The Airbnb Revolution Spreads Far and Wide
November 5, 2013
Get in on the ground floor of a new trend in accommodations with Airbnb.com, the pioneers of the “Sharing Economy,” which we will investigate over the course of a new multi-part series. Story by Jim Algie
Published on Nov 5, 2013
For the past few years, two of the most resonant buzzwords reverberating through the travel world are “authentic experiences.” In a tourism world that is more and more packaged and prefabricated, glossy and shrink-wrapped, the appetite for reality checks is a growing hunger.
That is part of what has propelled airbnb.com into the front ranks of popularity. Pretty much the standard-bearers of the sharing economy, this website for booking non-standard accommodations (no hotels, resorts or guesthouses) has evolved into a cyber-sensation.
The brainchild of two young Rhode Island School of Design graduates, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, only looking for extra cash by housing conference attendees in California on airbeds in their house, Airbnb raked in a tidy sum of US$150 million in 2012. Forbes has predicted that by the year 2020 this could be a billion-dollar company.
The website offers rooms in over 34,000 cities scattered across 192 countries. At first glance, what astonishes about the accommodations on offer in countries like Japan is their variety, from the domestic, “Sweet Family Warmly Welcomes You,” to a penthouse, from the homey-sounding “Typical Japanese Apartment with Cat” to “Private Studio” and “Woman only.”
The descriptions of these digs, and the amenities on offer, down to the nitty gritty of the minimum stay, security deposit (if any), cleaning fees, are extenisve.
A host named Jenny, who offers a private room in an apartment in Singapore, describes its thusly: “The room for rent is bright and sunny, furnished with a double bed with all-white sheets, a desk and ample storage space, plus a brand new air-conditioner. The apartment is furnished with designer furniture, art and antiques from around the world; is equipped with a full-sized kitchen complete with an oven and dishwasher, and has high-speed wifi.”
Staying in such places makes sound fiscal sense, in these days of rickety economies and manic-depressive money markets (up one day, down the next). Visitors can save up to 50% or more over traditional hotel accommodations, especially in pricier countries like the US and Japan.
But saving money only accounts for part of the allure. For Anika (a pseudonym) her first guests “seemed to have chosen me more for the experience of meeting local expats rather than for inexpensive accommodation which is plentiful in Bangkok. The second evening we socialized, had a couple of drinks and talked about traveling and living in Asia.”
The thirst that travelers have to drink in real life and gulp down as much local color as possible cannot be underrated, says Hollis (another pseudonym), who has experienced Airbnb both as a host in Japan, where he lives, and as a frequent traveler who has booked rooms through the website in Barcelona, Istanbul, Munich, New York city, Montreal, London, Bali, and Singapore.
Of these bookings, only two were disappointing. “The place in Barcelona was a little small, but it was really convenient. I stayed with two gay guys. They were nice and they even made me breakfast, but the picture on the website was a little deceiving. It looked bright and airy in the photo, but they were actually using low-wattage bulbs and there was no natural light. Plus I could only use the living room for breakfast. After that it was off limits. So I was sentenced to the low-wattage dungeon again,” he said, groaning and laughing simultaneously.
Hollis recommends using Airbnb for Europe. In places like Berlin and Istanbul, he has enjoyed old world elegance with modern amenities and panoramic views over these architecturally rich cities.
“For 100 Euros you can have a three-bedroom apartment in Kreutzberg, one of the hippest and most happening neighbourhoods, in a slightly older building. It’s hotel prices for much nicer digs.”
Renowned for its clean design and user-friendly interface, airbnb.com also excels at giving overviews of neighborhoods. Unlike some of the user-generated posts on hotel review websites and travel blogs, which tend to be shoddily written and poorly photographed, these texts and images stand out.
For this Tokyo community, they write:
“Shimokitazawa shares Harajuku's highly stylized aesthetic, but it’s slightly removed from the masses that gather in the center of the city. Chaotic in a charming way, Shimokitazawa is more organic than organized—its roads are sinewy and nearly too narrow for cars, its architecture endearingly haphazard, and its look meticulously inelegant.”
The section “Find a Neighbourhood” breaks down these larger communities into easier-to-digest chunks, such as “Great Transit,” “Wining and Dining,” “Historical,” “High Fashion” and “Sub Culture.”
Meanwhile, “On the Map” gives you the big geographic picture and, under the sub-head, “Shimokitazawa: Fashion, Style, and Design In Mind,” loads of well-shot photographs give street-level views to counter any pie-in-the-sky claims. That section is interspersed with comments from recent visitors (Ari says, “For those who don’t know, this is the place to stay in Tokyo: laid-back, creative, good coffee, little laneways, great eateries, and close to the action.") as well as quotes from people renting out accommodations. Those quotes and comments personalize the website in a way that guidebooks, with their omniscient voices, cannot.
Whether staying in a big hotel with 600 rooms or in a high-wayside motel on the far fringes of nowhere, the hospitality trade can seem a tad inhospitable at times, the sincerity insincere and the cheeriness contrived.
Many hosts on Airbnb.com endeavor to add personal touches and more personality to their room services.
Says Anika, “I keep maps and guidebooks for guests to peruse while they’re here. I also answer any questions they may have about how to get around, recommendations on restaurants and nightclubs, interesting areas, where to shop, etcetera.”
Hollis gives his guests the benefit of his expat wisdom in Tokyo, with tips like, “You can go around the corner to this little noodle shop. It’s a little dirty but the noodles rock. A hotel would not do that.”
With those inside scoops the hosts provide an additional service for free, which may also not be in a guidebook or on TripAdvisor. Some of the hosts (frustrated hoteliers, no doubt) like playing the go-to guy or girl – the casual concierge – and going that extra mile to please their guests. “I love helping people out. At the moment I’m trying to find rugby tickets for two of my guests,” says Hollis.
Safety is bound to be an issue, but it’s a non-starter when Airbnb assures you on their homepage under the banner “Trust and Safety from verified ID to our worldwide customer support team, we've got your back.”
What comes up on other pages is that crucial question, How does Airbnb promote safety?
+ Educate yourself about safety
+ 24/7 phone support
Rich user profiles and reviews
Anika expands on these claims. “The sign-up for both hosts and guests is personalized by name and photograph so you can get some sense of who they are, plus there’s a bit of back and forth emailing beforehand about room availability, location, etcetera.”
The review system for both hosts and guests polices the system. “If you go below a certain rating,” says Hollis, “they kick you off the site. They really try to keep up the quality.”
That’s hardly hyperbole. Those claims are backed up by the telltale reviews, which are detailed and helpful. In one review from the Singapore section of Airbnb, Kesavan wrote: “Shreya was a great host. She walked us through the apartment and was always contactable during our stay to answer any of our questions. She even stocked up the fridge with a few essentials! The apartment was exactly as presented - clean and with all amenities we required. We would definitely stay here again!”
Such commitments to honesty and quality could help the website to weather the inevitable storm of imitators and competitors, some of whom may be willing to sacrifice long-term credibility for short-term gains.
The future of such services may still be fuzzy. What’s coming into sharper focus in the big picture of the sharing economy is that, for many travelers of today, “authentic experiences” need not be a single outing or the occasional daytrip, but a way of life on the road that straddles a junction where meals, wheels, and accommodation deals merge.
In the second part of this series, Jim Algie looks at what’s cooking at Plateculture.com and other sites where hosts invite travelers to their houses for home-cooked meals.