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How Can Airbnb Guests Live Like Locals if Hosts Are, Well, Corporations?

Dennis Schaal, Skift
How Can Airbnb Guests Live Like Locals if Hosts Are, Well, Corporations?

In addition to its regulatory woes, Airbnb confronts a vexing problem — what’s the company’s identity?

In contrast to its original raison d’être more than a decade ago of matching travelers and local hosts to enable guests to get to know a destination like an insider, these days the property host may more resemble an impersonal corporation than a neighborhood fixture.

The direction of Airbnb — particularly as it is now focusing on increasing its roster of traditional hotels — was confirmed Monday in a study by The Times of London (subscription) that found that securing a reservation with a host that’s renting out just a single property on Airbnb is very hit and miss.

The Times headlined its story, “Investigation: how Airbnb has been hijacked by agencies  making a huge profit.”

In fact, The Times analyzed Inside Airbnb data and concluded that 20 percent of Airbnb hosts in the UK have more than 10 listings, and more than half of hosts in that country have more than one listing.

That means that fewer than half of Airbnb hosts are renting out a solitary listing on the platform.

Asked to comment on these findings, an Airbnb statement did nothing to contradict them and actually tended to confirm the narrative.

“As Airbnb has grown to a platform with more than 6 million listings in 191 countries and 100,000 cities worldwide, a business ecosystem has evolved to provide services that help more people access the benefits of hosting and that are valued by both hosts and guests, like property management, cleaning, and key exchange while hosts are out of town,” the Airbnb statement said.

Airbnb said its roster of “hotels, guesthouses, and B&Bs” is likewise “growing.” In fact, the company stated, in 2018 the percentage of its listings that hosts identified as offering hotels increased 150 percent.

Airbnb’s acquisition of HotelTonight in March will support — i.e. bolster — that trend, the company said.

And Airbnb announced Monday that it acquired Urbandoor, a network of professionally managed, furnished apartments for business travelers, including those who may be relocating and need an elongated stay. Business travelers value managed properties with consistent standards, but these can come at the expense of local hosts and neighborhood vibes.

Old News?

One can argue that the Airbnb myth of being dominated by struggling owners or renters of single properties trying to eke out some sustenance by renting out rooms in order to pay the rent or mortgage has long been shattered.

Yet some professional management companies have been trying to perpetuate that story by naming an individual as host, rather than highlighting that it is a commercial listing, except perhaps in the fine print.

The Times uncovered a number of instances of individuals being listed as hosts when actually corporations such as Veeve or Onefinestay were behind the listings.

[Update: Onefinestay told Skift that it seeks to be identified in Airbnb listings titles and in home descriptions, but Airbnb bars it. Airbnb apparently doesn’t want to consumers to book the property on sites other than Airbnb.]

We’re unsure of the precise methodology that The Times used to compile its statistics about Airbnb hosts and corporate influence, but scraping listings from Airbnb sites can be misleading in several ways. Airbnb’s corporate tilt may be even more pronounced than merely categorizing the number of listings because professional hosts tend to update their calendars more frequently and may have more availability than individual hosts so reservations may skew toward commercial hosts.

On the other hand, an individual host may have multiple listings for several rooms in one property so it would be erroneous to consider that host as listing multiple properties.

Still, Airbnb did not dispute the basics of The Times story.

A Conundrum

One homesharing executive, who declined to be identified because of his company’s relationship with Airbnb, said he believes the same commercial host trend uncovered in the UK is prevalent in other parts of the world, including in the United States.

He argued that it’s a conundrum for Airbnb because it’s increasingly using professional managers and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to increase its supply of homes and apartments more rapidly, but that conflicts with its local host brand identity.

“The reality is that so many hosts have multiple listings, and Airbnb can no longer claim exclusive inventory because these professional managers are listing on HomeAway or Booking.com, as well,” the source said.

This story has been updated to include Airbnb’s acquisition of Urbandoor. It also has been updated to include Onefinestay’s position on seeking to be identified in Airbnb listings.

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