The Future of Airbnb

Home-sharing’s challenges aren’t only about social distancing and hygiene. Overtourism, racial bias, fee transparency and controlling the party crowd are also in the mix.

By Elaine Glusac

In the travel wreckage caused by the pandemic, home-sharing has emerged as battered, but with a steady pulse, as rental houses became social-distancing refuges for the travel-starved.

Home rentals have outperformed hotels in 27 global markets since the onset of Covid-19, according to a report by the hotel benchmarking firm STR and the short-term rental analysts AirDNA. As leisure travel ticked up this summer, average daily rates were higher for rentals in July 2020 versus July 2019 in the United States — from about $300 to $323 — thanks to the popularity of larger homes.

Still, global restrictions have squeezed every aspect of the travel industry, including vacation rentals. Across home-sharing platforms, according to STR and AirDNA, occupancy fell by almost half between mid-March and the end of June to between roughly 33 and 36 percent, depending on the size of the rental (hotels by comparison fell to an average of 17.5 percent occupancy).

The biggest player in the short-term rental market, with more than 7 million listings in over 220 countries, is Airbnb. Over the years, its rampant growth and lack of transparency has made it a target for everything from charges of fueling overtourism and turning formerly residential neighborhoods into tourist zones to enabling raucous parties despite complaints and virus-related restrictions on gatherings.

After laying off a quarter of its work force in the spring, Airbnb jettisoned some new ventures, including forays into transportation and entertainment, and hunkered down to focus on its core strength, lodging, even as its valuation fell from a high of $31 billion to, recently, $18 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Now, as Airbnb prepares to go public, we talked to Airbnb’s co-founder and chief executive, Brian Chesky, along with other industry experts, about some of the company’s challenges and the ways it is changing travel.

“People want to travel, they just don’t want to get on airplanes,” Mr. Chesky said. “They don’t want to go for business. They don’t want to stay in the really big cities as prevalently as they used to. They don’t want to be in crowded hotel districts.” But, he said, “they do want to get out of the house. And so we think demand is going to be strong in the future. I’m very optimistic, actually, about the industry.”

Lifestyle vs. vacation

Airbnb has touted privacy and guests’ control over their environment — including having your own kitchen in lieu of patronizing restaurants — as safeguards during the pandemic. It instituted new cleaning guidelines and indicated in late August that more than 1 million listings had earned the “Enhanced Clean” certification, which involves training in new guidelines that detail how and what to wash and sanitize. The procedures recommend 45 minutes of cleaning per room. Some listings guarantee a 72-hour vacancy window before check in.

The company says its offerings are aligned with the way people are traveling now, in family and friend groups to less populated destinations. Over Labor Day weekend, 30 percent of its bookings — double the previous year — were in remote areas, though classic vacation spots like Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Palm Springs, Calif., were among the most popular. Urban bookings remain down.

“We’re seeing a little blurring between traveling and living,” Mr. Chesky said. “Before the pandemic, you lived somewhere 50, 51 weeks of the year, and if you were so fortunate, you’d go on your once-or-twice-a-year vacation. Now the pandemic is changing how people want to work, travel and live.” Remote school and work unbind families from their homes. “People are living differently and people want to live anywhere,” he added.

Whether travel truly turns into nomadism remains to be seen, though the average length of stay since May 1 increased 58 percent to more than four days, and fall bookings are stronger than usual, according to AirDNA.

Overtourism, rising rents and housing shortages

Cities around the world, from Barcelona to Vancouver, are looking to curb Airbnb and other short-term rental companies, which many blame for hollowing out neighborhoods as real estate managers took long-term leases and listed them as more lucrative short-term rentals.

“You can earn more renting out apartments and houses on Airbnb than renting to locals,” said David Wachsmuth, an associate professor in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University in Montreal. “What’s happened on their platform is that actual home-sharing is a fraction of the activity. It’s dominated by commercial interests.”

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