As the vacation rental industry evolves and more travelers become aware of the variety of new accommodations options available at their fingertips, a new responsibility lands on our shoulders: answering, entertaining, and unraveling the question, “Oh, so you Airbnb?”
As a disclaimer, I think Airbnb is fantastic: I use it when I travel, I endorse it as a lead generator in Listing Site Independence, and I admire the marketing job Airbnb has done zeroing in on that sense of “belonging.” I think Airbnb captures that deeper sense of purpose and connectivity better than maybe any other travel company in the world: it makes you want to live your best life!
And while I sometimes wish they had just decided to focus on being a medium-sized company that changes the world (instead of a behemoth that changes the world), what I can't deny is that Airbnb is changing the world...I believe for the better.
Now here's the caveat: Airbnb is not synonymous with the broader vacation rental movement and no one knows this mis-catchall better than vacation rental professionals who are finding confusion among travelers who assume they're simply an Airbnb.
Donna Martinez, Owner of Sea Ranch Abalone Bay, argues that part of this confusion is simply because Airbnb has become part of the vacationing lexicon.
"Our linguistical tendency (Western tradition) is to use shorthand, a single word in place of many that will conjure up a mental picture/concept linked back to something that reconnects us all to our personal culture.
"Like tissue became Kleenex (in the USA, not sure about globally), a company knows they've made it into an entry level of a culture's embrace when the concept of a noun (thing) is replaced by a proper noun, their brand name. When a business' proper noun is "verbed" like Airbnb, you know you've made the global big time."
Articulating the virtues of a professional vacation rental business (compared to an Airbnb or even a conventional hotel room) has become vital to our success. So to untangle this linguistic mess, we've put together a 3-step series of logical explainers you can use when communicating with guests.
As in any emerging industry, one or two big leaders typically surface as lightening rods and get most of the attention (both good and bad). So it’s important to explain to travelers first that Airbnb — while it does fall under the broader “home sharing” umbrella — actually behaves differently from the other online travel platforms like HomeAway/VRBO or Booking.com.
The rules of how each booking goes down and who's responsible, the etiquette of what's OK and what's not, the culture: all of these things are so strong, so distinctly Airbnb that they make for their own category.
"To me, Airbnb is about actually sharing your home with a stranger(s) while you all sleep under the same roof. Whereas VRBO is about "whole house" renting," explains Rick Oster of Oster Golf Houses, a fleet of golf-specific vacation rental homes in Alabama. "More professional operators gravitated toward VRBO for that reason. They're both trying to morph into the other's space, but I think casually "sharing your home together" is what the verb Airbnb-ing means. Thats the culture."
It’s one of those "All Airbnb’s are vacation rentals, but not all vacation rentals are Airbnb’s” sorts of things. If the industry of home sharing were to be compared to the animal kingdom, Airbnb could basically be its own species.
"All Airbnbs are vacation rentals but not all vacation rentals are Airbnbs" from @themattlandau on nuances of the vacation rental movement.
(From both personal experience and pretty much everyone I have ever spoken with) booking a home through the Airbnb platform can be a crapshoot -- as can booking any other random vacation rental business. So it's helpful to dive deeper and explain who we are dealing with.
In very much the same way that a property can range from the casual Airbnb to a full-time vacation rental, the host (the individual) can fall anywhere on the dedication spectrum.
The hobbyist end is characterized by informality, part-time, and short-term rewards whereas the business end is characterized by formality, full-time, and long-term success. These two tags are not mutually exclusive. But in the case of homesharing, it's typically one or the other.
The mentality of most Airbnb hosts is that of community member: people who view themselves more as part of the Airbnb ecoystem than they see themselves as independent small business owners. That is to say, they do not see themselves as independent business owners.
"Since it is free to list on Airbnb, anyone, beginning with the casual homeowner, can leisurely pursue renting a room to generate extra income with very little expense, overhead, or education. Airbnb properties and hosts are a mixed bag ranging from NEW CASUAL HOMEOWNERS all the way to professional STVR business owners," says Jan Stevens of Bowen Island Accommodations, as featured on Episode 9 of The Vacation Rental Show. "I don't want to be lumped into the all-inclusive Airbnb bag, after all, I professionally manage vacation rentals."
Airbnb discourages activities like building one's own independent brand, managing payments directly with guests, and external marketing, because this would present a conflict of interest to the system. For a closed system to work, Airbnb needs hosts to be exclusive -- and it has been successful with this. But as you might imagine, if a host is exclusive to a platform like Airbnb, they are less a small business owner and more a user (dare I say, SuperUser) of that service.
"If a host is exclusive to a platform like Airbnb, they are less a small business owner and more a SuperUse of that service" from @themattlandau on AIRBNB: THE VERB
Think about people who sell things exclusively on eBay or who drive solely for Uber: they are less independent small business owners (and more users of the service) because if the platform changes the rules or disappears over night, they’re out of business. This mentality is very different from small business owners who use eBay or Uber or Airbnb to generate sales as part of a broader marketing strategy. And as a client of that business, this is useful to know before you buy.
The closed system works for a lot of Airbnb hosts — the ease, quick income, and sense of community is exactly what they love. There are even plenty of travelers who will only book through Airbnb (as opposed to booking direct with their host): this is how much people like the closed system. It has many virtues.
According to Sherry Woodhouse of Villa Mais Ouis in Jamaica, Airbnb guests are distinctly different from guests from other platforms. "Typical vacation rentals in Jamaica are fully staffed whole house rentals with the expectation of staff gratuities at the end of the stay. The average Airbnber isn’t aware of the cultural nuances of renting a property with staff. It takes a lot of education and breath holding dealing with these guests."
This emphasis on hobby or community (versus small business) can present a holistic problem when mainstream travelers (who are paying hard-earned money to stay a night in an Airbnb instead of the hotel down the street), have any kind of issue and find that their concern is being interpreted more like a hobby (by the host) than a business transaction.
Hobby mentality can manifest itself in small, non-offensive ways (like personal items left in the bathroom or the accidental cameo of the ex-boyfriend showing up asking for his record player back) or it can result in bigger problems (like unfair judgement on refunds, inhospitable requests for guests, or worse). Airbnb works hard to iron out these challenges -- it may be their greatest challenge -- but I feel it's systemic. After all, the process was built to be that way.
Note: I don't know if amateurish or hobbyist are the right words (because they sound negative and I'm not suggesting loyal Airbnb hosts are bad). I'm looking for the opposite of business owner. Also, it's important to point out that these problems exist in the broader vacation rental market as well...but they are addressed as ethical or unethical business practices (not as community guidelines or cultural differences).
I don't feel that this blog post is complete. It's missing some important pieces. But I don't know exactly what they are. And while I rarely publish something I feel is incomplete, I also believe that in this case, feedback can help fill in the holes. If you have thoughts (on any end of the spectrum) please jump into the comments section below.
What I do know, is that Airbnb has done something great for the broader vacation rental movement and that is shine a spotlight on the emerging market of homesharing and I don't want this piece to be perceived as negative. For the first time EVER, the average citizen actually has a rough idea of what we do for a living! Woohoo! But Airbnb has also presented a fun challenge for vacation rental professionals: how to educate travelers on the virtues of a professional vacation rental business.
Until now and probably for some years into the future, the Airbnb technology solution to unite people dominates and disrupts. Airbnb is also the singular decision-maker that a fragmented movement sometimes NEEDS to play judge, define standards, make rules...etc. And with this power comes good and bad.
But eventually, when enough travelers are clear on the nuances of our movement, and when enough hosts have at their disposal the ability to do business on their own terms, I believe the value proposition of the vacation rental professionals (in addition to that of the hobbyists) will stand the test of time.
What do you think?
Matt Landau is the Founder of the VRMB and the Inner Circle, two online resources dedicated to helping vacation rental owners and managers generate more bookings.