AirBnB – a digital platform
In the same way that the taxi industry has resisted the competition that Uber has introduced, so the accommodation industry is keeping a watchful eye on AirBnB which was officially launched in South Africa mid 2015. Like Uber which does not own any vehicles but uses technology (an App) to link riders and drivers , AirBnB does not own any rooms itself but uses a digital platform to link guests/travelers to hosts/accommodation providers in the form of a website where hosts list lodgings to rent. Unlike Uber however, which has very stringent regulations for drivers as well as requirements for type, age and condition of cars, AirBnB does not regulate their establishments in any way.
How AirBnB started
AirBnB was founded in 2008 and the origin of its name says a lot about the underlying principle of the company in its early days – and one which still continues in some AirBnB lodgings. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia created the initial concept for AirBed & Breakfast in 2007 when there was a total shortage of accommodation during a big international conference in San Francisco. Chesky and Gebbia, who were battling to pay the rent for their loft apartment, converted their living room into a makeshift bed and breakfast, accommodating three guests on air mattresses and providing homemade breakfast. This led to a website advertising alternative short-term accommodation initially targeting big events when standard accommodation was scarce (in much the same way that people opened their homes in Johannesburg during the Rugby World Cup and the Soccer World Cup – with varying degrees of success.) AirBnB (its name was shortened in 2009) has now grown into a business with over a million and a half listings in countries worldwide. AirBnB was launched in South Africa in July 2015 and currently has over 94,000 lodgings listed with over 1,000 of these in Johannesburg. The site’s listings have expanded from air beds and shared spaces to private rooms in shared houses to entire homes and apartments.
AirBnB wins on price but it offers the bare minimum
The huge advantage of AirBnB is cost. I recently stayed in London in an AirBnB in Barons’ Court. At the price I was paying in London – both converting from pathetic rands and given its central location – it was comparatively ‘cheap’. However, if compared to what Liz at Lancaster offers, it was of a completely different order.
It was a very humble basement digs which comprised a small bedroom, a small bathroom and a small kitchen rented from a young chap who was away in Europe for a while. His girlfriend met me with the key to open up and she was so impressed that her boyfriend had made the bed with clean linen and left clean towels out! And he had indeed done well in his effort to make it tenant-friendly (including a nice informative note about pubs, shops and tube station nearby).
There was another tenant in a room across the passage (a passage which also accommodated a washing machine). As there was very little sound-proofing I became quite familiar with the alternating rhythm of his nocturnal activities ranging from high passion to vociferous fighting.
Although space had been made for my possessions with a cleared drawer and a few hangers in his cupboard, there’s a limit to how much one can clear a small room of one’s life possessions. So I was very definitely living in somebody else’s space and not a luxurious one at that! However it worked for me – it was very central; I could make myself a coffee and a light meal; there was internet access; and it cost way less than a hotel or a guesthouse. But I have been to London before, its familiar to me, is easy to get around and it’s a safe city so I didn’t really need any of the added services and facilities that a guesthouse offers.
Guesthouse or AirBnB?
While many Guesthouses and B&Bs (like Liz at Lancaster) have signed up with AirBnB, many establishments follow the original model of owner/management living off-site (often not in the same town/city) and arrangement for access and communication of ‘house rules’ being done ‘remotely’.
Would I like to stay in this kind of AirBnB in Joburg? I am not so sure. Of course the huge advantage of an AirBnB is cost, as was the case with my stay in London. No good guesthouse can compete on cost simply because of the service levels, facilities, infrastructure, value-added extras and compliance with regulations that a guesthouse offers. And of course for this reason alone, AirBnB serves a very important niche market, particularly amongst the younger leisure market.
Guesthouses are for those who want professionalism and want accredited standards as opposed to ‘pot-luck’
But I think guesthouses in Johannesburg will continue to serve a different market – the business traveler; the older traveler who wants a safe and secure environment, personal and professional service and excellent facilities; as well as those who want the combination of privacy while still having access to somebody who can provide local knowledge of a challenging city like Johannesburg (which as I said earlier, is not London).
Because guesthouses are regulated, they have to guarantee a safe and secure environment. Owners and managers are constantly around to provide advice on safety issues when travelling within Joburg plus advice on what areas to avoid/frequent etc. Because good guesthouses are accredited, it means that things like cleanliness and quality of facilities are carefully monitored.
Few AirBnBs would offer high quality bed-linen, top-of-the range hospitality mattresses, on-the-house individual toiletries, full daily service ensuring spotless cleanliness, laundry facilities, all guests being guaranteed privacy with their own dedicated facilities, constant on-site service, grass roots ‘concierge’ advice and knowledge, etc.
In a fast-paced city like Johannesburg unless a visitor has been before or has colleagues or friends in the city, it is really helpful to have somebody on hand for local information – from small details like ‘where do I get a local SIM card?’ or ‘How do I arrange a visit to Soweto?’ to bigger issues like ‘I’ve lost a crown on one of my teeth. Where can I find a good dentist?’ When I mentioned AirBnB to a regular guest from the States, he just shook his head and said he could never afford to take ‘pot-luck’ … and I guess that is what it boils down to.
And then there is the important issue of insurance. Although there is apparently a scheme for hosts to insure their property against damage, because many AirBnB establishments are unregulated, very few carry either public liability insurance or insurance for guests for loss of or damage to personal items. These are issues to bear in mind when travelling.
While many accredited established guesthouses have registered with AirBnB there will be many AirBnB offerings which will be unaccredited so there will be a range of standards in the offering. It will be interesting to see how the accommodation landscape remodels itself going forward.