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The future of travel, according to Airbnb

Simon Calder
·3-min read
Happy days: Piran in Slovenia, location for the writer’s last stay in an Airbnb (Simon Calder)
Happy days: Piran in Slovenia, location for the writer’s last stay in an Airbnb (Simon Calder)

You, perhaps like me, may have wide and deep concerns about the future. But unlike Brian Chesky, we are not obliged to spell out our fears in searing detail.

Mr Chesky is the co-founder and chief executive of what is arguably the greatest travel innovation of the 21st century: Airbnb. The business that began as a friendly solution to a short-term accommodation crisis in San Francisco has blossomed into a formidably powerful platform. It entices guests out of conventional hotels and into people’s spare rooms, connecting travellers with hosts worldwide.

Even though Airbnb has never made a profit and was, at the last count, $2bn (£1.5bn) in debt, it is valued at around $18bn (£13.6bn). Mr Chesky and his co-founders are due to make an initial public offering of shares in the firm.

But to meet the strict US requirements designed to protect investors, Airbnb has devoted no fewer than 74 pages of its sale prospectus to the threats to its business.

“Investing in our Class A common stock involves risks,” it warns. “See the section titled ‘Risk Factors’ beginning on page 27.”

I have read every page so that you don’t have to – unless, of course, you are planning to invest. For those of us who have enjoyed hassle-free stays in Airbnbs, the document makes alarming reading.

“There have been shootings, fatalities, and other criminal or violent acts on properties booked on our platform, including as a result of unsanctioned house parties.

“Maintaining and enhancing our brand and reputation is critical to our growth,” the firm says. "Negative publicity could damage our brand.”

In addition, “incidents of sexual violence” have been perpetrated by both hosts and guests, while “undisclosed hidden cameras” have been installed in properties rented out on Airbnb.

Privacy concerns of a different kind are revealed in a city that, on its own, accounts for one-50th of Airbnb’s total revenue: New York.

“When new regulations requiring us to share host data with the city are implemented, our revenue from listings there may be substantially reduced due to the departure from our platform of hosts who do not wish to share their data with the city.”

The remainder of Airbnb’s top 10 comprises London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Barcelona, Tokyo, Toronto, San Diego and Lisbon. The firm notes growing concerns “around affordable housing and over-tourism” – especially when residential properties are repurposed as short-term lets.

Airbnb’s view of the future of travel, and how you and I buy it, is intriguing. The move from desktop to mobile is seen as a serious threat to a firm that has developed its highly attractive and effective platform for the (relatively) big screen.

“The functionality and user experiences associated with these alternative devices, such as a smaller screen size or lack of a screen, may make the use of our platform through such devices more difficult,” the firm notes.

“In addition, these new modalities create opportunities for device or systems companies, such as Amazon, Apple and Google, to control the interaction with our consumers and disintermediate existing platforms such as ours” – in other words, cutting out Mr Chesky, the middleman.

At a time when person-to-person encounters are more precious than ever, I am apprehensive about travel being dominated by tech giants.

Meanwhile, perhaps like you I am enjoying warm memories of my most recent stay in an Airbnb: a bright and beautiful apartment overlooking the water in the tranquil port of Piran in Slovenia.

I hope that the company’s original motivation prevails: enriching experiences for travellers and their hosts – with more of an emphasis on humanity, and less on data. But I fear I may be wrong.

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