OPINION: Since I started travelling in my early 20s, I’ve visited 30+ countries.
While travelling that much might have been prohibitively expensive in decades past, Airbnb, the popular home-rental service, has made travelling affordable.
Listings on the platform are generally a fraction of the cost of hotels, while providing a lot more space and something like a local’s perspective.
For a long time, it’s been a great deal. But over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a change that may turn me off the platform forever. It all comes down to pillows.
I know what you may be thinking: pillows? He’s complaining about pillows? Let me explain.
When I first began using Airbnb in 2011 – about three years after the company launched – most of the listings on the site were someone’s actual apartment. Either you were renting the spare bedroom in the apartment or your host was staying somewhere else for the days you were there.
It was a communal vibe where you felt like a real exchange was taking place: You were helping them offset their rent, and they told you their favourite restaurants and bars in the neighbourhood.
But somewhere over the last few years, the dynamic shifted. Now, in my experience, you are almost always renting from a host who manages Airbnb listings for a living or for a lucrative side-hustle.
Usually, they own – or rent, depending on how strict a city’s laws are – multiple properties and use all of them for Airbnb. In effect, they are operating a makeshift inn spread out across the city.
While Airbnb hasn’t released official statistics, a 2017 report from CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research found that the company’s growth in the US is being driven by hosts renting out multiple units or entire homes.
The report found that revenue from hosts with multiple listings was the fastest growing on the platform, and 64 per cent of hosts in the US were renting out an entire home.
As the report was issued for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, take it with a grain of salt, but I’ve also seen the shift toward professional hosts in my personal experience.
Just in the last 6 months, I’ve stayed at 14 Airbnbs, from Athens to Seoul. And what I’ve seen doesn’t bode well.
Airbnbs are losing their charm
Last year, Airbnb began “nudging”, in the words of one host, its hosts to standardise the Airbnb experience.
Now the company is encouraging use of its “Instant Book” feature, establishing standards of cleanliness, and recommending that hosts carry “essential amenities” like toilet paper, towels, soap, clean linens, and at least one pillow per guest.
And, earlier this year, the company even announced that it was adding hotels to the platform.
Those two shifts – Airbnb pushing standardisation and hosts becoming more professional – has changed Airbnb from its idealistic home-sharing roots to a booking site for cheaper, ad-hoc hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts.
That change is necessary in a lot of ways. People are using Airbnb for work travel now, myself included, and more casual users expect a level of standardisation.
My issue with the professionalisation of Airbnb is from a user’s perspective. As more and more of the properties listed on Airbnb come from professional hosts (people operating the property solely as an Airbnb location or operating multiple locations at once), the properties begin to resemble each other.
It is a business after all.
You can see the hallmarks of such properties: cheap furniture, spartan decorations, a few wall prints, a kitchen with the barebones necessities. Of course, the professional, light-filled photos on the listing always make the apartment look dreamy.
But in the process, you lose much of Airbnb’s charm – from staying in a local’s home, getting to browse their bookshelves – and its function – like access to a kitchen stocked with spices or getting to use their fancy Argan Oil shampoo.
About those pillows
And the truth is, for me, all of that would be fine … if wasn’t for the pillows.
Let me put it to you this way: Most people don’t buy crappy pillows for themselves. They’re critical to a decent night of sleep. So if you stay in an Airbnb that is someone’s actual home, you can be pretty sure you’ll have decent pillows to sleep on.
Not the case with the professional Airbnb properties.
The property being the professional Airbnb hosts’ primary business, they try to outfit the property as cheaply and efficiently as possible. That generally means you are getting cheap bedding and cheap pillows, some that might be better described as a few pieces of stuffing shoved into a cloth. It doesn’t make for a good night of sleep.
While travelling for Business Insider over the last six months, I used Airbnb a lot in the beginning. In many ways, it’s my ideal way to travel.
But as Airbnb property after Airbnb property that I rented had crappy pillows, I was increasingly turned off. Waking up night after night exhausted from a bad night of sleep is no fun.
Recently, I began booking boutique hotels or bed and breakfasts, many of which are around the same price-point as Airbnb nowadays because they know they have to compete.
And at least with a hotel or bed and breakfast, I can be pretty sure they will have good pillows.
In some ways, the pillows are a metaphor for where Airbnb is at right now as a platform: stuck between the professionalisation and standardisation it needs to grow, while trying to hold onto the home-sharing ideal that made it what it is.