Jane Bradley: AirBnB's rise leaves me deflated
In the old days, before the internet and before organised room letting sites, renting casual budget accommodation was simpler.
Dominica - or Aran, or Bogdan - then took you back to their apartment and presented you with their spare room, which may or may not have had the right number of beds and which may or may not have had access to hot water. You thanked them profusely and agreed to pay a fiver a night, before dumping your rucksack and disappearing for the rest of the day until it was time for bed. You didn’t want to disturb your host too much, or get in their way. It was their home, after all.
We were all less fussy back then. You took what you were given. You didn’t spend hours perusing photographs on websites, trying to work out if the bathroom in that rental was just a tiny bit more pleasant than the one there or if you liked the colour of the living room sofa just a little more in that one. You didn’t care what colour the bed sheets were - you were just delighted that they were there at all.
Of course, there were disasters - I like to call them adventures - but that was part of the charm.
I’ll never forget the trip when, aged 19 or so, my friends and I returned to the home of our host in Bratislava, Slovakia, to find a strange man fast asleep in our bed (yes, there was just one between all of us, but it was round, which somehow made that acceptable). He turned out to be a lorry-driving friend of the owner who was catching 40 winks before an overnight job - but we only discovered that after raising the alarm with a group of neighbours, who loudly awakened him with a lot of Slovakian shouting and kicked him out of the apartment.
Or then, there was the time that a 90-year-old Romanian grandmother was turfed out of her own bed and into the kitchen so that her mattress could be moved to a lean-to at the bottom of the garden where we were staying, despite our protests and insistance that we would be happy to sleep on the floor.
AirBnB was the Millennial version of this more ad-hoc 1990s accommodation-seeking, It allowed the backpacker to be more organised and the whole experience to become somewhat sanitised.
The idea was that people slept on the host’s floor - or on air mattresses, hence the name - enjoying the local experience rather than a corporate hotel. Or that entire homes were rented out, but only while the usual inhabitants were temporarily away: on holiday, or living abroad.
And as the advent of the internet accommodation boom coincided with me moving out of my teens and firmly into my grown-up twenties, I was happy to embrace it and remove some of the randomness from my holiday bookings. I am a regular AirBnB-er.
I’ve stayed in a place in Berlin which was the former home of a post-graduate student who had recently moved in with her boyfriend, who was loathe to sell until the relationship was more established. While she had tidied up and moved most of her stuff out, it was definitely still a home - and one which she still used, when she had no guests, as a place to study during the day.
On another occasion, while visiting a friend in Milan who lived in an apartment the size of a shoebox, I decided to rent an AirBnB around the corner. I stayed in the only bedroom of a lovely couple who slept on a bed in the kitchen for the duration of my stay, who left me chocolate pastries for when I woke up and shared late night drinks with me, putting the world to rights at their tiny table. While the arrangement can’t have been the most comfortable for them, they wanted to do it to earn a bit of extra cash - and I needed a cheap room. Everyone was a winner and the whole thing felt very much in the AirBnB spirit.
Yet, more recently, I’ve stayed in AirBnBs which have been bought as money-spinners - holiday apartments managed by someone who, it turns out, miraculously, has 20 other listings - a property magnate or career investor, but not the casual live-in renter AirBnB’s founders originally envisaged. Small apart-hotels have signed up, as have owners of slick, brand new blocks of flats built for holidays lets.
As a result, the listings are increasingly less budget than high-end and the company, which is now worth more than $30 billion (£24bn), is moving more and more into the corporate world, risking turning off the people who loved it for its charm, its quirkiness and the personal touch.
Hosts who have been with the firm since the beginning, when the couch-surfing revolution was only just starting to take off and the “sharing economy” was a twinkle in hipsters’ eyes, say that they now feel they have to make their properties more like hotels.
They need to allow instant booking, meaning they are no longer able to peruse guests’ profiles, have a preliminary chat and work out if they might be a person they want to spend time with in their homes before confirming a booking. They need to give guests privacy, even when they are renting out a room in their own home.
AirBnB has even hinted it might move into other aspects of tourism, with chief executive and founder Brian Chesky saying the firm may “one day redefine how we fly”.
It is understandable. All big corporations are formed out of small ones. Even Starbucks started life as a one-branch coffee shop in downtown Seattle, while McDonalds was a food stand selling hotdogs near the Monrovia Airport in California. Something works, it grows. It takes off. Perhaps founders get greedy, or perhaps they just get admirably ambitious - it is debatable.
But now, AirBnB is in danger of becoming little more than a slightly slicker version of the Brittany Ferries Gites brochure which used to pop through my parents’ door every year in the 1980s - all predictable white linens and a welcome basket containing a local jam and a walking map.
I just can’t help feeling a bit sad for the Millennial travellers who will miss out on the random adventures.