Sharing economy companies have truly changed how we visit destinations, how we stay there, and how we move around.
Services such as Uber and Airbnb have taken the best of the web, mobile, and social to create travel products that allow people to find rides or places to stay with an ease that was previously unheard of. Their success has shown the errors of regulation in some areas, as well as demonstrated that hubris and a disregard for local laws isn’t the hinderance to success that one would assume.
Will they live up to the $10 billion-plus valuations we see at Airbnb and Uber, will they be snapped up by older companies hedging their bets, or will they go the IPO route and seek Facebook-like validation for their products?
In this two-part series, we’ll look at the poster children for the movement: Airbnb and Uber. First up is Airbnb.
The Case for Airbnb
Our research and coverage of Airbnb has bucked the fawning editorial trends of the tech and travel press, as well as provided real data to help everyone — from other media outlets in San Francisco or London to state officials in New York — better understand the service. When it comes to local laws, contracts with landlords, and tax issues, we continue to see big challenges ahead for the site.
But behind that is a deep respect for how Airbnb has transformed how one person can rent their home to another. There’s a reason that industry pioneer HomeAway looks closely at everything Airbnb does and why Marriott’s CEO tips his hat to them. It’s a phenomena, and it’s often the smartest guy in the room.
Here’s how Airbnb made things better:
Transactions are safer and easier: Amounts are kept by the service until a stay is complete and all parties are satisfied. Prior to Airbnb, getting a vacation home or short-term rental involved payments that were fraught with red flags: Western Union money transfers to a guy in central Florida, a cashier’s check left at a bodega, all the money upfront for an unseen beach house on the Jersey shore.
At Airbnb users are given a level of comfort and security by being able to pay for transactions with credit cards, having amounts set aside until the trip is complete, and being able to dispute charges or request refunds. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer to a hotel-like experience than what existed before it came on the scene.
Feedback is transparent: Vacation rental sites were really just modern classifieds before Airbnb emerged. An owner or real estate agent would buy space, post their listing and the space was theirs. There was no easy way for guests to leave comments or share experiences, and no way for future guests to get advice from previous ones. And God knows how long ago those photos were taken.
But since hosts do not own their listing page on Airbnb, guests can rate and review without fear. Hosts can review back, knowing that bad guests will be called out by other hosts. That’s the advantage of Airbnb’s model: take a cut of the transaction rather than sell space.
Discovery is easy: Searching on Airbnb is like Booking.com or Starwood. You see rooms, locations, prices, amenities, and so on upfront. Sorting is an ease, and there is original content from local experts explain destinations. Since guests are often looking at lodging outside of city centers, the big maps tell you right where you’ll be. Guests can read about hosts and see previous guest reviews to determine if they’re staying with someone who knows what she’s doing, or just some dude trying to dump his crappy studio on some poor tourist for the weekend.
Pictures are nice: Looking at pictures on some old-school sites results in a “what were you thinking?” moment. Airbnb still offers to send professionals to your house to photograph the place in many markets. Genius. There’s a reason why users spend more time on Airbnb than any other travel booking site: It’s half travel planner, half real estate porn. Want to see the inside of a cool Venice, California bungalow? A Paris pied-à-terre? Go to Airbnb. It’s a Pinterest with direct booking.
The flip side is also true. When a host can’t be bothered to take a good picture, they may not be bothered to clean the sheets or empty the fridge. Or they are truly scary.
Cities are bigger: While we reject Airbnb’s characterization of what their typical hosts are like, we agree completely with their arguments for how they’ve made cities bigger. New York’s most popular neighborhoods are not the ones with the most hotels; Harlem has one good hotel, but 1,000 Airbnb listings. A simple search on Airbnb by neighborhood in other markets tells the same story.
This tells us a lot about how people like to travel now. They don’t always want to be stuck in a central district with other tourists (although many do, because that also means better transport and services) and they’re seeking out alternatives.
Rentals are safe: We’ve ignored the stories about Airbnb orgies, call-girls, and destruction because they’re so fringe as to be not worth covering. The Airbnb squatter? Fascinating but rare. If you’re a user or a host you can almost always rely on the review system to alert you of bad actors and you can pick and choose based on the criteria that’s important to you.
We pay for the Associated Press, Reuters, and news feeds from papers across the U.S. and can tell you that there’s not a day goes by when there’s not a crime at some hotel — murder, child trafficking, Crystal Meth production. But it’s a rarity at Airbnb. This will likely not last for ever — the social graph can only protect you so far once you become wildly popular — but it has worked so far.