COMMENT: After a global lockdown travel and tourism is gearing up for a fresh new start, but there's a long way to go writes Thomas Bywater
Why has Airbnb waited until now to get its house in order?
Just like other parts of tourism and hospitality the travel apps that we use have not been immune to the pandemic.
Even in Silicon Valley, where more time indoors should have been a boost, the lack of travel has brought bad news. As would-be tourists stayed home, ride hailing company Uber laid off over 6000 employees and holiday rental platform Airbnb let go a quarter of its staff. And this is just those workers officially recognised as "employees".
For the contractors, drivers and partners who rely on the apps for an income, it has been even more precarious. This is because the ability to "scale" – the superpower that allowed these apps to become global companies over night – can happen just as quickly in reverse.
Unlike hoteliers or taxi companies, these apps are able to resize at the flick of a switch. Something 400 Airbnb hosts in Australia discovered on last week. These properties which were identified as "problem listings" were purged without warning.
"We continue to enforce our recent policy change to indefinitely ban parties at Airbnb listings globally - including in New Zealand," said Airbnb's Head of public policy for New Zealand and Australia, Derak Nolan. The website said it had begun across the ditch in the "removal or suspension of listings that fail to comply with our policies," and New Zealand properties are currently being reviewed. So why has Airbnb decided now is the time to 'clean house'?
The platform which, allows property owners to let spare rooms and holiday houses to travellers, has grown rapidly due to its friction-free nature online. Having expanded to 6.1 million properties globally in just over a decade, there have been some growing pains. Whether it's the insidious creep of lockboxes and empty apartments into neighbourhoods to guests with bad motives, lots of them, turning up – there has been been a number of unintended problems that have arisen with the airbnb era.
Introduction of "instantly bookable" properties in 2014 and other features have helped speed up the process of filling spare holiday houses. By last year over 60 per cent of properties were able to rent with a day's notice, at the click of a button, according to Airbnb Analytics.
A raft of anti-antisocial guest policies such as stopping bookings from guests under 25 and setting up a complaint line for reporting house parties were introduced in July. Part of the motive is in response to high profile incidents of 'problem listings', another is getting fit for sale. A month later the company filed to make a public offering on the US markets.
Airbnb is taking stock and getting its house in order for an IPO which it still intends to push through this year. This would be a remarkable turn out, considering there's still no end in sight of the travel chaos affecting most of the world.
The listings website argues it has emerged out of the chaos of Covid 19 in better shape than before.
Their ability to shed and gain rooms is a luxury that brick and mortar chains don't have. In spite of some hosts initially taking their spare rooms off the platform and looking for more long-term leases, it appears the online market is already rebounding. Airbnb founder Brian Chesky insisted there are now more properties listed on his platform than at the start of the pandemic. In Australia and New Zealand, Airbnb told the Herald that the number of properties is "about the same".
Even the $415 million paid to compensate hosts left not so much as a dent in Airbnb's US$3.5 billion cash reserves. The website is ready to play the long game and will be waiting for hosts and travellers to return.
One thing is for certain, after a decade of unchecked growth and loose reins form San Francisco, Sydney – or is it Dublin? - Airbnb will have to emerge from the nebulous jetstreams of the Silicon Valley cloud and play closer attention to how the property listings are run. In the post-pandemic era, the approach of absentee landlords and letting services will just not work.
Hotel chains like the Hilton argue that, coming out of the shutdown, they are able to offer customers something that listings sites never could: a reliable, uniform brand and cleaning protocols. Hilton's recently announced partnerships with disinfectant manufacturers and medical centres to put extra emphasis on cleanliness.
Up until now the Airbnb has relied on guests to vet properties and review what amenities are – or aren't – up to scratch. The stakes are considerably higher for this "trial and error" approach during a pandemic. While the website says it will bring in changes such as making sure properties observe a 24 hour window before checking in new guests and advising cleaners to wear masks, these measures will be hard to enforce. Whether this means Airbnb will have to take a more hands-on approach to working with hosts and regulating listing standards remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.