing in everyday people with big ideas, even launching a fund to give a million dollars to hosts to create “the most outrageous, spectacular home ideas ever.”
In reality, the vast majority of people will never actually get to stay at any of these places — and that doesn’t matter. “It brings a smile to your face just to imagine being there,” Chesky said. It also (and more importantly, depending on who you’re asking) brings attention to the brand as “a really cool kind of marketing,” as the CEO put it.
Airbnb is cementing itself in our collective pop-culture obsessed minds as the place that brings our collective pop-culture obsessions to life. With them, if only for a night or as you scroll through your Instagram feed, you actually can be Barbie, or the Fresh Prince, or whatever the company is planning to bring to life next.
Editors Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tanner Saunders is an Associate Editor at Travel + Leisure who thinks Dolly Parton should have an Airbnb. Follow him on Instagram @Tizanner.