The weekend I flew to the Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco to meet its founder, I Airbnb’d my flat. My flatmate and I put our place on the holiday-property listing website for £200 a night. So for the week we were away we made £1,000. For the couple renting it, our two-bed central London flat was far cheaper than a hotel. For us, it was an easy way to make cash. It was a win-win arrangement. At least, that is how it seemed.
I was an early Airbnb adopter. I started using the website in 2011, three years after it was founded by Rhode Island School of Design graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky. Unable to afford the rent on their San Francisco loft apartment, they started renting out airbeds in their living room. Soon, their Airbedandbreakfast service was so busy, they started suggesting other people rent their places out. They got a techie friend, Nathan Blecharczyk, to build a website. By 2011, when I joined, Airbnb had 120,000 properties listed and 800,000 guests. I was instantly addicted. I loved the easy money I made renting my home out, and the amazing, cheap holidays it sent me on. What travel agent can offer a Romany Caravan in Cornwall, an Igloo in Greenland, a lighthouse in New York, the chance to rent your own private island or an entire rural ranch in Cottonwood, Idaho?
With Airbnb, I’ve rented an ancient flat in Bratislava; a tiny studio in Cannes — super cheap during the film festival when hotels are overpriced; a vast barn on the Isle of Wight to party in over Bestival; a seafront house in Camber with a flashing anchor inside; and a tenement flat in New York’s Hell Kitchen that — like in the movies — had a fire escape curling up the back. All for half the price of a hotel. No wonder millions of people shared my enthusiasm for the concept.
Airbnb has now hosted more than 26m guests in 1m properties worldwide. A million British people have travelled Airbnb. This year, Airbnb experienced a 76% growth in the UK and 35,000 British properties are listed on the site, 23,000 of them in London.
However, last year, I’d got my first whiff of trouble at the Airbnb mill. While I was living in Westminster, I received a warning through the letterbox telling me that I could be fined £20,000 by Westminster City Council for subletting my flat. Was it actually unlawful for me to rent out my place? Surely, in this enlightened age, that would fly in the face of everything that is great about the much-trumpeted “sharing economy” — the peer-to-peer marketplace, jet-propelled by the internet, that is bringing about a generation of micro-entrepreneurs.
I emailed Nick Wilkins, Airbnb’s European head of communications. “In the UK, outside of London, there are no laws that prohibit short-term rentals,” he replied. But within the capital, there is a piece of legislation called the Greater London Powers Act, passed in 1973, which states that if a person rents out their home for fewer than 90 days, they need to get planning permission from their local council. “This law is inconsistently enforced,” said Nick. “It’s a classic postcode lottery.” I went to San Francisco to find out more.
It is the weekend of Airbnb’s first “host conference” when I visit. In a hangar decorated with cushions, neon lights and personalised Airbnb tote bags, 1,500 international hosts gather to watch panel debates, seminars and meet “superhosts” — the company’s name for those who receive “stellar reviews that reveal exemplary skills in hospitality”. Everyone I speak to is unreservedly enthusiastic, almost evangelical, about Airbnb. Mary, 69, from Palm Springs used the money she makes from renting out her casita to buy a horse. “It’s been a life-changing experience,” she gushes. Senah from Mumbai calls Airbnb a “gift” that taught her “to care”. We are shown a video of a twentysomething Japanese girl screaming: “Airbnb is like family!”
Afterwards, Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s 33-year-old founder, tells me: “The whole thing was kinda emotional. I mean, the number of hosts that came up to us and said, ‘you saved us’… you hear it again, then you hear it again, then you hear it again: ‘this has changed my life.’”
The main event this weekend is Chesky’s presentation. His emotional mother is in the front row. Hosts and employees alike refer to him as “Our Founder”. Jonathan Mildenhall, a former head of advertising strategy at Coca-Cola and now Airbnb’s chief marketing officer, describes him as “an artist”; Chip Conley, the company’s newly acquired hospitality supremo, calls him his “guru”.
The congregation gathers to hear Chesky’s sermon: “When we started this company we had a dream, that one day we could bring everyone from around the world to one space,” Chesky begins. He tells the hosts: “You open up your doors and in turn you open up people’s minds. What you’re doing is creating a world where people can belong anywhere.” If Airbnb continues to grow at its current rate, he says, in a decade they won’t just be “the largest hospitality company in the world… our host community would win a Nobel Prize for Peace.” I laugh out loud. The congregation cheers.
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