It’s funny how things turn out. I’m in a San Francisco living room tucking into a Thanksgiving dinner with a Taiwanese-American family. There’s turkey with all the trimmings and banana cream pie for dessert. I only arrived a few hours ago but already I feel at home.
Perhaps I should explain ...
THE ORPHEUM THEATRE in downtown Los Angeles opened its doors in 1926. Judy Garland once performed at the Vaudeville venue and Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder all wowed the venue’s audiences in the 1960s. This November weekend, the Beaux Arts-style building is hosting the 2016 Airbnb Open and I’m in town to see what all the fuss is about.
Before the morning rush hour kicks in, the streets near the theatre have an edgy feel. Dishevelled characters push their possessions around in shopping trolleys, pausing every so often to ask passers-by for a dollar or two. The fact that a bed and breakfast convention is taking place in a neighbourhood where so many are homeless is not without a certain irony.
Amol Surve will be the answer to a television quiz question one day. In 2007, the design researcher from India needed somewhere cheap to stay while he was in San Francisco for a conference. Unwittingly, he became the very first person to book accommodation with Airbnb after he stumbled on a website called airbedandbreakfast.com, which offered an inflatable mattress on a living room floor for US$80 a night.
AirBed & Breakfast was abbreviated to Airbnb a year later and Surve’s former agent has continued to facilitate the renting of spare rooms. A lot of spare rooms, mind you. Since 2008, the online platform has processed more than 140 million guests, including 70 million bookings in the past 12 months, and boasts upwards of three million homes in 191 countries. Celebrity Airbnb fans include Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, who leased a US$10,000 per night pad in San Francisco over the 2016 Super Bowl weekend.
My base for the duration of the convention (an Airbnb listing, naturally) is in the hip suburb of Silver Lake. The stylishly comfortable unit is owned by Dawn, a single mother who lives next door. She makes enough from renting the property to pay her mortgage and says that apart from an Australian couple who sprinkled potato chips all over the floor, her guests have all been well-mannered, clean and tidy.
More than a few hosts are paying off their mortgages, if the rapturous welcome Airbnb founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia receive when they appear on stage is anything to go by. Airbnb employees join in the whooping, hollering frenzy, which isn’t surprising; the peer-to-peer accommodation start-up has recently been rated the top company to work for in the United States. The North Korean-style ovation finally subsides and Chesky smiles his best “cat that got the cream” smile and leads us into the future with the first of many slick video clips, before the cheering starts all over again.
His presentation emphasises what Airbnb does best – connecting people who have a spare bed with people who need one. And if an enriching exchange takes place between guest and host that leads to a lifelong friendship, then so much the better. Soundbites punctuate the keynote speech, from the pithy “I closed my eyes and felt like I was in my own bed” to the mildly melodramatic “Travel has never really been about where you go but it’s about who you can become.”
Chesky tells us that he and his chums have been pondering how travellers can best immerse themselves in communities. Guidebooks, he says, are full of recommendations from other travellers, rather than locals. The chief executive asks us when we last spent a weekend doing the same things that tourists do. It’s a fair point. How often do you traipse over to the Big Buddha or wait in line for the Peak Tram when you haven’t got friends or family in town?
Amid more celebratory whooping, Chesky unveils “Trips”, an upgrade to the Airbnb app that includes three key areas: Experiences, Places and Homes, which will help tourists to connect with locals. Rather than staying in a hotel and being closed off from the community, Experiences offers travellers the opportunity to sign up for handcrafted immersions designed and led by local experts. So, Chesky explains, instead of visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell as part of a large organised tour, you can be shown around by Jack Swart, the former South African president’s guard and cook for 27 years. (I suspect Swart is going to be pretty busy in the months ahead.)
Then there’s Mika Otani, who quit her day job in publishing and now offers Airbnbers what she describes as a 10-hour ikebana boot camp. The Tokyo resident has 30 years of know-how in the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging and tells me she loves passing on her skills.
Visitors to London can accompany James and Emma on a personalised three-day food and drink immersion that includes a visit to Britain’s first certified organic pub. James describes the Craft Food Connoisseur experience as an opportunity to learn the secrets of the London food world while meeting local brewers, chefs and restaurant managers.
Under the Places umbrella, Airbnb has tracked down cultural experts and neighbourhood insiders who recommend hidden gems within their city. Initially, 100 Insider Guidebooks will be available in six cities, with more to follow. Hong Kong is not part of the initial Trips roll out but if you’re interested in offering a water buffalo photography workshop on Lantau or fancy taking out-of-towners on a teahouse tour of Tai Po, I’m sure Airbnb would love to hear from you.
Where you stand legally is anyone’s guess. Premises that offer sleeping accommodation for a fee for any period less than 28 days must be licensed, according to Hong Kong’s Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance. But if you’re providing a curated experience, rather than a bed for the night … perhaps pay your taxes and hope for the best.
AIRBNB’S METEORIC RISE has been matched by an upsurge in unconventional lodging options. Overnight possibilities include castles and caves; treehouses and lighthouses. You can book a gypsy caravan in England or an aquarium in Paris. Private islands, restored windmills and converted school buses are only a few clicks of a mouse away. Convention delegates learn that women aged over 60 are the fastest growing host demographic in the US and the fastest growing Airbnb markets are China and India. The destinations with the largest number of Airbnb listings overall are the traditional tourist magnets of Paris, London and New York.
Chesky leaves the stage to another resounding roar and I find myself chatting to Evelyn Badia, from New York. She’s a superhost; which sounds both reassuring and slightly intimidating. The Brooklyn resident explains that renting out two apartments has given her financial freedom. When she’s not looking after her guests (mostly grandparents visiting Manhattan-based children who lack spare rooms), Badia has embarked on a second career as a host advisor.
“There are guests you love and guests you love to see go,” she says, only half joking. “Most people who stay with me are sensible. They don’t throw wild parties. Or if they do, they know they have to invite me.”
Every night almost a million people sleep in accommodation booked on the Airbnb platform and things don’t always run smoothly. However, the house trashings, incidences of theft and drug-fuelled orgies splashed across newspapers and featured on television news bulletins are the overwhelming exception to the rule.
Sometimes it’s guests, rather than hosts, who are in need of assistance. According to Laura Hughes, Airbnb’s head of global hospitality, the company has 250 customer-service staff available around the clock so that if, say, a South Korean guest has a problem in South Kensington, there’s someone they can contact in their own language at any hour.
IT’S DAY TWO AND my Uber driver drums his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.
“Sometimes it takes an hour and a half to go five miles,” he moans, as we crawl along the freeway. LA has been described as 72 suburbs searching for a city but the once shunned Downtown district is undergoing an image overhaul and rediscovering its identity. The Airbnb Open is playing its part by attracting large crowds.
Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert kicks off proceedings at the Orpheum, with a session on the transformative nature of travel. She’s followed by a series of well-attended motivational workshops such as “Making the Best out of Your Listing”, “Host-Life Balance” and “Building a Brand on Airbnb”.
I fall into conversation with Debbie and Michael Campbell after their appropriately titled “Leaps of Faith” presentation. Finishing each other’s sentences in the way people who spend lots of time together often do, the self-styled “senior nomads” explain that over the past 3½ years, they have stayed almost exclusively in Airbnb accommodation – that’s 125 listings in all. The retirees from Seattle no longer own their own home, choosing instead to live permanently on the road. Their inspiring book, Your Keys, Our Home (2016), is filled with suggestions for would-be hosts and offers numerous insights into what the Campbells look for when selecting somewhere to stay: “Our goal is to find a place that shows the host cares more about their guests’ experience than the income from a spare apartment.”
Airbnb encourages hosts to greet arriving guests in person but many have work commitments and – the Campbells wouldn’t approve – aren’t always around. Simona Patriarca is a little different. The retiree from Rome is a hands-on host. She invites guests into her kitchen and shows them how to cook home-made Italian dishes. Patriarca also loves to offer visitors an alternative take on her city.
“You can be the kind of tourist who follows the guide with a flag or you can stay with me and experience the spirit and the heart of Rome,” she says. “I’m old, which means I can tell you things you can’t even read in guidebooks. When my guests see this side of the city, they fall in love. They fall in love with me, too.”
Patriarca is a host educator, which, despite the Orwellian ring, simply means she helps and advises less experienced hosts. The tireless former publishing consultant organises airport pick-ups, suggests restaurants where only locals go and sources tickets for everything from the Colosseum to football matches.
“I love the sharing society,” she says, hands gesturing frantically for emphasis. “After the war, people shared houses out of necessity – now we’re doing it for fun.”
Airbnb is currently valued at a whopping US$30 billion, which means co-founder Blecharczyk loves the sharing society as well. We discuss the company’s strengths.
“At least 78,000 people stayed in Airbnb rooms during the two weeks of the Rio Olympics,” he says. “Where would they have stayed otherwise? It would be silly to overbuild just for a one-off event.”
Airbnb is also opening up neighbourhoods where there aren’t any hotels.
“Seventy-eight per cent of our homes are outside traditional tourist districts,” says Blecharczyk. “People tend to spend their money in cafés, restaurants and shops around where they’re staying, which boosts communities that don’t normally benefit from tourism.”
Airbnb’s community-driven sharing economy credentials would appear to be the perfect fit for communist Cuba. Blecharczyk visited the Caribbean island last year and saw first-hand how the global homestay network can be a force for good.
“The average person earns US$50 a month whereas on Airbnb they can make US$50 a night,” he says. “It gives people an income that allows them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
Due to a chronic shortage of hotels, Cuba already has an established network of law-abiding (and tax-paying) casas particulares (B&Bs), which Airbnb has been able to tap into.
If only it was always so easy. So-called disruptive innovators such as Airbnb, Netflix and Uber are giving traditional businesses a run for their money but they’re no strangers to controversy. Airbnb has been blamed for everything from facilitating illegal sub-letting to causing shortages of social housing and creating real estate bubbles. Put another way, the property-sharing giant is accused of helping to make cities cheaper for tourists but unaffordable for everyone else.
Berlin has called time on the short-term rental of entire homes and in London, where it’s claimed that some apartments have become little more than unstaffed hotels, hosts have been banned from renting out properties for more than 90 nights in a calendar year without permission from local authorities.
Contentious legal battles and complex regulatory challenges look likely to continue. For some industry observers, the proliferation of commercial landlords with multiple listings demonstrates that Airbnb has moved a long way from students making a little money from air beds on living-room floors.
“Our philosophy is to try and get ahead of problems and make sure people understand we’re trying to do the right thing,” says Blecharczyk. “One of the best examples so far is what we’ve done around taxes. We’ve built the technology so that taxes are now being collected automatically in 200 municipalities. It’s easier for guests, easier for hosts and easier for the city.”
The final day of the convention brings with it a sprinkling of stardust. Hosts, Airbnb staff and journalists from 100 countries – 7,000 attendees in all – dash between seminars at five historic downtown LA theatres. Ashton Kutcher offers some creative strategies for entrepreneurs and Gwyneth Paltrow fronts a workshop on taste and style. As the sun goes down, crowds line up outside the Orpheum for the Airbnb Awards, emceed by Late Late Show host James Corden, who teases the audience by asking if they’ve any idea who is sleeping in their beds while they’re in LA.
It’s an enjoyable show. Hosts are recognised for charity work and their willingness to go the extra mile, and a bemused-looking Australian wins the prize for best treehouse. Afterwards, large crowds gather in a blocked off downtown area to watch live acts including Maroon 5 and a surprise appearance by Lady Gaga, who performs her new single, Million Reasons. It sounds to me like she’s singing “million listings”, which is when I realise that my Airbnb indoctrination is complete.
AFTER THREE DAYS in the B&B bubble it’s time to get out and see how things work “in the field”. San Francisco seems a good place to head for – it’s where Amol Surve and the Airbnb story began, after all. Someone called Doug responds promptly to my accommodation request and, after a few taps of the app, I’m all booked.
I resist the urge to whoop and holler and spend a couple of leisurely days driving north along the scenic California coast road.
Sublime San Fran is too gorgeous for its own good but I’m still seeing the world with an accommodation-sharing mindset. I enjoy a fascinating tour around the prison island of Alcatraz but can’t help wondering why Al Capone’s cell isn’t available on the Airbnb platform. A tram ride is a San Francisco highlight but might there be a disused cable car somewhere that could be smartened up, converted into a bedroom and featured on the app?
Doug’s house is easy to find. It’s situated in a pleasant suburban location near shops, beaches and the city’s zoo. He provided me with a keypad code for the door, so there’s no fumbling around trying to find a set of keys under a flower pot. The property is occupied 80 to 90 per cent of the time, which Doug says is because his place is better value than the hotels downtown.
Recent city legislation limiting overnight stays to 60 days per year is the only cloud on the horizon but that’s a topic for another occasion. It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’ve been invited to join my hospitable host and his family for dinner.
The evening is one I won’t forget and certainly beats spending the holiday alone in a hotel room staring at a TV screen. It’s the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving – perhaps I should be giving thanks to Airbnb.