Can Airbnb learn from the mistakes of ebay?

In 2001 I saw a roadside billboard for eBay, an apparent ‘online auction’ website that claimed it was connecting sellers of junk with buyers of junk across the world.

Even with a firmly established career in ‘tech’, the sound of my loud scoff at the idea of this kind of concept succeeding echoed in our car for what seemed like an eternity. We sold that car eventually but the new owners probably still get it when they hit a pot hole.

But as a hoarder and collector of everything from coins to sea shells, I was still intrigued, and within a couple of years found myself trading with the best of them – sending stamps to Sweden, magazines to Mexico, and records to Romania. It wasn’t only a bit of extra cash on the side – it was fun – and over the years I slowly reduced my pile of personal rubble while saving enough to actually visit some of the exotic places I was exporting my trash to.

Over time however, eBay gradually eroded the essence of their online garage sale concept, the very elements that had made transacting enjoyable and even personable – I’m still connected to hundreds of like-minded collectors and fossickers across the world. Within a short period of time we saw; the loss of feedback for sellers, the hiding of auction winner identities, a never-ending toying with listing formats, an overhaul of item categories, promoted items in search results, the introduction of the compulsory use of PayPal, and the significant upping of listing and sale fees.

All these changes favoured the modern breed of eBay seller; ‘stores’ peddling new goods, mostly cheap rubbish, and operating e-retail businesses, resulting in a reduction of the grassroots swell of the now disillusioned low quantity and casual sellers. The old-timers either threw their hands in the air and gave up, or slowly backed away, their activity levels dropping to an all-time low.

So what’s all this got to do with Airbnb?

Well you might recall I mentioned I travel a bit? And I work in tech? Yes, I love Airbnb almost as much as I used to love eBay. The site has opened up accommodation opportunities to countries, regions and neighbourhoods that were previously unavailable, either because there were no official lodgings in the area, or the ones that did exist were exorbitantly priced and lacking quality, flexibility, and general homeliness.. When you add in the fact the Airbnb hosts are like your own personal in-country concierge, the benefits of being able to hand-pick the style, location and price of your accommodation are a winning combination.

In terms of the technology and operational structure of the two, the similarities are striking. Each was developed in a garage by a sole brainiac with a vision. They provide an online, secure forum for the owner of a product to offer it to a buyer of the product. Each party to the transaction has the chance to communicate/negotiate with, and get to know the other. Both services became wildly popular in a short period of time with the general population, but less so with the industry establishments, crashing old-school business traditions and catching complacent, under-resourced and bewildered governments napping. As a result each has run into its fair share of legal hassle and controversy.

I’ve used Airbnb since 2010, but in the last 2 years have noticed an increase in the number of hosts who are merely rental property managers, time-poor ‘just show me the money’ types, the equivalent of eBay ‘stores’, with little vested interest in the property, the neighbours and surrounds, or their client. Using Airbnb, once you’ve clicked the ‘book’ button, your payment for the  total accommodation cost is taken from your credit card and immediately goes into ‘escrow’ – held and controlled by Airbnb – even if your trip is months away. If you have a problem and need to change your travel plans, retrieving your money is difficult, and will depend on the booking conditions and attitude of the host. With rental property managers, the chances of being able to cancel or alter your booking are slim, and your money is as good as gone if you don’t arrive at your accommodation on check-in day.

All of my great experiences over the years have been with owner-hosts – I just love the meet and greet opportunity, personal stories, recommendations and occasionally even a coffee or glass of wine.

So what next for Airbnb – how can they avoid eBay’s pitfalls?

I would list my predicted “top 10 initiatives Airbnb might try and implement in order to sell out” if I weren’t afraid the company might read them and decide some of them were great ideas. Suffice to say they all involve some degree of either focussing on business owners over individuals, further depersonalisation, fee increases, market over saturation, and just general greed. All of these will inevitably contribute to the recent crackdown on Airbnb lettings by tenant associations, body corporates and governments.

Airbnb’s contribution to the decline of housing affordability and the ethics of its operations deserve expanded discussion in a separate article, in the meantime it seems to me that the service can stay on the right side of the moral argument by sticking to the fundamentals; putting people before profit, partnering with small-time hosts around the world, and just maintaining the element of fun.

Who moved my adventure – has the internet ruined travel?

Like many Australians, my twenties were a time when I undertook a tour of duty as an overseas traveller, diligently exploring ‘the world and elsewhere’.

In an age before ‘glamping’ and ‘flash-packing’, this was a common rite of passage – thousands of us travelled either solo or in hastily assembled teams, descending en mass on the museums, cathedrals, and pubs of the ‘old’ world. Whether the time was spent kicking the dust along a gringo trail, or singing along to TV theme-songs with a bus load of hung-over antipodeans, we returned with a sense of fulfilment, satisfied in our new found wisdom and worldliness. I didn’t always know where I was going, what it would be like or what I would do when I got there, but I looked forward to unlocking the mystery, step by step, mile by mile, and meeting the challenges presented by less-than-honourable taxi drivers, cockroach infested bathrooms and dodgy curries head on.

Country Château or Parisian room with a view?

Country Château, or…

... or Parisian "room with a view"?

… a Parisian “room with a view”?

Recently, with these fond memories and my swiftly advancing years foremost in my mind, I was lucky enough to be able to return for another dose.

In preparation for this freshly named ‘mature aged gap year’, I pondered a common discussion point among frequent travellers: which is more fun, the planning or the doing? I find enjoyment in both, but in this age of the internet, between Airbnb, Tripadvisor and Google Streets, the element of surprise, the ‘go with flow’ spontaneous moments, and yes, the complete screw ups that we endured at the time but look back on with such fondness, are gone. There is now no need to fly with a tardy airline, eat at restaurants that rate poorly, or stay at a hotel with bedbugs. Every apartment, cafe and museum has been scrutinised, reviewed and rated to within 5 points of Pi, removing the element of doubt and anything potentially distasteful in the unknown.

Does the apartment have lightning fast Wi-Fi? How’s the hotel breakfast? Is that café the one with the Australian barista? No need to wonder, just read the reviews.

If, after all my online research I’m still not sure if the place is in a dodgy part of town, opposite a bus depot, or undergoing construction, I can just check Google streets. Hell, I can even wander the block and pick the café with the best ambience from 10,000 miles away!

So, once you’ve studied and absorbed all the available information, you could be forgiven for feeling a tad let down, perhaps even that you’ve already been there, or at least experienced 50% of the journey. So why still go?

We go because, no matter how many reviews we read, images we look at, or virtual strolls we take, nothing compares to stepping out of a taxi, or hauling our bags up the final flight of stairs from the underground rail, the sensation of sun, smog and rain stinging our face, and finally breathing in the smell of adventure, once again.

Some observations from the mother of all lands

 

It’s not you, it’s me

So who among us is guilty of trying to return to a certain time, place or ‘feel’, in an attempt to recreate a special moment?

In recent years I’ve had underwhelming re-acquaintances with Montreal, Kuala Lumpur, Orlando and Dubai to name a few, all of which took the gloss off my original memories of those cities. Actually I don’t think I could ever have been less impressed by Dubai.

Yet the UK (and London in particular) never disappoints. I can’t quite employ such superlatives such as ‘warmth’ and ‘comfort’ – its too bloody cold here for that – but there is always something magical about a how-long-will-it-last British summer, the smell of lubricant and engine oil as the gears of the Tube’s escalators turn endlessly, an ‘iffy’ kebab on the way home following a sneaky pint, and the sight of rubbish blowing across pedestrian crossings on any given High Street.

It just feels like coming home.

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A paddle in ‘The Serpentine’ at Hyde Park

A golden age of travel

Modern travel is a gift, so easily taken for granted, yet clearly an opportunity to be cherished and valued.

Think about it.

If you agree with accepted scientific opinion that we are thousands of years into an ‘organised’ human civilisation – since caves and trees made way to houses, farming and governance – then we of the 21st century really are just a minute speck on the timeline of human life. Halfway along that timeline, a visit to the neighbours’ tar pit was as far as most people would ever manage; it wasn’t that long ago when horse and carriage was the only means of transport when legs and feet wouldn’t cut it, and boat’s were for the gentry.

Stonehenge
“Nobody knows… who they were, or… what they were doing”

So consider the current era of affordable inter-continental airfare, bullet trains, and buses with toilets. Marry the means with even minimal desire and we can journey to the farthest reaches of the planet within a day or two, not withstanding flight delays, stubborn donkeys and the odd dodgy prawn pizza.

There may well be a day when humans travel to Alpha Centauri in the blink of an eye, and in turn, those travellers will look back at our time and scoff at our poverty, waste, carbon consumption and general lack of evolution. Hard to argue when you consider so many of us think Today Tonight is news, Big Brother is quality entertainment, and Tony Abbot should be Prime Minister.

Yet here we all are on this very day, presiding over the greatest advancements in our species’ history.

Until, of course, tomorrow becomes the ‘present’.

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We know this local street art is not BANKSY – it hasn’t been defaced.