The pressures of the pandemic are driving more Airbnb hosts to lure users into booking their properties privately, further straining the already fraught relationship between the company and some of its larger hosts.
The shift comes as hosts have been badly burnt by the pandemic, in particular by being forced to provide full refunds for cancelled stays.
As a result, some “professional” hosts — those with multiple listings — have stepped up efforts to circumvent the company’s policies, essentially using Airbnb as a marketing platform in order to arrange future off-site rentals that avoid its fees.
Airbnb strictly prohibits hosts from collecting guests’ personal information, other than for logistic needs related to a specific trip. To get around this, one tactic being deployed by hosts is the use of digital “guidebooks” which require guests to give their email address in order to gain access to the property. Hosts then use this to privately offer them subsequent stays.
“In order for the guest to get access to the property, they have to view the digital guidebook,” said David Jacoby, from Hostfully, a software provider to short-term rental hosts. “In order to view the guidebook, they need to provide contact info.”
Another is the use of WiFi networks to compel each guest — not just the person who made the booking — to enter their contact details before being able to connect to the internet.
Airbnb’s decision in March last year to force all of its hosts to offer full pandemic refunds regardless of previously agreed terms has left many with a desire to cut out the middleman.
“I have a little bit of PTSD,” said the co-owner of one company that manages 30 properties in the upstate New York area. “[The pandemic refunds] really kind of smacked us in the face. Airbnb said everyone can have free cancellations without penalty. It was definitely the scariest time in our business, we weren’t sure if we would survive.”
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Efforts by Airbnb to appease hosts fell short, she said. Since then, her company had shifted from “completely relying on Airbnb” to instead taking in as much as 90 per cent of its business via direct booking through its own website — the result of a concerted effort to take as many of its eggs out of Airbnb’s basket as possible.
In a survey of its users, Hostfully said it had seen a notable increase in the past year in its clients prioritising direct bookings, adding that it thought it “unlikely hosts and managers will abandon this strategy in 2021 and coming years”.
The frequency of repeat bookings will be a metric followed by investors in the newly public Airbnb, valued at about $90bn after a roaring stock market debut at the end of last year.
According to financial filings, 69 per cent of bookings on Airbnb in 2019 were made by customers who had used the platform at least once before — a strength that allowed the company to yank almost its entire marketing budget to cut costs.
But the changing nature of bookings during the pandemic — longer stays, closer to home — has changed customer behaviour too, one host said, noting that most of her direct bookings originated via Airbnb searches. “People started getting a little more savvy. They were looking to book 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. And those were thousands of dollars in fees paid to Airbnb.”
The president of one Colorado hosting company, with more than 100 properties under its control, said Google was becoming “the real battleground”. “If you can be found on Google,” he said, “the chances are you can start a direct relationship, even though Airbnb might have been in the conversation in the very beginning.”
The hosts asked not to be named, fearing it might draw scrutiny from Airbnb. The company takes a dim view of attempts to divert business, threatening to suspend hosts repeatedly caught in the act.
Commenting on the practices, Airbnb said: “We take the privacy of our community very seriously and have policies in place which prohibit efforts to pull guests off-platform or otherwise misuse their contact information.
“If examples of this behaviour are detected by our automated defences or brought to our attention, users are subject to sanctions, including account suspensions or full account removals.”
Airbnb was unwilling to say how many hosts had been suspended for violating these terms — and would not comment specifically on the companies offering products designed to collect guests’ data.