Airbnb has promoted a tale about the composition of hosts on its platforms, a saga contradicted by AirDNA research. It's time for Airbnb to be more transparent.
When pressed about an analytics company report that found 38 percent of Airbnb hosts offered only one listing, an Airbnb spokesperson countered this week, without elaboration, that “the vast majority of active Airbnb hosts are sharing just one home as single-listing hosts.”
That statement, which conflicts with an AirDNA report about the nature of Airbnb’s 6.3 million active listings as of October, seemed to be a concession when measured against Airbnb’s perennial drumbeat of statements since at least the prelude to its 2020 IPO that 90 percent of Airbnb hosts are individuals.
The issue is an important one because many Airbnb guests crave a local experience from an individual host, and these hosts are also sensitive to the fact that property managers have undoubtably gained share in bookings on Airbnb in recent years versus solo hosts. Airbnb knows that guests want that person-to-person and guest-to-host experience.
As recently as last month, Airbnb Chief Financial Officer Dave Stephenson cited the 90 percent host figure when speaking with financial analysts. “If you go back and think about the 4 million hosts that we have, we have a very different business than many others. So 90 percent of those hosts are individual hosts.”
It’s interesting that despite all of the disruption and havoc since the pandemic, the individual versus property manager hosting balance as a percentage hasn’t changed at all on Airbnb, according to the company. Co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky in February said: “Nearly 90 percent of our hosts are individuals. They’re school teachers, health care workers, students. Our hosts have earned over $150 billion since we started and 55 percent of them are women.”
Who Is an Individual Host?
One of the issues at play is that if you assume — like this reporter initially did — that “individual hosts” on Airbnb are people who own or control one or two properties, then you’d be wrong. Airbnb defines individual hosts as people who don’t use property management software so they could have 15 or 20 listings and still be an individual host, in Airbnb’s view.
But how many of the aforementioned healthcare workers, teachers and students do you know who have the wealth to own or control 15 to 20 homes or other properties? If they are operating 20 Airbnbs, they obviously have crossed over into running or working for a property management business.
In its S-1 statement in December 2020 prior to the IPO, Airbnb stated: “As of December 31, 2019, 90 percent of our hosts were individual hosts, and 79 percent of those hosts had just a single listing.”
I haven’t heard Airbnb cite the 79 percent single listing number — or any single listing number — in recent years as the company has defaulted to constantly mentioning that 90 percent of hosts are individuals.
An Airbnb spokesperson declined to elaborate this week on why Airbnb, at Skift’s prompting, now states that the “vast majority” of Airbnb hosts have a single listing, and whether that represented a reduction from the 79 percent share Airbnb explicitly disclosed as of December 31, 2019.
Airbnb also didn’t comment on the AirDNA report that found that only 38 percent of Airbnb’s active listings — 2.4 million listings out of a total 6.3 million as of October 2022 — and not “a vast majority,” were run by a host with a single listing.
AirDNA’s Take on Individual Hosts
Jamie Lane, vice president of Research at AirDNA, said he would agree with Airbnb that most of its hosts were individuals and he doesn’t think the 90 percent figure that Airbnb cites is necessarily misleading because AirDNA, for research purposes, defines individual hosts as having 1-20 listings. After 20 listings, he said, most hosts identify themselves as businesses, and they use property management software.
Still, when it comes to hosts on Airbnb who have a single listing and Airbnb’s statement that the “vast majority” of hosts on Airbnb have one listing, Lane said he “can’t get to that” characterization, citing AirDNA’s 38 percent finding of single-listing hosts.
In reality, Lane said the percentage of hosts with single listings on Airbnb has been relatively stable. They accounted for 50 percent of hosts in 2016 and 40 percent in 2018, and in October 2022 were around 38 percent, he said. Still, a decline from 50 percent six years ago to the current 38 percent of hosts on Airbnb being responsible for a single listing, is a substantial reduction.
The biggest change in the composition of hosts has been the rise of property managers on Airbnb with 21 or more listings, and they have taken share from Airbnb hosts with just 2-5 listings, Lane said.
“The pandemic did lead to a large shift in this type of supply,” said Lane, referring to the ascension of property managers on Airbnb.
Some 16 percent of these property manager hosts now operate 21 or more listings on Airbnb, up from 12 percent in pre-pandemic 2019. Some 32 percent of hosts offered 2-5 listings as of October 2022, compared with 35 percent in 2018, according to AirDNA.
Individual hosts are losing ground in their share of bookings to property managers, especially in resort destinations, such as Destin, Florida, where property management companies might have 70-80 percent of the listings when counting all of the various platforms compared with individual hosts, who might only list their properties on Airbnb, Lane said.
Airbnb Labels Hosts as Individuals in a Misleading Manner
A related issue for guests looking for a person to person connection with an individual host, who often serves as a defacto tour guide to the neighborhood, is the way Airbnb identifies an “individual host” on the platform.
Consider the example of property management company GuestReady, which has offices across Europe and the United Arab Emirates, and has more than 4,000 listings on Airbnb.
Although within GuestReady’s listings on Airbnb, the text states that GuestReady is a property manager, sometimes the listing more prominently labels GuestReady as an “Individual Host,” or includes the name of a host, such as “Adeline,” and the listing identifies her as an “Individual Host.”
The following listing on Airbnb, GuestReady — Lovely home in the center of Dublin, states “the entire home (is) hosted by Adeline,” who’s identified as an “Individual Host,” even though the home is managed by property management company GuestReady. So unknowing guests might think they will be staying in a home run by a solo host but they actually are getting a property manager company instead. Usually a guest can click on hosts’ profiles on Airbnb and see how many listings they have, but for the following listing there’s no way to see that GuestReady has thousands of such listings on Airbnb.
Alexander Limpert, GuestReady co-founder and CEO, said he thinks it’s appropriate for properties his company manages to be labeled as individually hosted because GuestReady manages properties for individuals. Hosts that GuestReady works for have 1.4 listings on average, he said.
Of course, all property management companies operate listings for individuals or in some cases for corporate investors or assorted real estate interests.
Limpert said the issue is “nuanced” because unlike other short-term rental companies which sometimes manage blocks of dozens of identical units, GuestReady’s properties are “not cookie-cutter,” but reflect the tastes and lifestyles of owners.
Owners receive the lion’s share of the income and have full flexibility in the way they use their properties, often staying themselves in their property when it is not rented, he added.
There are lots of attractive things about staying in an Airbnb operated by a property manager; at times the home can be nicely equipped with all the kitchen equipment or furnishings a guest is looking for, and another property from that brand in another destination might be similarly equipped, and thus meet guests’ expectations.
It is even possible to get a personal and local experience from a property manager. I’ve personally stayed in property managed Airbnbs where the manager or a team of manager/hosts were very personable and accessible about the neighborhood, or make useful recommendations about things to do in the area.
Still, it is duplicitous for Airbnb to misrepresent the nature of hosts — whether they are a teacher or healthcare worker trying to pay the mortgage — or a multinational corporation looking after the bottom line.
And it is time for Airbnb to be more transparent to the financial community, as well as hosts and guests, about the breakdown of host types on the platform.
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Photo credit: An Airbnb host (left) with guests on April 10, 2018 in Beijing. Jen / Flickr