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Earlier last month, in commemoration of International Women’s Month, Airbnb released a 37-page report called “Women Hosts and Airbnb: Building a Global Community.”
In the report, the homesharing marketplace revealed a number of facts and figures meant to demonstrate how the company has helped economically empower women around the world, helping them earn some $10 billion since the company’s inception in 2008. The company said that today, some one million women host on Airbnb, accounting for 55 percent of its global host community.
Last year, female hosts in the U.S., for example, collected an average of $6,600. Women also make up some of the Airbnb community’s most involved hosts, too: 59 percent of “Superhosts,” hosts considered among the best reviewed, are women and more than 60 percent serve as Home Sharing Club leader hosts.
Missing from that report, however, was the discussion of the complex needs of female Airbnb users, whether they act as hosts or guests. These are, often, needs related to safety, security, and a strong sense of community or support that are especially heightened when women travel (or host) alone.
“People are starting to realize that it’s different when you travel as a woman,” said Beth Santos, founder and CEO of Wanderful, an online travel community for more than 15,000 women around the world. “Places where your experience as a woman is very different from others. I’m not just talking about women’s focused magazines or what bikini to wear — there are real cultural implications of going to a place by yourself as a woman, like understanding how you will be treated. We need more of that.”
This topic was something discussed at length last year by SkiftX Senior Editor Greg Oates in his piece, “Airbnb and the Solo Female Traveler.” In his article, Oates interviewed a number of female business travelers to ask them for their thoughts on what it’s like to be a solo female business traveler using Airbnb. While each had different experiences and concerns they shared, one resounding request was for Airbnb to deliver “clear and accurate communication” in its listing descriptions and messaging between guests and hosts.
A lot has happened since Oates’ story was published. Last year, Airbnb went through a very public exercise in addressing issues of discrimination and bias on its platform, which eventually resulted in a new non-discrimination policy for all of its users. The company just launched its newest product, Trips, about six months ago. And Airbnb continues to invest in its “Business Travel Ready” listings in an attempt to attract more corporate travelers, both male and female.
But has much changed in terms of how Airbnb is addressing the needs of female hosts and travelers, one year later? We decided to take a close look at some of the most pressing plights faced by female users of Airbnb and other homesharing platforms.
Safety and Security Matters
Regardless of gender, safety and security are a major concern for anyone who uses a homesharing platform like Airbnb, which is why the company’s founders have often emphasized the importance of “trust” in their business.
And when it comes to women who use Airbnb as solo female travelers, or hosts who share their space with guests, safety and security is often top of mind.
A recent University of Missouri hospitality study, “Brand personality of Airbnb: application of user involvement and gender differences,” concluded that “female customers are more complex in terms of their perceptions of Airbnb brand personality considering the level of involvement. The reason for this is mostly due to the fact that females often take into consideration security and safety issues in the lodging industry.”
But for platforms like Airbnb, emphasizing safety and security can be a complicated endeavor.
“Safety is a really tricky word,” said Santos. Members of Santos’ travel network, Wanderful, now have access to a newly launched women-only homesharing network that costs either $119 per year or $15 a month for new members. And although Santos is well aware that safety and security are two things that do factor into her members’ decisions when choosing a place to stay, she said, “We don’t use it that much when we talk about the homesharing network.”
Why? Santos said that while Wanderful makes an effort to verify members’ social media and credit card accounts, and possibly driver’s licenses and passports eventually, it’s hard to have 100-percent certainty with these kinds of networks.
“I think, on the corporate level, Airbnb has done what they can do to assure safety,” Santos said. “Every business is different and they make decisions about what they do or don’t do to benefit their company. Airbnb is looking for a very wide net — to reach everybody. But as Airbnb becomes more and more of an expert in this space, they have an obligation to ensure a safe experience for everyone involved.”
Santos said that in developing her own homesharing network for Wanderful, she internally surveyed 150 members to ask them if they would ever use Airbnb as a solo female traveler. She said 54 percent said they would prefer to stay in a hotel versus an Airbnb when they travel alone, with 48 percent citing safety as the primary reason.
Meeting planner Tracy Stuckrath, founder of Thrive! Meetings and Events, is both a frequent Airbnb host and guest. Stuckrath often rents out a spare room in her Atlanta-area home, sharing common areas with her Airbnb guests. She thinks addressing safety starts as soon as a host decides to list his or her home on the platform, and that it’s the responsibility both of Airbnb and its community of users to maintain security and safety for all.
“With change comes new rules and regulations that we all take for granted, but something that those new disrupting companies have to think about is this: how does this actually happen currently, and what can we do to make it safer?,” Stuckrath said. “The onus needs to be on both sides. Maybe they could have more descriptors or guidelines for hosts on how to post profiles for people to feel safer.”
Stuckrath said that when she first started hosting on Airbnb, the company sent a professional photographer to her place to take photos of the listing. But now, she says, some of the newer listings she has seen on the site don’t seem to have professional photographs. “Some of the photos shown are just disgusting,” she said.
While Stuckrath has had mostly positive experiences, both as a host and as a traveler, she said one particular stay in London was a bit alarming, when she showed up at a listing that did not at all resemble how it was advertised. She said the host had multiple negative reviews from other Airbnb guests and users. “They [Airbnb] need to be monitoring those kinds of things for sure.”
Stuckrath also mentioned the plight of a friend who had rented her home in Vegas, only to find that her guests had stolen her personal items when she returned. “Airbnb’s response was slow, and they [Stuckrath’s friends] dropped the names of executives in the hotel industry that they work with. They got really expensive stuff stolen from the house.” But she added, “They [her friends] didn’t vet the guests as carefully that time because it was that guest’s very first time.”
Issues of Discrimination and Bias
Last year, Airbnb very publicly addressed issues of discrimination and bias taking place on its platform after a slew of incidents prompted the company to respond. That response resulted in the formulation of a new non-discrimination policy and updated terms of service that were released in November.
The policy, which is stronger than most U.S. state laws in terms of its inclusion, says hosts may not decline or impose any different terms or conditions on a guest based on “race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.”
However, there is an exception for hosts who share living spaces (bathroom, kitchen, common areas) with a guest. These hosts can choose to decline a guest based on gender. So, for example, if a female host doesn’t feel comfortable renting her spare room to a male Airbnb guest, she does not have to rent to a male.
“It really is a very different ballgame if you’re homesharing than if you’re doing a whole home rental,” said Melanie Meharchand, an Airbnb host based in Monterey, Calif. “It brings in a whole other thing about culture and being culturally sensitive. There are some people, for religious reasons, for example, who can’t host someone of the opposite gender. It helps to have some of these carve outs.”
As a host, Meharchand rents out her second home and she said that as a host, she is always asked by Airbnb why she is denying a particular booking request. “They have a few categories there and they include things like it wasn’t the right fit, not the right amount, looking for a more lucrative listing or offer, or I didn’t feel safe, etc. When you deny that request and check off one of those reasons, they build it back into the algorithm again and fine tune that for the bookings that they send you later.”
Another part of Airbnb’s plans to address issues of bias and discrimination was to have at least 1 million of its listings instantly bookable by January 2017, a goal the company said it achieved in December 2016. But for female hosts like Meharchand and Stuckrath, having instantly bookable listings isn’t something they are comfortable with pursuing.
“I don’t do Instant Book,” said Stuckrath. “You don’t know who’s booking you. Because you don’t get to see them until after they’ve booked. That could potentially cause problems.”
While Airbnb’s nondiscrimination policy attempts to address the needs of female hosts who share their space with guests, there are some cases where the situation can be much more complicated.
In the case of one female Nashville Superhost, for example, choosing to decline a recent booking request from a bachelor party group led to her receiving an email from Airbnb customer service saying that the guest who requested to book her listing “reported a potential violation of our [Airbnb’s] nondiscrimination policy.”
This host said that when explaining why she and her husband did not want this group staying at their listing they chose the option that said the group “wasn’t a good fit” having had previous negative incidents with bachelor parties staying in their condo. This host admits she wasn’t very familiar with Airbnb’s updated terms of service and nondiscrimination policy, but said that she also sometimes stays in one section of the condo while guests occupy another section, sharing a hallway and pair of stairwells, but not other common areas with the guests.
“We’re very careful about who we let stay in our places,” she said. “We own the real estate and I stay there part time. If anyone has the address for me, a woman staying by myself — that’s always the risk we take as a host.”
This host said that since she received an email from Airbnb customer service about the possible violation she’s attempted to contact Airbnb three times through three separate channels, but hasn’t received any response yet. “I’ve always been able to get in touch with Airbnb quickly and in general, we’ve had a really good experience with Airbnb customer service,” she said. “But it seems like it’s been on the decline lately and they still haven’t responded to any of my emails or Tweets.”
A Sense of Community
While it’s clear that even though Airbnb’s policies regarding nondiscrimination were designed to be as inclusive as possible, there are certain situations where the given rules may not necessarily apply. And the same could be said for the safety nets Airbnb implements as well, to ensure all guests feel safe and secure when they travel and stay in an Airbnb listing.
But beyond having better communication about actual listings and guests, what else can Airbnb do to address the specific needs of traveler groups, especially women?
Perhaps, Santos suggested, the answer lies in the development of a females-only homesharing network like the one she’s built at Wanderful. “It’s this sisterhood of women around the world and it provides this extra layer of support, likemindedness, and community in an environment where women can feel more comfortable staying with each other,” she said. “Airbnb is great, but this is one niche they’re really not hitting right now.”
This is a strategy employed by other community-specific homesharing platforms like Innclusive and MisterB&B, both of which were launched to address the needs of their respective groups and lessen the chances of discrimination taking place on their sites.
The Nashville Superhost said she wonders if Airbnb could attempt to have its own program for women that’s similar to how the company denotes “business travel ready” listings.
“If they had something like that with criteria in place, certain criteria that each host has to meet to be considered female-safe booking, even though I know it would be really hard to vet because they have to rely on users being honest — that might encourage more solo female travelers to use Airbnb.”