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What is Airbnb and why it didn’t age well?

In the last 10+ years, the travel industry has really seen quite a lot of changes. As always, young entrepreneurs are the driving force behind that change. We’ve seen several high-school/university projects rise to fame after getting some attention from the media or prominent investors.

Back in the days, you had quite a narrow choice when it came to travel accommodation as hotels, motels, and campsites ruled the game. Then all of a sudden, in 2003 Casey Fenton came up with the idea of CouchSurfing and since then the rules of the game have changed drastically. The idea of homestay accommodation has taken over the world, changing the traveling opportunities for people looking for “low budget” or “zero budget” alternatives.

After the predestined success of CouchSurfing, Airbnb was soon to follow. The initial plan behind Airbnb took the Couchsurfing path one step further. Apart from offering travelers a bed to sleep, Airbnb gave hosts the opportunity to make a few bucks by letting complete strangers sleep in their spare rooms. In brief, the story of Airbnb is as follows – its founders couldn’t afford to pay their rent in San Francisco so they bought an air mattress and installed it in their living room offering bed and breakfast to travelers. They quickly realized the business opportunity they have unintentionally created and created a website connecting travelers with hosts who have a room to rent out.

Airbnb’s initial idea was to offer a spare bed to a complete stranger for a couple of bucks.

So far, so good. Several venture funds invested heavily in Airbnb and the company quickly became the global homestay behemoth acquiring competitors worldwide. As of writing, Airbnb is valued more than $31 billion. Though it may seem like a fairytale it is really not, according to recent guest reviews.

What happened to Airbnb?

The initial idea of “lend a spare room” is no longer the core of Airbnb. Many hosts worldwide have drastically changed the face of Airbnb turning it into Booking 2. Now before you freak out, let me elaborate. Booking and Airbnb are both super user-friendly when it comes to finding a place to stay in the last minute. But they have their downsides as well. And now we will focus on Airbnb solely.

In the early days of Airbnb, it was easy to find some cheap deal worldwide and indeed crush in someone else’s apartment for as little as $10 per night. However, such deals are no longer available on the platform. These days most offers would cost you as much as a hotel stay, though sometimes with a big compromise on your comfort and privacy.

Hosts are no longer renting out their spare rooms because they invest in real estate with the idea of putting it on Airbnb in mind. What I am trying to say is, the company has gone a long way and in my opinion, it has steered away from the good old “air mattress” days. People nowadays see Airbnb as a potential money-making machine and they do treat it like one. No one remembers that the original idea was to make travel affordable for those who were not willing to pay hotels $200 per night.

Even though the Airbnb platform lets you choose between different property types it certainly does not offer cheap opportunities. And no, it’s not because the company has changed its policy or vision. It is because no one lists just a room anymore. Among the various property types, one can find hotels, villas, guesthouses, cottages, apartments, whole houses, and boutique hotels.

Now you see what I mean – Airbnb does not offer cheap accommodation anymore. Boutique hotel anyone? Why should I waste my time on Airbnb when there are cheaper options at regular booking websites?

What do guests think?

In general, almost everyone who has ever tried Airbnb has experienced both good and bad situations. Recently, I had a chat with a friend of mine who has been a passionate Airbnb advocate for several years so far. She has been renting properties all over Europe and the USA having mostly positive experiences. Until that day when her Airbnb host in Bucharest never showed up at the location.

See my friend and her buddies planned their trip in Romania several months in advance and accordingly booked and paid in advance every single property – following strictly the Airbnb business model. They went to several cities in Romania, Bucharest being the last one. Actually, the Bucharest visit was mainly due to Ed Sheeran’s concert in the National Stadium. The whole trip went just as planned but when they arrived in Bucharest their host never answered their calls. After a couple of failed attempts to reach the host, my friend reached out to Airbnb’s customer support, which obviously couldn’t do anything apart from contacting the host.

Airbnb eventually promised a full refund, though as far as I know, this is yet to happen.

The saddest part was not that my friend had to sleep in her car (with two other girls) after the concert but that the host actually had some pretty nice reviews and a 5-star rating.

Speaking of ratings, Airbnb’s review system is rather odd. Hosts and guests can review each other, which aims to boost transparency and trust among both parties. Undoubtedly, this system is crucial for platforms such as CouchSurfing and WarmShowers but Airbnb is something different. How come a hotel review its guests? Obviously, Airbnb hosts act like hotel owners so this is why I drew this parallel.

Many guests complain that they receive bad reviews only because the host didn’t like them. On the contrary, many hosts can win good reviews simply by not acting like idiots. You see, the review system can be tricked pretty easily. Unfortunately, this means that both guests and hosts end up reading fabricated reviews, which are highly subjective.

I’d like to finish this post by mentioning something else as well. Last week, I stumbled upon an article on Medium written by a banned Airbnb user. I won’t reveal the name of the author but I will briefly share his story. According to him, he and his wife had been using Airbnb for a couple of years so far without facing any problems. However, at some point he got his account shut without any prior notice nor explanation. Furthermore, he received an email from Airbnb’s support saying that the company has no obligations to explain its decision to shut user accounts.

Instead, Airbnb cited “violation of our terms and conditions”. The banned user tried to get in touch with someone from the company but received only an email asking him to stop seeking an explanation. Ladies and gentlemen, in my humble opinion I believe that when you run a company valued well over $30 billion you ought to respect your clients. Airbnb could have at least gave the guy a clue which rule he had violated. Instead, Airbnb decided to stay quite.

So who exactly killed Airbnb? I think hosts who treat their properties like mini-hotels are mainly to blame. But don’t get me wrong again. There is nothing bad in seeking and grabbing opportunities that can make you some extra bucks. Nevertheless, I think there is a great misconception between them and Airbnb’s initial goal. Maybe it was the company that failed to deliver the message adequately, maybe it is the hosts who pump up prices unnecessarily. In any case, the original idea of using Airbnb as a source of cheap accommodation is long gone.


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