Stephen McGinty: Welcome to my happy place
Do you have a “happy place”, somewhere to which you can retreat when the storm clouds gather? A flickering light in the darkness. Well, my current “happy place” comes with a web address, www.airbnb.com.
As readers may well know by now, I cannot accurately be described as an “early adopter”, one who spots the latest trend or gadget when it is but a speck in the distance. Instead I’m usually lassoed on to the bandwagon to make up the numbers after everyone else has grown bored and leapt off. But for once I feel a quiet surge of pride that a website I’ve been browsing for over a year has become a recent phenomenon.
I haven’t actually used it, for that would require too much commitment, instead I’m currently an enthusiastic voyeur. For as the dark nights close in, airbnb.com has become for me what the Holiday programme once was in the 1970s.
Remember how each new series began in early January and how each Sunday evening our living rooms were bathed in the warmth of white sand and Mediterranean blue? Airbnb provides the same escapist fantasy at the touch of the screen.
The website offers the opportunity to rent people’s homes in more than 190 countries and 32,000 cities. Of course, I’m only interested in one country, America, and one city, Los Angeles. For the past year I’ve been planning my next visit, which sadly seems to always recede further into the distance, but when I do, my abode could well be a silver airstream trailer, parked in a couple’s garden in Santa Monica, or a lavish double bedroom in an old style mansion in Beverly Hills.
However my current “crush” is a one-bedroom apartment, high in the hills of Topanga Canyon, which boasts a wooden terrace overlooking the Pacific and a cedar hot tub, all for the princely sum of £89 per night.
Why spend more money on a formulaic hotel when you can now easily find more interesting, quirky and, if you wish it, luxurious accommodation at a fraction of the price?
Scotland has now embraced Airbnb with over 2,000 properties listed including 200 in Glasgow, 70 in Inverness, 90 in Aberdeen and 1,260 in Edinburgh, a rise of 58 per cent on last year, with more and more families spotting the potential to earn extra money during the Fringe. When the company recently commissioned a hospitality index for Britain, Inverness came out on top.
Airbnb was founded in 2008 by two designers, Joe Gabbia and Brian Chesky, along with a technologist called Nathan Blecharczyk and has been described as a pioneer of the “sharing economy”. The genesis of the idea came when Blecharczyk met Gabbia after he rented a room in his house in San Francisco.
Blecharczyk was a teenage prodigy who, having learned to code at the age of 12, earned enough over the next few years to pay his tuition fees to Harvard. After Blecharczyk moved out, they set up a company based in the apartment but the idea that would revolutionise their lives came to them when a design conference came to San Francisco and flooded the city with delegates, swamping the available hotels. Gabbia and Chesky decided to set up a pop-up B&B with inflatable mattresses. The original company was called airbedandbreakfast.com
Since then, the growth of Airbnb has been incredible. At the beginning of 2012 just one million people had used the site, a figure which had risen to four million within 12 months. Today it now takes a booking every two seconds and has on its books 300,000 rooms, apartments and houses, as well as 500 castles, 200 treehouses and 1,400 boats. In February this year there were just 200 castles on the site and now there are 500, including a number in Scotland. At the moment 150,000 people are staying in an Airbnb property each night, which is the equivalent of 55 million bed nights per year. By comparison, the vast Intercontinental hotel chain has 100 million bed nights per year.
Since the launch of the website, its customer base has also changed from twentysomethings looking for a cheap place to crash to honeymooners and retirees planning a world tour.
Where it has succeeded over other sites is in building up a level of trust between those who are renting and those whose property people are staying in. Customers can be asked to take a picture of their passport or driving licence to establish their identity while other renters are also keen to view your Facebook page and online social media as a means of sussing out what type of person you are, before letting you cross their threshold. Customers can also check each property’s often long list of recommendations from previous guests.
In the early stages there were a few teething problems. In 2011 a woman in San Francisco had her apartment trashed and, according to a recent article in the Observer, one guest forgot to take away his crystal meth pipes. Oh well. As a consequence of such problems, the company now operates a 24-hour hotline and offer a $1million (£600,000) guarantee against damage to a host’s property.
The idea is that anyone with a spare room can become a businessman or woman. Granted it helps if your accommodation is in a desirable location, but once listed Airbnb takes between 6 per cent and 12 per cent from every booking.
As Blecharczyk said in a recent interview: “We’ve had people for whom this has saved their home. Whether it’s because they lost a job or went through a divorce, they’re faced with a mortgage and they don’t have the resources to pay for it. There’s a lot of flexibility in a stream of supplementary income.”
Hope Arnold, who lives in Silver Lake, in Los Angeles would count herself in such a category.
Despite working 18-hour days, including a shift waitressing in a strip club, she was in danger of having her “artsy and rustic 1927 treehouse”, as she now lists it on Airbnb, repossessed. Today she rents out the master bedroom and sleeps in the study instead and as result has made £20,000 in the past year. As she said: “It has been a financial saviour for me.”
Supporters of the site, and others such as Lyft, RelayRides and TaskRabbit, which allow people to earn a living by renting out their cars, spare rooms and abilities, say there is a seismic shift in progress. As Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University explained: “This is the first stage of something more profound, which is the ability of people to structure their lives around doing multiple sharing-economy activities as a choice in lieu of a 9-to-5, five-day- a-week job. This is technology-driven progress. This is what it’s all about.”
There have, of course, been problems depending on a state or country’s law. In New York there is a law that prevents someone renting out their apartment for less than 30 days, unless the owners are present. A judge there recently fined one host $2,400 for running an illegal hotel and although the fine was later reversed, more may be forthcoming.
Last month, the attorney general’s office claimed that the top 40 Airbnb hosts in New York each grossed over £250,000 over the past three years, a total of over £20 million for which the city would like its share of taxes. Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general, has recently subpoenaed the financial records of all those in the city who list their personal properties on Airbnb as the state officials are annoyed that hosts are failing to collect a hotel tax of 14.75 per cent on every stay.
Unfortunately for Scotland, Airbnb has overlooked us when deciding where to set up its European headquarters and chose Ireland instead. As Chesky wrote on his blog: “Dublin is known the world over for its warm welcome. The city has a reputation for being one of the most hospitable and friendliest places in the world.”
While I still consider the site my “happy place” and look forward to one day actually trying it out, it is still a pity they couldn’t have picked Edinburgh or Glasgow.