Airbnb: Food for the Soul

Airbnb: Food for the Soul

03 Jul 17 4mins Jon Midmer


As many of you who read my articles will know, I’m someone who enjoys pondering the whys and wherefores of consumer-facing industries, business life in general and talent management in particular. Leading an executive search firm focusing on the service sector, over the years I’ve had the pleasure of serving some of the world’s most established hotel brands, restaurant chains and airlines, as well as a good number of up and comers.

However fascinating it is to work alongside businesses from a professional perspective, it’s another thing entirely to experience them as a paying customer. And having just returned from a week-long break spent ‘going Airbnb’ through the cities and countryside of Tuscany, it’s caught me slightly by surprise just how different my priorities are for leisure travel versus what I look for when on business.

The downsides of the model

Much has been written about Airbnb’s business model from a legal, regulatory and safety perspective – rightly so, as there are still many important and contentious issues to iron out. From a consumer perspective, it has revolutionised room space in the same way that Uber has re-framed the concept of mobility. For all its appeal, though, particularly for a seasoned business traveller used to the clockwork efficiency of global hotel brands, I have to say there are some real downsides.

First, the hassle of checking in: liaising with the host (or, often, a paid representative) to check in at a precise time when you’re a) depending on flights and trains leaving / arriving on time, b) traffic behaving itself and c) you’re on holiday for goodness sake!, is actually a pretty stressful exercise, particularly if neither of you is fluent in the other’s language.

Second, the lack of creature comforts: there’s no on-site catering, WiFi is often patchy, air con comes as a bonus rather than as standard, there’s no one to carry your bags up to the seventh floor in 35-degree heat, and you’re left to the mercy of your host as regards the quality and quantity of towels and toiletries.

Third, noise: given the central location of many apartments and the need to keep windows open at night for ventilation in summer especially, the sheer level of din from high-spirited locals, rubbish trucks and delivery vans can prevent you from getting the rest you came on holiday precisely for.

The upsides

All that said, the reason why Airbnb is such a resounding success, despite all the cons, are its many upsides. First, and let’s be frank about this, cost: particularly if you have children in tow, it’s a safe bet to assume you would have to pay at least three times the price of a centrally-located apartment for a similar-sized hotel suite.

Second, transparency: in how many hotel chains can you take a virtual tour of the actual room(s) you will be staying in and have a detailed trail of user-generated feedback about both the product and the owner without heavy policing from the social media department?

Third, the model taps into the inbuilt human desire to experience the new and immerse oneself in another world: with a bit of homework to mitigate potential downsides, and with an open mind, I defy you to be as delighted with a hotel suite as with a well-chosen Airbnb property. Why exactly?

Proximity to the best the city has to offer, balconies with views to die for, high ceilings, fridges stocked with carefully-chosen organic breakfast goodies, coffee machines (and other kitchen appliances) you wished you owned, amazing artisanal soaps, period furniture… Even a modest Airbnb apartment can have more character and soul than the vast majority of hotels.

Put simply, at its best, even if it were cheaper to stay in a suite at a smart hotel, for me, one of the key reasons Airbnb works so well is because, if only for a couple of days, you can suspend disbelief and imagine what it would be like living there permanently.

An injection of soul

Having only spent a month of my life in Airbnb properties, I could be wrong about this, but I suspect one of the reasons behind the ‘soul injection’ is that the best hosts, as well as being in it to sweat their asset, are proud of their city, culture and property, and wish to showcase them. From every angle, they have skin in the game in a way that hotel brands and the staff who work in them simply do not.

The savvy hosts who go the extra mile for their guests can generate instant delight and good will and, longer term, the good reviews that should ensure the long-term viability of what for many is a serious source of income. Not even the most inventively stocked mini bar at a hotel could compare with the three local wines we were presented with, along with honesty box and free, locally-grown sunflower seeds to nibble on, at one of our city centre apartments last week.

For those of us travellers who demand the safe regularity of hotels while on business, it is precisely irregularity and the unexpected on which Airbnb trades, and which will keep us coming back for more.