Rob Csernyik is a 2022 Michener-Deacon fellow and a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
In the past, work-shy wannabe business moguls gravitated toward relaxed and relatively unremarkable paths to entrepreneurship, such as automatic car washes, self-serve laundromats and vending machine ownership. To the chagrin of travellers, and in defiance of the meaning of hospitality, this set has claimed Airbnb ABNB-Q hosting as today’s hot ticket to passive income.
Over the past few years, a glib approach to the hotelier business – often grimly appointed properties purchased as income streams, sometimes stuffed to the gills with guests – has become a defining feature of the platform.
Its original mission was to allow canny property owners access to the gig economy, turning underused guest rooms into income generators. The budget-minded travellers who booked them saved on higher hotel costs and enjoyed amenities such as kitchens and free laundry machines. Over the years, as hosts’ ambitions have grown beyond the confines of their primary residence, the landscape has shifted.
Airbnb prices now rival decent-quality hotels (in part because of now-infamous cleaning fees), pedantic and sometimes bizarre rules kill vacation vibes and, with owners frequently living offsite, attention to detail has slackened. And don’t get me started on how the professional Airbnb landlord class has contributed to rising rents by removing long-term housing stock from the market.
Some hosts are quick to bemoan the financial challenges they now face keeping their short-term rental properties afloat. While the federal government has recently announced plans to fund municipal enforcement against short-term rentals that counter local regulations or bans, and to deny their owners tax deductions previously available for expenses, sympathy is in short supply.
Next May, British Columbia will ban most rentals that are not the owner’s primary residence. But all entrepreneurs have to accept that they take risks. The true losers in the equation have been guests, subjected to previously unimaginable takes on hospitality, and the renters among us, facing an ever-escalating crisis.
Though Airbnb is trying to refocus on owner-occupied properties through its “Rooms” initiative, prioritizing affordability and hospitality, this doesn’t go far enough. If the platform is going to be useful, it needs to attack the primary source of rot – the new entrepreneurial archetype it ushered into our consciousness.
This segment of hosts are a mix of everything loathsome about indifferent landlords and everything detestable about lazy entrepreneurs. With more than four million Airbnb hosts globally as of December, 2022, even a single-digit percentage of such rotten apples is a dizzying amount of people. Tempering this madness requires a dose of reality. Hosts need to step up to the plate as the innkeepers they signed up to be.
Consider my recent stay in an Airbnb that was less a guesthouse than a self-storage unit for tourists. Though pictures suggested a cozy cottage, only after I entered did I realize the owner had carved the erstwhile family home into about 10 bedrooms for short-term rent. This fact wasn’t vouchsafed in the ad. There was one bathroom to share along with a washer, but no dryer. Four dining chairs and a table were the only common furniture.
My host, according to his profile, was a father of four who loved accommodating guests. In reality, he fronted a company with multiple, similarly spartan Airbnb properties, and was slower than most hosts at responding to messages. When a couple showed up to find their room double-booked, their anxiety rose as they couldn’t get a hold of him.
In the five years I’ve rented from the platform, the cottage stay was the first time I faced such a lousy experience. But I know I have been lucky. Airbnb has spent millions of dollars covering up users’ disastrous stays. The platform’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, has acknowledged “tens of thousands” of social media complaints about rapidly escalating prices. Black users have reported discrimination. Back in 2018, a video-surveillance problem got so serious that Airbnb had to come up with rules specifically addressing it.
Then there’re the issues faced not by users but neighbours of those perpetual Airbnb rental pads. Municipal complaints against short-term rentals in Toronto have skyrocketed on an exponential curve. And did I mention the housing crisis?
Take your pick. There’s a wide spectrum of problems plaguing Airbnb and its rising group of professional short-term landlords. My recent experience was but a fleck of paint in a bigger backdrop.
Not only because there was a degree of bait-and-switch, but my experience and needs as a guest were afterthoughts. The lack of hospitality and cost-cutting measures – the absence of a second bathroom, a dryer, furniture on the veranda – were as plain as day. In the past several months, I’ve stayed in two others where the yards turned out to be strewn with old appliances and other flotsam and jetsam, suggesting a correlation in hosts’ minds between where the guests and the junk sleep.
Such entrepreneurs need a primer on the “bnb” part of Airbnb. Long before the company’s launch 15 years ago, bed-and-breakfasts had reputations as luxurious treats for romantic weekends or special occasions. The term conjures images of immaculately kept historic homes with special touches from pillow mints and turndown service to fluffy robes and sumptuous meals. It was (and continues to be) a lodging category built on a strong service focus, and one which guests understandably pay a premium for.
Yet the prices at some Airbnbs can rival these experiences, while providing far fewer benefits. That one has a deep devotion to the quality of the stay and another doesn’t is strange. Creating enjoyable guest experiences pays dividends in this industry – whether through returning guests or referrals from positive reviews and word-of-mouth boosting occupancy.
Along with the disconnection from the realities of being a hotelier, there’s a cognitive dissonance at play for a wide swath of hosts. Taking a disinterested approach to hosting guests requires forgetting what it’s like to be one. If my host at the cottage and I switched roles, I suspect he wouldn’t find the number of people and level of amenities at the property acceptable. If one of the others discovered a yard full of castoffs at a place they had booked, they would no doubt find it dispiriting. Yet such hosts feel comfortable renting out their places because they fail to draw this connection.
Some of Airbnb’s ills, such as its impact on housing markets, won’t get solved overnight. But service quality can be fixed with greater haste. It improves the experiences of guests, but also the businesses of the hosts, so it should be a no-brainer. But it requires the host putting in more work, and committing to treat their trade with the pro-active approach necessary to cater to hotel customers, instead of the reactive approach landlords take with tenants. If that’s too much work, my advice is to divest their properties and buy some vending machines or a laundromat. It will be a lot less headache for all involved.