At the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic was still considered “nonsense” in the Netherlands, a friend and I had planned a city trip to Berlin. In search of affordable accommodation, the apartment of antique collector Avi and his dog Charlie caught our attention.
The first thing that caught our eye when we entered his small apartment was a wall filled with photos of mostly… well, naked men. Avi proudly referred to it as his “Wall of Gay.”
On one of the last days of our trip, we were suddenly surprised by the news that the Netherlands was going into lockdown. Although we were not yet aware of the severity of the situation, we were worried. Fortunately, there was Avi, and Charlie who had meanwhile nestled into our bed. Avi made us tea, told stories about his ex-boyfriends, and reassured us that we could always stay longer. This is exactly why I love Airbnb.
I wrote a blog in Dutch about my experience staying with Avi on my travel blog!
Although my love for Airbnb, recently something caught my eye that made me less enthusiastic. I got an ad of an animated miniature treehouse, a luxury pool and lamas. I was shocked when I found out it was an ad from Airbnb. They really invested this incredible amount of money into an animator creating an animation of fake houses? While having a catalogue of the most beautiful authentic places to stay in?
With a founder’s story about two men who struggled to pay rent and decided to rent out air mattresses in their living room, resulting in unforgettable experiences for their guests, I assumed that Airbnb must have stories to tell somewhere. Driven by my curiosity, I began searching the web for stories about Airbnb hosts. I typed “stories about hosts” into Google. Unfortunately, the first results that popped up were more like business cases targeted towards other hosts. What was more disheartening was the fact that the following pages were filled with “THE WORST AIRBNB HORROR STORIES.”
Invested as I was, I researched Airbnb’s presence on social media. What I found? Perfectly curated photos and videos that showed the most amazing and expensive properties. Barely anything on hosts. On my quest, I found just one TikTok that I was expecting to find dozens of:
A study into peer-to-peer accommodations and authenticity
Since authenticity is quite a difficult concept to grasp, I decided to read into a paper I stumbled upon from Lalicic and Weismayer (2017) on the role of authenticity in Airbnb experiences. The academic paper examines the relationship between Airbnb’s branding as an authentic peer-to-peer accommodation platform and the role of hosts in creating authentic experiences for guests. While the study confirms the importance of hosting skills and service quality in positively influencing tourists’ experiences, it found that engagement with the Airbnb platform does not contribute to the authentic experience. Instead, the study identifies certain host factors, such as assurance and warmth, as crucial in creating authentic experiences. The authors suggests that Airbnb can claim authenticity due to hosts’ performances, but commercialization of peer-to-peer accommodations must be avoided to preserve authenticity.
Why Airbnb should recover its values with storytelling
If there is one thing I tell everyone about why I love Airbnb so much, it’s the stories of special encounters with hosts who choose to share their own little place in the world with travelers. Especially in the current experience economy, where personal and emotional experiences are highly valued according to Pine and Gilmore (2011), sharing these unique stories is more important than ever. Airbnb can regain its authenticity in this way for several reasons:
- Personalization: Travelers are looking for personalized experiences that cater to their interests and needs. By telling stories about their hosts, Airbnb can showcase the unique personalities, hobbies, and interests of hosts, allowing guests to choose accommodations that align with their preferences.
- Emotional connection: Stories have the power to create emotional connections with people, and Airbnb can leverage this to create a stronger bond with its customers. By sharing stories of hosts who have overcome challenges or have a unique background, Airbnb can create an emotional connection with guests, enhancing their overall experience.
- Content marketing: Stories make great content. Airbnb can use the stories as part of their content marketing strategy, creating blog posts, social media content, and even short videos that showcase the hosts and their properties. This will not only attract new customers but also provide value to existing ones, keeping them engaged with the brand.
- Differentiation: With the rise of alternative accommodations, such as VRBO and HomeAway, Airbnb needs to differentiate itself from its competitors. These stories have always been the reason why Airbnb stood out from the crowd and their unique selling proposition.
- Help out hosts: Airbnb not only attracts more and returning visitors through its traffic-boosting efforts, but it also provides a platform that enables hosts to share their stories, attract more but most importantly the right visitors, and build personal connections with their guests. Which in turn might translate into increased bookings and positive word-of-mouth marketing for Airbnb.
Missed opportunity: community building
Let’s be honest, staying in the home of a stranger with a stranger, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The ‘no shared apartment’ button is a function my father quickly discovered after our very first Airbnb experience. However, I’m very sure there is a group of travelers, including me, highly interested in staying at these authentic places and hearing stories of these extraordinary individuals.
In my opinion, Airbnb most certainly still offers the ‘unique’ aspect in their experiences, but has lost a great deal of their authenticity along the way. In retrospect, if someone were to ask me about the most memorable part of my trip to Berlin, I’d undoubtedly mention our stay with Avi and Charlie. We had the privilege of getting a glimpse of someone’s personal life living in the midst of the creative hub that is Berlin, gaining new perspectives, and making a meaningful connection with a stranger, all while opting for the cheapest Airbnb we could find.
I’d love to hear your opinion! Connect with me on LinkedIn to share it.
Lalicic, L., and Weismayer, C. (2017). “The Role of Authenticity in Airbnb Experiences In Schegg, R . & Stangl,B. (Eds). Information-and Communication Technologies in Tourism 2017,Springer International Publisher, 781-794.
Article of Aimee Williams on “How Airbnb has lost its soul” posted in 2016 on Financial Times