Derek Pi­cot; Tam­sin Cocks

Is Airbnb re­ally fit for busi­ness trav­ellers?


Ihave fi­nally suc­cumbed to sign­ing up to Airbnb – not for any rea­son be­sides re­search, you un­der­stand. And it has been an ed­u­ca­tion: as a “host” (Airbnb’s term for some­one who lets out their house or rooms) I’m ex­pected to be an up­right ci­ti­zen who of­fers great ex­pe­ri­ences in my home.

Hav­ing reg­is­tered and con­sid­ered what my prospec­tive guests might like to en­joy as an added at­trac­tion to the cold driz­zle of sub­ur­bia where I live, I come to the ex­cit­ing part: I dis­cover that a room in my Lon­don house can rent for any­where be­tween £60 (US$77) and £85 (US$108) a night on Airbnb’s plat­form. At peak de­mand times, it’s a hand­some £245 (US$313). For that much money, you’d think I was an­nexed to the Dorch­ester.

The per­sua­sive web­site makes me feel as though I’m join­ing a brand new world of hosts and trav­ellers with a “sharinge­con­omy” ethos. All this for a mere 3 per cent com­mis­sion. But Airbnb also makes money from its guests, in­clud­ing a vari­able ser­vice charge on most book­ings start­ing at around 13 per cent.

I am won­der­ing what my wife will make of all this as she en­ter­tains my first lodgers with a pot­tery class in the gar­den while I wash the bed­sheets, change the tow­els and scrub the bath­room. Never let it be said that we are not an equal op­por­tu­nity house­hold.

A quick cal­cu­la­tion on the back of a bus ticket shows some­one is mak­ing a lot of money here – and it’s not us hosts; it’s the slick web­site.

Airbnb paid less than £200,000 (US$255,000) in UK cor­po­ra­tion tax in 2016-17 de­spite col­lect­ing £657 mil­lion (US$839 mil­lion) of rental pay­ments for prop­erty own­ers, the BBC re­ports. The UK com­mis­sions Airbnb earns are booked by its Ir­ish sub­sidiary, but it also has two UK sub­sidiaries. One unit made a pre-tax profit, but the other didn’t in­cur UK cor­po­ra­tion tax as de­duc­tions re­sulted in a loss.

The French, Ger­man and Span­ish gov­ern­ments have taken ac­tion to tighten the leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing Airbnb and its land­lords, and that has been partly em­u­lated in the UK. Hosts now can­not claim tax re­lief if they are not res­i­dent in their premises at the time of let­ting.

Build­ing on what ap­pears to be a ru­n­away gravy train, Airbnb re­cently added a new tool for com­pa­nies that book busi­ness travel. Any com­pany may now nom­i­nate a re­spon­si­ble per­son to book for their em­ploy­ees, pay for their ac­com­mo­da­tion and amend or can­cel book­ings. This has helped to widen Airbnb’s mar­ket, but it is still a case of caveat emp­tor (buyer be­ware), and book­ers may not al­ways be get­ting what they thought they had booked.

The en­tire le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity and risk for safety, health and well­be­ing dur­ing an em­ployee’s stay is taken by the land­lord. Airbnb does in­sure its hosts for ac­ci­den­tal dam­age, but there are no guar­an­tees for the trav­eller. The only way a con­sumer can check is to read the re­views and take the chance that it will all be won­der­ful.

If the ex­pe­ri­ence fla­grantly fails to live up to the de­scrip­tion, Airbnb un­der­takes to look at cus­tomer com­plaints but not to fight your case in the courts. “Hosts” are ex­pected to be good cit­i­zens and to ad­here to the lo­cal law – a tricky sit­u­a­tion for the trav­eller to re­solve if they visit a re­mote coun­try and find pic­tures of them­selves re­lax­ing in the spa bath sud­denly ap­pear­ing on the web. Airbnb ex­pects hosts to de­clare if they have hid­den cam­eras, but has no teeth to take ac­tion be­yond of­fer­ing a re­fund and black­list­ing the land­lord. That’s not en­tirely sat­is­fac­tory for a com­pany that books its em­ploy­ees into prob­lem­atic ac­com­mo­da­tion, be­cause per­son­nel may only be able to seek re­dress from their em­ployer.

While the num­ber of Airbnb trav­ellers grows, it is the ho­tels in prime Airbnb lo­ca­tions that lose out. They must con­form to a whole set of dif­fer­ent rules and gov­ern­ment leg­is­la­tion. Kitchens are health checked, rooms are graded and in­sur­ance must be in place. Phys­i­cal se­cu­rity should al­ways be on hand, and staff should al­ways be there to help guests. For the guests, the le­gal po­si­tion is much clearer: you are as­sured of what you are go­ing to get, and there’s no wor­ry­ing about who last slept in the sheets or where a spare toi­let roll is at a crit­i­cal mo­ment.

Mean­while, I’ve spruced up my spare room, made up an ex­tra set of keys and locked up the sil­ver – we’ve got mem­bers of the fam­ily com­ing to stay, and you can’t be too care­ful.

Some­one is mak­ing a lot of money here -- and it’s not us hosts; it’s the slick web­site

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