Airbnb: the mad­cap idea that rev­o­lu­tionised travel

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

For years, I never con­sid­ered us­ing Airbnb. In the back of my mind were var­i­ous as­sump­tions and prej­u­dices: it was for stu­dents; the places would be dirty; the hosts cer­ti­fi­able; just not, well… proper. For mid­dle-aged peo­ple with jobs, like me, there were ho­tels. Airbnb was one of those youth­ful pur­suits, like camp­ing, that was safely be­hind me.

Then I found my­self look­ing for a place to stay in a par­tic­u­larly re­mote part of France. There was nowhere. So, for the first time, I fired up the Airbnb site. And my as­sump­tions were shat­tered by chateaux. This, it be­came clear, was the gate­way to any­where and ev­ery­where, for any bud­get.

That day Airbnb solved my ac­com­mo­da­tion prob­lem in ru­ral France (in a nurs­ery teacher’s tiny, im­mac­u­lately clean loft bed­room). Since then it has pushed the bound­aries of my travel ex­pe­ri­ences. I have even, I con­fess, spent a night in a gipsy car­a­van. But not all my prej­u­dices have been dashed. Ear­lier this year, on a fam­ily trip to Ghent, we turned up af­ter a long jour­ney to find the flat had not been cleaned. Bend­ing down to plug in my phone charger I discovered the used con­doms of the pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pants by the bed.

Yet the fact is, for good and for ill, I am now an Airbnb cus­tomer. A stag­ger­ing 150mil­lion or so of us are. From the tiny, scuzzy up­start of my imag­in­ing, Airbnb has be­come a be­he­moth that has fun­da­men­tally changed both the way we travel and the way the travel busi­ness treats us. And this, if the com­pany has any say in the mat­ter, is just the be­gin­ning. Those look­ing for a taste of the high life can rent the Kansas man­sion of celebrity cou­ple, Chrissy Teigen and John Leg­end, for £7,779 a night.

For to­day Airbnb is a por­tal that con­nects its users not just to “homes” but also to “ex­pe­ri­ences” and “restau­rants”. It is easy to for­get that it started, 10 years ago this month, as the mad­cap ex­per­i­ment of three young men (to­day still only in their late 30s) – an ex­per­i­ment in which blow-up mat­tresses were oblig­a­tory (hence “Air”) as was break­fast (B&B).

Back then the pres­ence of hosts, too, was com­pul­sory. The site ini­tially didn’t per­mit the ren­tal of an en­tire flat or house; the whole point was to force peo­ple to bunk up with strangers, dunk­ing them in that hippy-dippy spirit of serendip­ity that so of­ten ac­com­pa­nies travel.

And like so many happy-go-lucky ideas, it was bet­ter in the­ory than in prac­tice. Both hosts and guests were re­luc­tant to sign up. No one wanted to in­vest. Only the ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ter­mi­na­tion and oc­ca­sional sleight of hand of its founders – de­sign stu­dents Brian Ch­esky and Joe Geb­bia and coder Nathan Blechar­czyk – kept it afloat. At one early, vi­tal pitch their griz­zled in­ter­locu­tor merely whis­tled and said: “Wow, you guys are like cock­roaches. You just won’t die.”

Yet since then it has grown re­morse­lessly, ex­po­nen­tially, so that it now oc­cu­pies a po­si­tion of ex­tra­or­di­nary power in the travel busi­ness, with a val­u­a­tion of more than $30bil­lion (£23bil­lion).

Mar­riott, the world’s largest ho­tel op­er­a­tor, has an in­ven­tory of 1.1mil­lion rooms in 110 coun­tries. Airbnb has three times as many list­ings in 191 coun­tries. And, of course, they’re not just rooms. They’re flats (1.7mil­lion world­wide), houses (798,440), cas­tles (3,800), boats (7,016), tree­houses (1,640), ge­o­desic domes (696) – you name it. Since those early blow-up­mat­tress days, the site has come a long way.

In do­ing so it has rev­o­lu­tionised the way we travel – con­sign­ing to the bin the past half-cen­tury’s win­ning for­mula of re­li­able if fre­quently iden­tikit ho­tel chain rooms.

So big has it grown, the way the once-vul­ner­a­ble up­start busi­ness is The high­est growth rates are out­side of city cen­tres: sub­urbs of pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions, but also ru­ral ar­eas. Amer­ica, for ex­am­ple, saw a 20 per cent in­crease in ru­ral list­ings just in the three months to May this year. In a decade, Airbnb has moved from a player in the trav­el­lodg­ing busi­ness to a plat­form for it. Hol­i­day vil­las, which used to have their own web­sites, now just book through Airbnb. Even ho­tel chains (such as Mar­riott, Hy­att and AccorHotels), which view the site as an arch-ri­val, ad­ver­tise their own va­ca­tion rentals on Airbnb. Good­bye air mat­tress, hello thread count. Airbnb is ze­ro­ing in on the lux­ury mar­ket, with its new “Plus” cat­e­gory. How­ever, per­ceived has changed, too. Th­ese days com­peti­tors are leery of its power; gov­ern­ments are wor­ried about its ef­fect on avail­able hous­ing stock, and many res­i­dents are up­set about the im­pact they see it hav­ing on their cities – hol­low­ing them out as home own­ers in count­less cen­tri storici (his­tor­i­cal cen­tres) cash in on global tourism – the new gold rush that in­stead of re­quir­ing you to head to the Klondike, brings vis­i­tors from the Klondike (and ev­ery­where else) to you.

It adds up to some­thing so game-chang­ing, it’s hard to get a mea­sure of. But part of that is in­tended. Airbnb doesn’t re­lease most of its data, cit­ing pri­vacy con­cerns. So to get the num­bers, third-party com­pa­nies such as AirDNA probe and scrape Airbnb’s site for the statis­tics that re­veal the mag­ni­tude of the Airbnb story.

Growth has been re­mark­able. Take Lon­don. At the end of 2014 there were 13,098 list­ings on the site (7,061 en­tire homes; 5,905 pri­vate rooms; 132 shared rooms). To­day that fig­ure is 56,790 (31,786 en­tire homes; 24,355 pri­vate rooms; 649 shared rooms) – an in­crease of more than 400 per cent.

This is clearly no longer the in­ter­net-en­abled sofa-surf­ing plat­form for yoof of yore – the one that be­gan when Ch­esky and Geb­bia, look­ing to make a lit­tle cash when a con­fer­ence was in town and ho­tel space was short, pumped up a few air mat­tresses in their flat in San Fran­cisco. Then the pair made a few hun­dred dol­lars. Now, dur­ing an­other peak time – like the Wim­ble­don Cham­pi­onships – Airbnb es­ti­mates hosts near the Plus is a box that own­ers tick for them­selves, so it re­mains to be seen how re­li­able it is. The same goes for self-re­port­ing of ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures for dis­abled guests – which Airbnb in­tro­duced in March. Se­niors (aged 60 and older) are the fastest-grow­ing de­mo­graphic of Airbnb hosts in Europe. The num­ber of se­nior hosts in Europe nearly dou­bled from 2015 to 2016. Se­niors are also the best-re­viewed hosts on Airbnb in Europe. Hosts 60 and older re­ceive a higher per­cent­age of five-star re­views than any other age group in Europe (70 per cent). Rome, Ber­lin, Ch­ester, Philadel­phia; Bournemouth, Ade­laide, York, War­saw… when I think back on some of the amaz­ing places I’ve vis­ited over the past four years, my mem­o­ries are in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­laced with the pri­vate homes and apart­ments in which I have stayed and the peo­ple who have hosted me – all of them through Airbnb.

Ad­mit­tedly, my re­la­tion­ship with the ac­com­mo­da­tion web­site didn’t get off to a great start. The first date was in Rome – not the Rome of the Colos­seum and the Fo­rum, but a flat in a soul­less devel­op­ment a bus ride away from the end sta­tion of the un­der­ground. In­side, though, it was slick, stylish, Ne­spres­so­cof­fee-ma­chineper­fect. It had a very neat, calm­ing gar­den. Its owner Gian (who we met for a cof­fee) was charm per­son­i­fied.

Airbnb was worth a sec­ond date: the venue this time was a self-con­tained stu­dio flat with some classy retro touches ad­ja­cent to the home of an ar­chi­tect cou­ple in the trendy Ber­lin dis­trict of Friedrichshain (above right).

The next ad­ven­ture, a place de­scribed on the site as War­saw Nest, was a trea­sure trove of an apart­ment with nooks and cran­nies and dé­cor to de­light. My wife and I both loved it – and wished we lived there.

As in any re­la­tion­ship, there were hic­cups ahead. Some of the places we sub­se­quently booked did fall short – in an oth­er­wise lovely town­house in Philadel­phia that we had to our­selves, there was half-eaten food in the fridge and al­most no wardrobe/ stor­age space; a stay in a room in a cou­ple’s house in the West Sus­sex vil­lage of Bosham in­volved a lengthy wait for the bath­room in the morn­ing; a base­ment flat in the his­toric part of Ade­laide was both cold and dark.

I con­fess there have been the odd in­fi­deli­ties, too. We’ve oc­ca­sion­ally re­turned to the known em­brace of book­ and in­deed the trusty ho­tel tips of

it­self. But in truth even af­ter four years, the ex­cite­ment and chal­lenge of Airbnb and the fun of feel­ing like you are liv­ing as a lo­cal re­mains fresh. I’ve just booked stay num­ber 20 in Brighton next month. And I can’t wait.

Adrian Bridge

tour­na­ment make a to­tal of £2mil­lion.

The trend, cer­tainly, is away from its am­a­teur roots and to­wards pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion. Many new list­ings th­ese days are not posted by in­di­vid­u­als but by va­ca­tion-ren­tal man­age­ment com­pa­nies (VRMs) whose staff man­age port­fo­lios of prop­er­ties for clients and typ­i­cally take 10-30 per cent of the rev­enue. Other list­ings are from bou­tique ho­tels and tra­di­tional B&Bs. Un­able to beat or even re­sist the in­ter­net up­start, th­ese old-school prop­er­ties have been forced to join it.

Oth­ers fight back. In some places around the world the orig­i­nal Airbnb model was il­le­gal. So the site has tried to strike deals with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, like the one in Lon­don that now lim­its rentals to 90 days a year (the site ac­tu­ally bans list­ings once that thresh­old has been reached, though some hosts re-list, or list on other por­tals).

“It’s prob­a­bly true that there are some im­pli­ca­tions for the over­all avail­abil­ity of hous­ing stock,” says David Gray­don, who runs the Face­book group Airbnb Hosts UK. “But many peo­ple are us­ing the cash from an ex­tra room to run fam­ily bud­gets or help with the kids at school. They are mak­ing use of an as­set which wasn’t be­ing used

Airbnb now at­tracts many 60+ guests; a Pitts­burgh list­ing, be­low

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