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Airbnb’s strengths can also be liabilities for many solo female business travelers.
The platform has grown increasingly popular every year because of its ability to connect travelers to local communities by offering a more immersive, authentic, and affordable travel experience for business and leisure travelers. It’s also a portal for self-discovery because it offers access into so many varied neighborhoods around the globe.
Airbnb is about experiencing the destination on your own terms. It’s about freedom, personalization, choice, and self-determination, but it also requires a degree of flexibility and independence on the part of the individual traveler.
That very lack of structure is what causes concerns among many females traveling alone to business meetings and conferences.
Their questions are many, including: Who else has keys to the listing? What if I need to call someone in an emergency? Is the neighborhood safe? Is the place clean? Will I feel comfortable if I can lock the doors completely from the inside? Who is the host, and how can I trust him or her? Can I trust the reviews?
Airbnb has safeguards in place, of course. Hosts and guests are verified through a number of identification requirements, and both sides review each other to provide a public record of behavior for each. But questions persist.
So we spoke with one female meeting planner and five women who’ve booked Airbnb for business purposes while traveling solo. Our goal was not to make broad generalizations but to better understand their concerns, and provide context around them.
Beginning with Tracy Stuckrath, president of Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings & Events, she is a meeting planner who’s well positioned to speak about Airbnb in terms of the unique user experience for female business travelers.
Stuckrath books Airbnb consistently when she attends conferences she’s not personally organizing. She is also an active Airbnb host who rents out her house to guests while she is both home and away. For her, Airbnb’s value proposition revolves around price and a more local destination experience.
“I’m always going to book Airbnb because I’m an independent planner who doesn’t want to spend $200 to $400 on a hotel room for three or four nights,” she said. “I do think there’s a trend there where more convention attendees are looking at Airbnb, and it depends on where your convention is and the availability in that city, but some people are hesitant to use it because they’re scared.”
Stuckrath said one conference hotel at a recent event in Boston she attended “was $450 a night, but I paid $119 for my Airbnb.”
She prefers choosing Airbnb’s “Full house/apt” option, where she’s the only person occupying the unit. Stuckrath will occasionally book Airbnb’s “Private room” option, which means sharing an occupied listing with the host, but only when the host is the only person present in the listing and there are no other Airbnb renters.
Everyone we spoke to for this story said that clear and accurate communication — in both the Airbnb listing descriptions and via the Airbnb messaging platform with hosts — is the most successful method to make them feel comfortable reserving an Airbnb.
“I think clear communication is the most important thing for sure, and then being very upfront about the neighborhood, and where you as the host are, and what you’re doing while the guest is there,” Stuckrath explained.
Shan Wang, a twentysomething journalist with Nieman Lab in Cambridge, Mass., has booked between 15-20 Airbnbs, about half of which were for conferences while traveling solo. She has rented both private rooms and full apartments, and she is comfortable with both.
“I generally like to book with women who have a clear story, so I want someone I can tell is working in the city, or maybe they have family there,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable when there’s not much written about the listing and the person.”
“The most important thing is communication beforehand,” concurred Pam Mandel, a Seattle-based journalist. “Clarity in the listing is the most critical thing to be sure it’s a positive experience and you get what you expect. I want a full description of anything that might be perceived as a security issue.”
Mandel said that hosts should also emphasize whether they will be in the area while guests are staying inside their listings. She also wants hosts to explain if the listing is the owner’s residence, or not.
“I think that’s great when I know I can call the host anytime,” she explained. “I would also like to know if I’m booking an owner-occupied listing or a vacation rental. Hotels are transactional in many ways, but with Airbnb it’s different so it’s important to explain everything.”
The Welcome Arrival: To Meet or Not To Meet
One of the biggest discrepancies in opinion among female business travelers booking Airbnb as a single traveler regards whether or not to meet the host upon arrival.
As a general observation, it seems that people new to Airbnb prefer to meet the host as soon as they arrive, especially in international destinations. For those more experienced with Airbnb and other sharing economy companies, many prefer a combination lock or an easily accessible lock box with a key to the front door, especially when they’re traveling on business.
“I like the idea of getting the key myself, getting in, and making the place my own right away,” said Avery Roth, CEO of New York-based Startup Consulting Group. “I don’t want to get into a personal conversation, because having to meet the host just adds another layer I have to deal with. Different women have different comfort levels though, so hosts could offer the option to meet or not to meet. Optionality is always a very good idea.”
Roth referenced an advertisement for the Seamless restaurant delivery service in New York: “8 Million People. We Help You Avoid Them All.” It’s the same idea with Airbnb for her. She said, “I don’t really want to call attention to myself when I travel on business.” However, it’s a different scenario for her when booking Airbnb for leisure travel, when she prefers to meet the hosts because, “They provide the framework for the experience.”
Cynthia Hellen is the founder and CEO of SMPLCT Lab, a brand consultancy company, and chapter leader of New York Women Social Entrepreneurs. She decided to try out Airbnb last year for the first time while attending the WECode conference at Harvard.
Hellen chose a listing with a female host, who gave her the code for the main door into the apartment complex and the door to the multi-unit Airbnb listing. However, Hellen had anticipated the host meeting her at the apartment, but that wasn’t the case.
“So here I am trying Airbnb for the first time, and all of the sudden I’m standing in someone else’s living room alone,” Hellen explained. “But that evening I met the other roommates. They were great, so we kind of bonded together.”
We asked Hellen how she felt entering someone else’s home alone when she didn’t expect it, and how that impacted her opinion of Airbnb.
“It would have been much easier if the host had been there, and it wasn’t really a feeling of panic, I just felt uneasy,” she answered. “There wasn’t enough communication beforehand, which I realize now. But I absolutely want to get Airbnb again, so it’s not a huge issue.”
Hellen added, “It would also be good to know if someone was readily available if something goes wrong. I think hosts should communicate if they’re accessible and nearby.”
The Local Neighborhood Experience
Like most Airbnb guests, Hellen said she appreciated the “little manual” that the hosts in Cambridge prepared for her to learn about the local neighborhood. To help choose a specific listing, many potential solo female guests are saying that they want a detailed description of the immediate neighborhood included in the description of the Airbnb listing itself.
Wang explained that she now only books Airbnb for business-related travel, because she likes the ability to select specific neighborhoods in destinations so she can feel like a local.
“I want to pick a location I want to be in while I’m traveling to a city, even if it’s a bit farther away from the business location,” she said. “If I’m going to be in a hotel all day for a conference, I don’t want to live in it.”
Because of that, Wang wants Airbnb hosts to better explain the “rhythm of the neighborhood” to help her choose a final listing.
“I’m actually grateful I don’t have to stay at hotels anymore,” Wang said. “My parents are starting to use Airbnb now too, but they’re a lot more careful about vetting the hosts.”
Nancy Branka is a business travel specialist at Bizly, a meetings venue-sharing company based in New York. She tried Airbnb for the first time during the GBTA Conference in Los Angeles in 2014, which she posted about here.
Like many other first-time Airbnb users, Branka was scheduled to attend a conference but the most preferential hotels in the room block were fully booked or too expensive, so she was faced with staying at a hotel far from the convention center. Instead, she decided to try out Airbnb.
“I was trying to get creative, and I was curious about Airbnb,” she said. “I was almost smug about how close I was able to get to the convention center, but I kind of had mixed feelings afterwards. I missed some of the features of a hotel. With hotels you develop a certain familiarity and set of expectations.”
Mainly, she felt unprepared for the immediate neighborhood where the Airbnb was located.
“Even though the location was convenient, the downtown Los Angeles area was kind of sketchy, and there were a lot of homeless people right outside the listing,” she said. “The price had a huge impact too, plus parking and Wi-Fi was free, so I wouldn’t necessarily consider Airbnb as a last resort. I would think about it in New York for example, because it can be a tough price point.”
Hellen, meanwhile, says that the local neighborhood is a top priority when choosing an Airbnb listing because, “You get a feel for the local culture and the local people when you’re staying in someone’s house, and you’ll learn more about their lifestyle. You feel like you’re living there.”
During her research phase, she looks specifically for Airbnb listings that are easy to find on a map, especially if she will be arriving after dark. “I want to know more about the neighborhood,” she said, “so that’s something that hosts can explain better to make me more comfortable.”
Clean & Comfortable Connote Security
Roth gave a really nuanced take on the Airbnb arrival process and the type of listings that make her feel most comfortable as a young female executive. She said she looks for Airbnbs that are clean and well-designed primarily, because if someone shows considerable care in their listing, it suggests they’ll provide the same diligent care for their guests. Bad couches and dark photos are a definite turn-off, especially.
“Certain interior style implies a level of cleanliness, where people have generally taken care of their place, and of course, I’m totally generalizing here,” she said. “Cleanliness above all else and aesthetic are definitely a priority.”
Roth also wants a balance between feeling like she’s staying in someone’s personal residence and feeling like she’s in a professional rental property. She wants a certain level of detachment from the owner’s life and overall presence, but at the same time, she wants a “very individual, kinda quirky experience.”
“There needs to be a balance between somebody’s home and being somewhat anonymous…. It’s about not feeling too like I’m in somebody’s personal space,” she told us. “I like Airbnb because I choose places with interior design elements that inspire my creativity. I like the character that I can fit into, and not something formal.”
The Solo Female Business Traveler
Airbnb created its Business Travel Ready listings last year to help business travelers verify Airbnbs that have specific features for business travelers, like irons and a 7-day no-cancellation policy.
So what about if Airbnb created Female Travel Ready listings? Nobody liked that concept.
“That idea of a ‘solo female friendly’ category is a little weird, like ‘She dost protest too much,'” said Branka. “Reading reviews is good, so hosts could ask single female travelers to explain in their reviews why they felt safe and comfortable alone in the listing.”
Mandel isn’t a fan either.
“I might react kind of poorly to that, because you don’t want to explicitly say that you’re hanging out a shingle for single female travelers,” Mandel observed. “Because then I’m going to ask, ‘Why do they want lone females?’ I would definitely look askance at that.”
After speaking with the above women, as well as numerous female colleagues, it’s clear that there are forces at work for many female travelers who have deep-rooted reservations about staying in an Airbnb by themselves. They will happily stay at Airbnbs with girlfriends or boyfriends and husbands, but alone is a completely different manner.
Others, meanwhile, feel completely confident booking Airbnb alone based on the reviews and rating system.
For example, Wang said, “If people are familiar with Uber, than they should be okay with Airbnb.”
We spoke with another female executive off the record for this story to try and get as much input as possible. A thirty-something public relations executive in Las Vegas said she books Airbnb regularly but never usually alone. She stated that she wants a way to lock the doors securely from the inside, so no one else can get in, even with the keys. She also prefers to book listings with hosts who are women and/or gay male couples.
The issue about keys popped up a few times during the preparation of this story. Stuckrath said she hasn’t been telling her guests who has copies of the keys, or who guests can call if she’s out of town, but she says she’s going to start to.
One female colleague at Skift summed up her feelings about booking Airbnb alone, stating that each situation is unique. Everything depends on the destination, the individual listing and host, the purpose of travel, the number of reviews, the overall vibe, and the type of woman traveler and her experience with Airbnb. “It’s complicated,” she said.