When Airbnb first entered the Australian market, I was hugely fascinated by it. Having studied tourism for many years, I was amazed by all the novel and unique features that made Airbnb.com such a remarkably successful space trading platform. People who wanted to sell space rejected booking requests. In which other contexts does the seller refuse to sell? Fascinating. Guests developed peer-to-peer accommodation CVs, publicly displaying their performance across their entire booking history. In which other context does a buyer have to prove that they are worthy of buying a product or service? Airbnb also offers a unique opportunity for micro-segmentation because it allows guests to browse seven million different spaces. It is hard to imagine that guests would not be able to find a space that is perfect for them, if they just searched long enough. In the early years of its operation, Airbnb was a truly unique and fascinating phenomenon for tourism researchers to investigate. A few colleagues of mine, who shared my fascination with Airbnb, joined me in writing the book Peer-to-Peer Accommodation Networks – Pushing the Boundaries (https://doi.org/10.23912/9781911396512-3454).
After we published this book, I quickly started to lose interest in Airbnb because – as the years went by – Airbnb became rather uninteresting. It was assimilating. Most of its unique features disappeared because Airbnb saw the opportunity to maximise its profits by giving up distinctiveness, and because some of Airbnb’s unique features were criticised as facilitating discriminatory behaviour of its hosts. Photos of guests were no longer shown to hosts as part of a booking request. And the wide uptake of Instant Book – a setting hosts can choose on Airbnb.com to allow tourists to book the space without having to wait for host approval – made the Airbnb booking experience much like that on any other online travel agent’s webpage. The increased interest from profit-oriented investors – who purchased and set up houses and apartments for the sole purpose of renting them out on Airbnb.com – led to the professionalisation and commercialisation of the listings on Airbnb.com. Soon, Airbnb became indistinguishable from online travel agencies, finding itself in competition with Booking.com. The expansion from trading accommodation only to trading also Experiences did little to re-establish uniqueness. By the end of 2019, the main points of differentiation in Airbnb’s positioning had vanished. And with it my scholarly interest in Airbnb.
Then, in 2020, COVID-19 shocked the tourism industry globally in a way no one could have imagined. According to the United National World Tourism Organisation (2020), COVID-19 reduced international tourism to levels last seen 30 years ago. Airbnb’s revenue, after years of growth, dropped by 72%, forcing it to let go of 1,500 staff members and to fundamentally rethink its positioning. At the end of 2020, despite COVID-19, Airbnb still had 2.9 million hosts and more than seven million listings across 2002 countries and 100,000 cities globally (Deane, 2020). Some 4,000 new hosts sign up to Airbnb every month (Deane, 2020). Yet, the founders of Airbnb did some soul-searching during COVID-19 and concluded that Airbnb needs to go back to its roots of supporting communities. Airbnb also formalised their space donation activities by founding an independent non-profit organisation called Airbnb.org.
My fascination with Airbnb was re-ignited. Together with my colleagues the idea for a new book was born – a book that would explore the evolution of Airbnb, focusing specifically on the changes triggered by COVID-19, while also shining a light on aspects of Airbnb which have received little attention, such as their pioneering role in altruistic space donation before, during and after COVID-19.
Deane, S. (2020) 2020 Airbnb statistics: usage, demographics, and revenue growth, retrieved on December 24, 2020 from https://www.stratosjets.com/blog/airbnb‑statistics/#:~:text=According%20to%20Airbnb%20data%20there,active%20Airbnb%20listings%20in%202020
United Nations World Tourism Organisation (2020) Impact assessment of the COVID-19 outbreak on international tourism, retrieved on December 24, 2020 from https://www.unwto.org/impact-assessment-of-the-covid-19-outbreak-on-international-tourism