As I’ve only really been an avid traveler for the last 12 or so years (when you live in California, every direction for many hours is still the United States) I never knew how it used to be to find a hotel in that pre-internet era. Even booking places in Croatia in 2004, I used email to make it possible as opposed to making an international phone call and attempting what was then, horrible Croatian. But in the last few years, basically since I’ve been hopping on planes, finding a place to stay has radically changed.
What everyone dedicates endless bytes to these days is what is being called the sharing economy to which I quote, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Any time I “share” something, I’m not charging the recipient and vice versa. I’ve seen much written about this, but I’ve never seen anything written by anyone who has actually been active in what I deem to be the three biggest lodging websites of this new way of traveling, so let’s take a journey together.
No matter what revisionist history any little Silicon Valley “disruptor” feels like espousing, Hospitality Club was truly the first popular website that was devoted to helping travelers. Started in 2000, it was brilliant. Sure, the interface was clunky. Yes, the website was buggy. But, it did what it needed to do and it helped people find hosts around the world.
Why did it work? First of all, there was no interest in money as there was no company behind the site, just a German fellow who liked to travel. And this is a key cornerstone to its success as the concept of hosting others has been alive and well basically forever in Europe. It’s illustrated no better than by this story about a couple in Madrid who hosted countless people over decades for free who only knew about them because of word of mouth.
This was similar to why Hospitality Club worked well because before the age of social media, people only heard about it from others who had heard about it from others. When people toss about the term “viral” this is what it really is. I heard about it from a girl in Croatia that I met via some other travel website and was showing me around Zagreb as I already had another place to stay. I joined in 2006 and everyone I met through the site (I hosted several in San Francisco) had also heard about it in a similar fashion. It was at its core, the most altruistic extension of hospitality that is endemic throughout most of the world.
What screwed this site was fame. It started to get articles on other travel websites and people arrived who just saw it as a free place to get a room. Membership exploded but not in a good way as it was all takers and few givers. Trying to contact people in well-known cities like Paris, Rome, London, New York was all but impossible as hosts were inundated with requests. I hosted who I could for awhile, but one French girl who asked to stay with me for three days that turned in to a week and ultimately was just so that she could find a sublet in San Francisco without paying for a hotel beforehand really, really turned me off. And then of course there were the groups of Russians that would spam me. A group of four or five would ask to stay in my place that I had emphatically stated could only host two at most. I checked out.
It appears that many others did as well given that shortly before writing this, I logged on for the first time in years to find the forums full of, “How can we save Hospitality Club?” given that it is now a digital ghost town. This is a pity as for me, it was the first and best travelers’ network there was. I don’t know where everyone went ultimately although initially there was an exodus to our next stop in the digital lodging safari.
Initially I was really turned off by Couchsurfing primarily due to the name as it came across as douchey, but also due to fact it was an obvious copy of Hospitality Club made by an American in 2004 with the idea of “cashing in” on something that really wasn’t about money. The interface was slightly better than Hospitality Club initially and I finally gave in to join the website in 2009.
Immediately the vibe was different. I can’t even remember if I hosted anyone. I don’t think so as all I ever received were essentially spam emails from the start like what I was finding near the end of my days with Hospitality Club. There were one or two people who I showed around San Francisco but they didn’t leave reviews. Trying to ask to be hosted was impossible given that if you were a guy, nobody returned your emails no matter how much time I spent writing to anyone.
This was and I suppose is the second biggest problem with Couchsurfing in that it became a dating and hookup site which was gross. I’m sure that no one will ever lament finding some hot foreigner while traveler and having a sweaty fling with them, but that should be a very nice, secondary plus to using the site as opposed to the immediate first which is to meet fellow travelers via hospitality. I knew several lonely guys in San Francisco who were always hosting only girls and it was solely with the idea that there was a potential hook up in the works. Naturally it never worked out and only continued to creep up what was already a pretty sleazy site.
Then there was the money. Couchsurfing apparently failed in its bid to get non-profit status in the US and given that, it became a for-profit enterprise. This doesn’t work terribly well when your product is created by your users and is based upon a actual sharing, non-monetary concept. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been cashing in on advertising because they’re only creating a medium to communicate while Couchsurfing is nothing without people donating their time to host and put on events in various cities around the world. Sure, they beefed up the website and supposedly put controls in place, but the cost was too high for those who were passionate about the original mission of the site that was lost once venture capital came in to place.
They kept pushing the “more” concept and essentially encouraged people to spam members to find places. They ignored the community, failed and Couchsurfing has gone the way of Hospitality Club in that there is very little activity other than spammy hosting requests. It got annoying to the point where I shut off hosting and haven’t been back since other than to log in a few days ago to see yet another redesign that doesn’t really interest me.
In all fairness, a lot of the reason that both Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing tanked was the fact that they were promoted as these ways to travel the world “completely free!” Lonely Planet, amateur travel writers, and the like did a great deal more to bring about the demise of these two systems than anything else until a much more capitalist-driven approach to hospitality rolled in to town to truly pound the nails in to their respective coffins.
So as the story goes, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia came up with the idea for Airbnb while in town for a conference… stayed on air mattress… yadda yadda. I believe very little of this as their story sounds so incredibly rehearsed (and is proven to not be a true representation of the current company) that it gives the sheen of someone having written it once it became clear that the company was going somewhere.
Undoubtedly, Brian and Joe had tried to crash somewhere in San Francisco with Hospitality Club or Couchsurfing first and upon getting turned down, turned to desperate measures. The fact that no other similar site is ever mentioned in the company’s founding narrative (and I have yet to find people listing an air mattress to pay to sleep on) has long made me suspicious that they saw two websites that were going nowhere and a light bulb with a dollar sign filament lit up.
I joined the website in 2011 as I saw a level of control that was completely devoid in both Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing but it came at the cost of this being a fully commercial, for-profit enterprise and no matter how many times people write up Airbnb as part of the “sharing economy” it is absolutely not. If this site was considered to be an example of people “sharing” extra things, then you would have to lump temporary storage in there as they rent you “extra” space as well and maybe airlines who happen to be flying somewhere and sell off their “empty” seats and maybe restaurants who happen to be cooking up a dinner and see fit to sell it to someone because they have “spare” tables. This is not sharing. This is selling and there is nothing wrong with that, but call it what it is.
I’ve used Airbnb a bit over the last three or so years. It’s convenient (although definitely sporadic in quality) in that I can rent a room in someone’s house and it’s cheaper than a hotel. In theory they’re not using the room or only part time and so renting it out makes sense. They aren’t sharing it in the sense of if they were on Couchsurfing. They’re selling the space and that’s fine with me as long as it’s legal and I have pretty much always only rented rooms although hosts are often super flaky and I’m stuck renting out a full apartment which then is nearly the same as a hotel.
But here comes the problem with Airbnb. How the majority of people rent isn’t legal and if Airbnb was to kick all of these scofflaws out, it’d have no listings. Airbnb being viewed as this amazing “disruptor” technology is disingenuous. People are renting out their places specifically when their lease says that they can’t. I know this because of personal experience, friend experience, neighbor experience, etc. Why is this the case? Simply because people think it’s a great way to make side money fast. But it all comes with a massive, horrible price not to mention the occasional weirdo.
The Local Problem
Airbnb and other rental websites like it are destroying the culture of cities around the world. Oh, but how can this be if there are people just wanting to share (for money) an empty room that they have? For starters, this isn’t the case. I briefly tried this in Barcelona as I had a lovely 19th century flat in the center with a spare room that I only really used to put the clothes racks in sometimes. Otherwise, it had two spare beds and a fantastic view of Mercat del Born. Yes, my lease did not allow for any kind of subletting but I thought, ah why not? As I found out, “why not?” is always the introduction to an idiotic story that follows.
I had two guests during the six months that it was listed and both were from Germany. One was an okay guy who was just popping down to Barcelona to run around and photograph places although he stayed out all night and woke me up when coming home drunk. Okay, fine, annoying but Barcelona is a fun town, so understandable. The other was a sociopath who was weird, stole one of my towels, constantly saturated my internet downloading who knows what, ate my food in the fridge, and left the dirty dishes afterwards. Both had good reference reviews on Airbnb, so quality control? Meh.
My problem was similar to everyone’s in Barcelona in that those of us who live there are generally broke and so a lot of people have hopped on the rent-a-room/make-a-buck bandwagon. Being that as it may, the market is flooded and you can probably only get 20€ a night for your room if you’re a relative unknown on the site. This makes it not really worth doing now that Barcelona is really cracking down on illegal renting with massive fines (Spain loves a good fine.) Also, renting a room is quite difficult as most people (namely Americans) want to rent a whole flat so that they don’t have to interact with with the hosts which defeats one of the supposed reasons to use Airbnb in the first place which is to meet fellow travelers. So you get in to a bind that is solved in one of two ways.
There are many people in Barcelona who are signing leases on several places at the same time and then renting them on Airbnb. I remember very well seeing the face of this one guy on the site who had four different places that he rented in my neighborhood. Or personally, there was Seville where I stayed in November in an apartment that was the former apartment of one half of a couple. They moved in together but this guy kept his apartment to rent out on Airbnb because he was making “good money” by doing it although the listing paints it as still being his actual place. So, he’s taken an apartment off the rental market in doing this while operating what is by all means an illegal hostel.
The other typical situation is that you live in a place that you then put it on Airbnb and whenever you have a guest you go crash on a friend’s couch. An English woman with two kids I knew did this because she had a tough time making ends meet. And then there is the most egregious example I linked to earlier of a guy who rented out his place to then crash in his office.
So on the one hand you end up with a profiteer who is taking rental properties off the market and creating an artificial housing shortage, not to mention creating tourists ghettos where no locals live which is what the center of Barcelona has become for those who haven’t been. The rental price of apartments go up across the whole city (I paid 800€ a month which should have been more like 300€ in a sane world) and you end up with people like this English woman who has to upend her family and be homeless just to afford rent.
Is this just? Airbnb’s response is much like any other “disruptive” website in existence these days in that they’re just the medium, a conduit that charges a rather excessive transaction fee for introducing like-minded parties. What people do is by their own choice. To which I say, sure, in theory we always have “choice” in the Free World but whereas taking a taxi is generally not necessary to live, a place to stay is.
After watching Chesky’s extremely rehearsed, terse replies to Stephen Colbert from which the above shot is from, I’m sure that he’d love to say, “Look at all the advantages we’ve given people! Travelers can avoid the monopoly of hotels! Locals tight on cash can make a few extra bucks!” This is of course the skin deep analysis of the problem. There is the issue of paying city taxes, legality, quality control, safety, destroying the lives of neighbors, and other aspects, but what I’m witnessing in Barcelona is exactly the same thing that’s happened in San Francisco, London, New York, and Paris in that these cities are quickly becoming hollow shells akin to Venice and what the tourists are saving in not paying for hotels, they’re losing in not having the city that they’re visiting actually exist anymore.
But this hand dusting of the situation as is really the biggest problem. If there wasn’t Airbnb or Homeaway, there would be others, all with the same mentality that cultural aftershocks where they operate are not their problem. To this I say, what if you were to invent a website called assassinator.com where regular people could sign up to kill someone for others looking to job out the deed? Still not a problem? Sadly, I almost feel that in this day and age it wouldn’t be and TechCrunch would give it their biggest “disrupt” accolades to date for taking criminal mafias out of paid killings and making it accessible to everyone who needs to off someone.
The only place I’ve seen Airbnb work well is in Croatia. But that’s because there was already an excellent system of legally renting rooms in private homes and you can still find it today when you hop off at a bus or train station or just by wandering about looking for someone holding a sign that says, “soba”. My guess is that most anyone you stay with will take down your passport information as in Croatia to not do so is a serious crime. Spain, Italy, France? Never been asked and probably never will.
Now we call people who create things like this, “entrepreneurs”. But despite its multi-billion dollar valuation, just a few years ago, we would have called Airbnb and the like, “thieves”. More than money though, they’re robbing every last one of us of what it means to travel as they have systematically quashed the websites that traded on the original spirit of traveling and hospitality. And all of this, in pursuit of the glorious IPO.
The Bigger Problem
Silicon Valley and their solutionism industry are like a bunch of hammers viewing nails literally everywhere. Have a computer? Coding skills? Then you can solve world hunger! Except that you can’t and when you take hospitality which is as pure and simple of an embodiment as the Golden Rule as you’ll find, dress it up, put it in the cloud, and start charging for what was done originally via good will, you completely and irreparably destroy it.
As I get older and staying with friends gets trickier due to their having kids I, like most all of us am left with few options. Given that Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing have died off and Airbnb and the like have become so entrenched I’m stuck having to use these services and thus be party to all the ills that they create. My only other option is to stay in a fully licensed, tax paying hotel which is what I was already doing 10 years ago. So tell me, what kind of travel revolution is that exactly?