Samira Zare, Department of Tourism, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland, Australia
Sara Dolnicar, Department of Tourism, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland, Australia
Please cite as: Zare, S. and Dolnicar, S. (2021) Airbnb’s space donation initiatives – before, during and after COVID-19, in S. Dolnicar (Ed.) Airbnb before, during and after COVID-19, University of Queensland DOI: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.14204564
Airbnb’s space donation initiatives before COVID-19
Airbnb and similar facilitators of online trading platforms for short term accommodation are in the unique position of having access to millions of vacant spaces globally. They can communicate directly and quickly with the people making these spaces available for rent. This gives platform facilitators the ability to react very quickly if there is a sudden, unexpected need for space.
A sudden, unexpected and urgent need for space can result from many different types of events. Natural disasters – such as bushfires, earthquakes and cyclones – are just one example. Within a short amount of time, these disasters can cause substantial damage to infrastructure, leaving both residents and tourists without a place to stay. During the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, for example, up to 100,000 buildings were damaged; 10,000 so severely that they had to be demolished (Christchurch City Council, 2020), leaving a substantial fraction of the local population homeless. More recently – between September 2019 and March 2020 – the worst bushfire season in Australian history destroyed more than 3,500 homes (Center for Disaster Philanthropy, 2020), leaving locals without a roof above their heads.
Accommodation emergencies can also result from man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks or accidents. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a chemical explosion in Beirut annihilated entire suburbs of the city, displacing 300,000 people from their homes (Vatican News, 2020). In some instances, a sudden accommodation challenge can result from political decisions rather than unexpected events. In 2017, when President Donald Trump closed United States borders to immigrants from specific source countries, many people found themselves stranded without accommodation (Business & Human Rights Resources Centre, 2020).
Irrespective of the reasons that cause people to find themselves – suddenly and unexpectedly – without a place to stay, the solution required in such instances is to quickly identify vacant spaces in a very specific geographic location, extend an invitation to the owners or tenants of those spaces to help displaced people, and match hosts with people in need. Airbnb is in a better position to achieve this than most other companies in the word because the spaces listed on Airbnb.com are regionally dispersed and frequently sitting idle because many of the properties have not been built for the purpose of tourist accommodation; they are just spare rooms in local residents’ houses.
Airbnb has a long history of activating its host network to help in such situations. Airbnb initially developed its Disaster Response Tool in 2012, in response to a devastating superstorm in the United States. Airbnb Founder and Chief Technology Officer Nathan Blecharczyk described the situation as follows:
“After Superstorm Sandy, members of the Airbnb community wanted to help displaced families in their city find shelter. Our system wasn’t set up to support free emergency housing, so we worked to make the necessary changes to help our community support people in need. This work and the amazing outpouring of generosity from our community inspired us to build this tool. Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the Airbnb website was not capable of listing properties for free or waiving standard fees. Making emergency housing available at no cost to Sandy victims required the Airbnb team to fundamentally redesign its booking and payment systems to accept no-cost, fee-free listing for a defined period of time in a defined geographic region.” Airbnb (2020a)
Since Airbnb upgraded its platform to be able to implement space donation, the Disaster Response Tool has routinely been deployed to help people in need, connecting displaced people with hosts who are willing to donate space for free or at a reduced cost. Airbnb does not charge a fee for space donation (Airbnb, 2020b). The tool creates a specific page on the Airbnb website at the time of a disaster, showing the affected area on the map and requesting space donations for a designated period of time. Hosts in the affected area receive an email requesting their assistance (Airbnb, 2020c). The initially developed Disaster Response Tool had a few additional features, including offering 24/7 customer service and disseminating general disaster response information to guests and hosts. By 2017, Airbnb had already donated more than 3,590 nights across a range of different disasters (Airbnb Citizen, 2017), including the Grenfell Tower fire in London, wildfires in Portugal (Hajibaba & Dolnicar, 2018), the Paris terrorist attacks, and the Nepal earthquake (Bentz, 2016). By 2020, Airbnb hosts had made free housing available to more than 70,000 people in need (Airbnb, 2020d).
The willingness of the local population to assist is generally high, although it varies with price and the urgency of the emergency. In an urgent situation – when people need immediate help – 74% of residents express their willingness to open their homes to people in need if they pay the normal price, 72% if they pay a reduced fee and 65% if they pay no fee at all. These percentages drop to 54%, 37% and 20% respectively during the recovery stage of a disaster, when there is no urgent need to accommodate people (Hajibaba et al., 2016; Hajibaba & Dolnicar, 2018).
While Airbnb’s main advantage during an emergency situation is its ability to communicate directly and quickly with large numbers of hosts in specific geographical areas, it has also entered into formal collaborations with national, regional and local disaster relief authorities. Together with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States, Airbnb advises local residents on how they can best prepare themselves should they be affected by a natural disaster in the future (Bentz, 2016). Another example is the memorandum of understanding between Airbnb and the Victorian State Government in Australia to cooperate on emergency relief action (Airbnb, 2020e). Alberta, Canada signed a similar agreement with Airbnb to provide and facilitate housing options for displaced people and relief workers during a state of emergency in regional and bushfire-prone areas (Galletta, 2020). Airbnb also collaborates with organisations that assist local communities with their recovery after a natural disaster, such as All Hands and Hearts, and Catholic Charities USA. These organisations deploy large numbers of volunteers to affected areas, all of whom require accommodation. Airbnb assists with this (Bentz, 2016; Catholic Charities USA, 2019).
Given the success of the Open Homes program in assisting people experiencing an emergency situation due to a natural disaster, Airbnb has expanded the program beyond this scope, and now also offers refugee housing and assistance with medical stays. Airbnb invites its hosts to provide free temporary accommodation for refugees (who have already been granted asylum and are looking for long-term accommodation) and asylum seekers (who do not know yet if they will be able to remain in the country). This initiative is offered in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, Refugees Welcome Italia, SolidarityNow, CWS (Church World Service) and HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). The refugee housing sub-program of Open Homes was triggered by the 2017 United States travel ban affecting people from six Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – put in place by an executive order signed by President Donald Trump. The refugee program was promoted using the #weaccept hashtag on social media. However, it is not limited to the United States. The program is expected to have a major impact in European countries that have a high number of refugees, such as Italy (Hickman, 2018).
Another category Airbnb added to its Open Home program is medical stays. Under this sub-program hosts can help patients who need a place to stay during their treatment (treatment stays) as well as families which require respite from caring on an ongoing basis for a patient (respite stays). This program is offered in partnership with the Fisher House Foundation, Hospitality Homes and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Around 2,000 patients and their families have been booked housing through the program and Airbnb’s goal is to increase this number to 100,000 by 2022 (Airbnb, 2020f).
Airbnb hosts can also donate independently through organisations such as the OTIS Foundation. OTIS is a national network of retreat accommodation properties for women diagnosed with breast cancer and their families, so that they can spend time together, relax and reconnect (OTIS Foundation, 2020). Patients need to meet geographical and income level conditions.
Overall, it can be concluded that Airbnb was exceptionally active in space donation before COVID-19, with activity increasing and widening over time. It is interesting, given all the public criticism Airbnb has faced, that these positive influences on society and local community have rarely been the focus of public discussion, and that other online booking platforms have not engaged in similar action.
Airbnb’s space donation initiatives during COVID-19
COVID-19 has devastated the tourism industry globally: between January and October 2020 international tourist arrivals dropped by 72%, translating into a reduction of 900 million tourists compared to 2019 and pushing international tourism back to activity levels last seen 30 years ago (United Nation World Tourism Organization, 2020). Airbnb was not spared. Its bookings fell by 96% (DuBois, 2020) and its revenue declined by 72%, forcing Airbnb to cut 1,800 jobs in May 2020 and delay its initial public offering originally planned for early 2020 (Abril, 2020).
Despite this significant setback, Airbnb continued to actively donate space to people in need. People who needed homes in 2020 were primarily healthcare staff and first responders. Alex Schleifer, Airbnb’s former Chief Design Officer, explained the challenges of setting up space donation initiatives:
“It’s a complex operation … everything we need to do needs to be done in 60 languages. Because of the scale of everything we do, the idea is often the easiest piece … You could put a banner on your home page, or you can start talking with hosts and governments to understand what kind of help they need and whether this is something they want, then you start building … Ultimately, we [decided to take] over a pretty large amount of real estate so front-line workers know where to go. They also use our core search, but we want to make sure they have specific space for people who want to donate space or support the program. We had a goal of 100,000 homes that would be provided, but we beat that goal faster than we thought we would.” (Loizos, 2020)
Governments of many countries including Italy, the UK, and Spain collaborated with Airbnb via their national health organisations to provide support for medics and first responders during the COVID-19 crisis. More than 100,000 frontline workers were accommodated through the Open Homes platform on Airbnb (Airbnb, 2020g).
But the occurrence of natural disasters did not cease during COVID-19, and Airbnb continued to activate its Open Homes network. One example was the Northern California wildfires, during which Airbnb issued the following call for assistance:
“Several fires across Northern California are impacting the area. Many residents are evacuating to safer areas and could be displaced for some time.
There’s an immediate need for more hosts to provide temporary housing. Airbnb is working to connect hosts interested in sharing their space with those in need. If you want to help, Airbnb wants to help you do it.
Do you have available housing in the area? You can sign up online to share your space for free with those affected. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are only inviting hosts with entire homes or apartments to sign up, and advising contact-free check-ins. Airbnb waives all service fees, and all disaster relief guests and hosts have access to Airbnb’s 24/7 customer support. All bookings are on a request-to-book basis.” (Airbnb, 2020c)
In January 2021, we conducted a survey study with 102 Airbnb guests and 57 hosts to determine the level of awareness of Airbnb’s space donation initiatives, and whether guests and hosts felt that it affected their image of Airbnb and their booking or hosting likelihood on Airbnb. Among hosts, 32% reported being aware of Airbnb disaster response programs. Of those who were aware of these initiatives, 26% reported that this awareness of disaster relief action has positively influenced their image of Airbnb, and 25% reported it positively affected their likelihood of hosting on Airbnb. Among those hosts who were unaware of Airbnb’s disaster relief efforts, the percentage was even higher: 46% said this knowledge would positively influence their image of Airbnb and 44% indicated it would positively influence their decision to list their property on Airbnb.
Among the Airbnb guests surveyed in January 2021, only 8% were aware of Airbnb’s disaster relief program. Of those guests who were not aware of Airbnb’s space donation initiatives, 52% indicated it would positively influence the image they have of Airbnb, and 32% stated it would positively affect their likelihood to book on Airbnb in future. Figure 13.1 summarises the key survey findings.
Interestingly, Airbnb’s competitors have not engaged in any space donation initiatives. This is particularly fascinating because Airbnb, when it initially launched, was the focus of extraordinary scrutiny and accused of discrimination, reducing the quality of life of locals, and unfair competition (Dolnicar, 2019). Yet, Airbnb’s space donation was not widely reported, nor were Airbnb’s competitors criticised for not launching similar altruistic initiatives despite having the same access to vacant spaces.
Airbnb’s space donation initiatives after COVID-19
At a time when multiple successful vaccines have already been approved by countries around the world, Airbnb has formalised its space donation activities by launching Airbnb.org, which replaces the Open Homes and the Frontline stays programs. Airbnb.org is an independent legal entity with an independent board of directors and was initially established during COVID-19 to offer accommodation to health workers. The email announcement to Airbnb hosts on 9 December 2020 read as follows:
“We are proud to announce the launch of Airbnb.org, a nonprofit that opens homes in times of crisis. The inspiration for Airbnb.org began with a single host, Shell, who opened her home to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy. And it became a movement thanks to you – our Open Homes and Frontline Stays community – who have helped house 75,000+ people in 104 countries since 2012.
As of today, these programs are now formally called Airbnb.org, an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit that will help increase our impact around the world. Airbnb.org is also announcing partnerships with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to support global emergency response efforts and Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) to help cover stays for essential workers at COVID-19 testing sites (and future vaccine distribution centers).
To ensure community donations go further towards helping house people in times of crisis, Airbnb has pledged 400,000 shares of Airbnb stock to support Airbnb.org’s emergency response, natural disaster response and refugee programs. Additionally, Brian, Nate and I, as Airbnb co-founders, will be contributing an additional $6 million to Airbnb.org to support partners and impacted communities.
And to thank you for your contributions, we’re launching a new badge for hosts who support Airbnb.org by offering free stays or making recurring donations.”
By choosing to formalise its space donation activities in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis by founding Airbnb.org, Airbnb ensured that space donation activities will continue into the future, even after the company’s initial public offering. Airbnb has also committed to funding all the operational costs associated with Airbnb.org. Through Airbnb.org, hosts who donate money or space know that their contributions go directly to people in need or non-profits that help people in need.
In addition, Airbnb developed a supporter badge. Hosts can earn a supporter badge by signing up to donate space to people in need, or by becoming a recurring donor (signing up to donate a percentage of their payout from each Airbnb stay). Airbnb describes the purpose of the badge as celebrating the generosity of hosts. The support badge is not actively used in Airbnb’s algorithms determining how listings are presented to guests.
Everybody knows Airbnb. Many people have heard about the negative externalities that can be caused by the existence of too many Airbnb properties at locations with high tourist demand. Everybody has heard about Airbnb benefitting from an unfair competitive advantage in the tourist accommodation market. And everybody has heard that the way in which space is traded on Airbnb can facilitate discrimination. Yet very few people are aware of the space donation initiatives Airbnb has been engaging in for a very long time. It can be concluded that Airbnb is not only the pioneer of the large-scale trading of short-term rentals among ordinary people, but also the pioneer of altruistically-motivated large-scale space donation.
“We’ve seen the difference this community can make, one open door at a time”
– Joe Gebbia, Co-Founder, Airbnb; Chairman, Airbnb.org, 9 December 2020 (Airbnb, 2020b)
This chapter is based on Hajibaba, H. and Dolnicar, S. (2018) Political Activism, in S. Dolnicar (Ed.), Peer-to-Peer Accommodation Networks: Pushing the boundaries, Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers, 235–243.
Survey data collection in 2021 was approved by the University of Queensland Human Ethics Committee (approval number 2020001659).
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