From blow-up beds to boutique breaks, Harry de Quetteville reflects on how the homestay website changed the way we travel.
For years, I never considered using Airbnb. In the back of my mind were various assumptions and prejudices.
It was for students; the places would be dirty; the hosts certifiable; just not, well… proper. For middle-aged people with jobs, like me, there were hotels. Airbnb was one of those youthful pursuits, like camping, that was safely behind me.
Then I found myself looking for a place to stay in a particularly remote part of France. There was nowhere. So, for the first time, I fired up the Airbnb site. And my assumptions were shattered by chateaux. This, it became clear, was the gateway to anywhere and everywhere, for any budget.
That day Airbnb solved my accommodation problem in rural France (in a nursery teacher's tiny, immaculately clean loft bedroom). Since then it has pushed the boundaries of my travel experiences. I have even, I confess, spent a night in a gipsy caravan. But not all my prejudices have been dashed. Earlier this year, on a family trip to Ghent, we turned up after a long journey to find the flat had not been cleaned. Bending down to plug in my phone charger I discovered the used condoms of the previous occupants by the bed.
Yet the fact is, for good and for ill, I am now an Airbnb customer. A staggering 150 million or so of us are. From the tiny, scuzzy upstart of my imagining, Airbnb has become a behemoth that has fundamentally changed both the way we travel and the way the travel business treats us. And this, if the company has any say in the matter, is just the beginning.
For today Airbnb is a portal that connects its users not just to "homes" but also to "experiences" and "restaurants". It is easy to forget that it started, 10 years ago this month, as the madcap experiment of three young men (today still only in their late 30s) – an experiment in which blow-up mattresses were obligatory (hence "Air") as was breakfast (B&B).
Back then the presence of hosts, too, was compulsory. The site initially didn't permit the rental of an entire flat or house; the whole point was to force people to bunk up with strangers, dunking them in that hippy-dippy spirit of serendipity that so often accompanies travel.
And like so many happy-go-lucky ideas, it was better in theory than in practice. Both hosts and guests were reluctant to sign up. No one wanted to invest. Only the extraordinary determination and occasional sleight of hand of its founders – design students Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia and coder Nathan Blecharczyk – kept it afloat. At one early, vital pitch their grizzled interlocutor merely whistled and said: "Wow, you guys are like cockroaches. You just won't die."
Yet since then it has grown remorselessly, exponentially, so that it now occupies a position of extraordinary power in the travel business, with a valuation of more than $30 billion (NZ$44 billion).
Marriott, the world's largest hotel operator, has an inventory of 1.1 million rooms in 110 countries. Airbnb has three times as many listings in 191 countries. And, of course, they're not just rooms. They're flats (1.7 million worldwide), houses (798,440), castles (3800), boats (7016), treehouses (1640), geodesic domes (696) – you name it. Since those early blow-up-mattress days, the site has come a long way.
In doing so it has revolutionised the way we travel – consigning to the bin the past half-century's winning formula of reliable if frequently identikit hotel chain rooms.
So big has it grown, the way the once-vulnerable upstart business is perceived has changed, too. These days competitors are leery of its power; governments are worried about its effect on available housing stock, and many residents are upset about the impact they see it having on their cities – hollowing them out as home owners in countless centri storici (historical centres) cash in on global tourism – the new gold rush that instead of requiring you to head to the Klondike, brings visitors from the Klondike (and everywhere else) to you.
It adds up to something so game-changing, it's hard to get a measure of. But part of that is intended. Airbnb doesn't release most of its data, citing privacy concerns. So to get the numbers, third-party companies such as AirDNA probe and scrape Airbnb's site for the statistics that reveal the magnitude of the Airbnb story.
Growth has been remarkable. Take London. At the end of 2014 there were 13,098 listings on the site (7061 entire homes; 5905 private rooms; 132 shared rooms). Today that figure is 56,790 (31,786 entire homes; 24,355 private rooms; 649 shared rooms) – an increase of more than 400 per cent.
This is clearly no longer the internet-enabled sofa-surfing platform for yoof of yore – the one that began when Chesky and Gebbia, looking to make a little cash when a conference was in town and hotel space was short, pumped up a few air mattresses in their flat in San Francisco. Then the pair made a few hundred dollars. Now, during another peak time – like the Wimbledon Championships – Airbnb estimates hosts near the tournament make a total of £2 million (NZ$3.8million).
The trend, certainly, is away from its amateur roots and towards professionalisation. Many new listings these days are not posted by individuals but by vacation-rental management companies (VRMs) whose staff manage portfolios of properties for clients and typically take 10-30 per cent of the revenue. Other listings are from boutique hotels and traditional B&Bs. Unable to beat or even resist the internet upstart, these old-school properties have been forced to join it.
The top Airbnb trends | Retirees in, cities out
1. It's no longer about city breaks
The highest growth rates are outside of city centres: suburbs of popular destinations, but also rural areas. America, for example, saw a 20 per cent increase in rural listings just in the three months to May this year.
2. The platform takeover
In a decade, Airbnb has moved from a player in the travel-lodging business to a platform for it. Holiday villas, which used to have their own websites, now just book through Airbnb. Even hotel chains (such as Marriott, Hyatt and AccorHotels), which view the site as an arch-rival, advertise their own vacation rentals on Airbnb.
3. Luxury and accessibility
Goodbye air mattress, hello thread count. Airbnb is zeroing in on the luxury market, with its new "Plus" category. However, Plus is a box that owners tick for themselves, so it remains to be seen how reliable it is. The same goes for self-reporting of accessibility features for disabled guests – which Airbnb introduced in March.
4. From hipsters to elders
Seniors (aged 60 and older) are the fastest-growing demographic of Airbnb hosts in Europe. The number of senior hosts in Europe nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016. Seniors are also the best-reviewed hosts on Airbnb in Europe. Hosts 60 and older receive a higher percentage of five-star reviews than any other age group in Europe (70 per cent).