Shared lodging like bed and breakfasts, boarding houses, and room rentals are falling out of favor, replaced by contactless, host-less vacation rentals. But at what cost?
As planes take off from Mohammed V International Airport just outside Casablanca, there are usually a few common souvenir items bouncing around the cargo hold: colorful Berber rugs, freshly dyed leather jackets, delicately patterned lanterns, tightly woven baskets, and other purchases from the souks. I, however, came back with boiled eggs. They weren’t packed away in the cargo hold; they were plastered in my memory. Okay, yes, I got a few rugs and a jacket too, but three years after my trip, my affection for boiled eggs is my most enduring souvenir.
I learned to love them in a creaky, overflowing Tangier riad, the home of my Airbnb host. The doting septuagenarian welcomed me and my partner after a long train ride from Madrid and a short ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar, plying us with sugary mint tea and stories until our weary eyes forced us off to bed. In the morning, we were presented with eggs in delicate cups, alongside stacks of fresh flatbreads like m’semen and khobz, tiny jars of jam with intricate metal serving spoons, fresh cheese, olives, and on and on.
In the months following my trip, I came away from Morocco eating a lot of olives and dates, telling friends about meals of mechoui and b’stilla, and showing off my rugs and jacket. But the eggs stuck around long after I had new stories and souvenirs to share. Their endurance in my mind has little to do with their flavor and everything to do with the gracious host who served them.
These sorts of prizes are the rewards of a good homestay, a term that can refer to any space shared between a host and a visitor, whether that’s getting cozy at a traditional bed-and-breakfast, renting a room inside someone’s house, or roosting in a trailer parked behind a family home. The key word here is “shared” — which is what separates a homestay from a standard vacation rental or hotel.
I tend toward homestays as a matter of preference, but a recent summer trip to Portland, Maine, where my family stayed in a remotely managed house, reminded me there are fundamental differences between sharing space and renting it outright. With intermittent texts from our host, the days played out like a series of treasure hunts: for the fuse box to reset a blown fuse (it was in a basement hidden by a trap door), for the coffee in the morning (we ended up running to a cafe), for an extra fan for a room without AC (we just propped the windows open). These small inconveniences added up to a larger conclusion: This would all be better if our host was around.
When it launched in 2008, Airbnb promised to digitize short-term rentals, convince more travelers to couch surf instead of booking a hotel room, make it easier for guests to find trustworthy hosts, encourage locals to open their homes and communities to strangers, and overall make travel feel more personal. While it struggled to find customers and funding in its early years, by pre-pandemic 2019, 54 million people booked 327 million nights with over 4 million hosts on Airbnb, according to an SEC filing. It scored a hugely successful IPO in late 2020, and in 2021 recorded its strongest quarter ever. Airbnb also came to dominate and dictate the market, becoming the focus of investment hubbub in the short-term rental industry and far outpacing competitors like Vrbo (now owned by Expedia) and Homestay.com. Though Vrbo launched nearly 20 years earlier than Airbnb, Airbnb boasts 5.6 million listings, almost three times as many as Vrbo’s 2 million.
There are companies that slowly attract customers by staying true to their original ideals; that’s not what happened here. Pivot after pivot reoriented Airbnb around the kind of impersonal travel it originally tried to fix, leading the industry by the nose away from a romantic conception of immersive travel toward a more segmented, anonymous experience mediated by technology. Airbnb’s identity began changing almost immediately after its founding; it expanded into “whole place” listings in 2009. More recently, the company has expanded luxury tiers for wealthy travelers more interested in private islands than futons, and incentivized hosts to add self check-in, which could earn hosts 13 percent more money for personally interacting with guests 100 percent less.
According to Inside Airbnb — an open-source platform run by community activist Murray Cox that tracks public data on the site’s listings — entire home/apartment listings outnumber “private rooms” (aka homestays) in all 26 American destinations tracked by the website. Entire homes make up the vast majority of listings in tourist hotspots like Nashville (88 percent), New Orleans (84 percent), and Hawai‘i (84 percent). The numbers are just as extreme in international hubs like Athens (87 percent), Paris (87 percent), and Copenhagen (85 percent). (Airbnb declined to provide data on numbers of each listing type on their website.)
Airbnb has also filled with professional renters over the years; on the eve of the company’s massive IPO, Bloomberg reported, nearly 30 percent of bookings were hosted by private companies rather than individuals. In many cities, Inside Airbnb notes that a majority of hosts offer multiple listings; while this could be homeowners renting out different rooms in the same property, the site notes, “Hosts with multiple listings are more likely to be running a business, are unlikely to be living in the property, and in violation of most short-term rental laws designed to protect residential housing.” Inside Airbnb estimates up to 60 percent of homes listed in some cities have no permanent occupants.
None of Airbnb’s moves were antithetical to old-fashioned homestays, but the company has stayed relevant by drifting away from its original conception — with real consequences. Whole house rentals have become the epicenter of disputes between residents and renters over “party houses,” leading the company to crack down on homes without permanent tenants. Some critics also point out landlords are now incentivized to evict long-term tenants, while some cities, including major tourist hubs like New York and Barcelona, have tried pushing back against the company by banning short-term rentals. It doesn’t seem so surprising to find a dystopian private theme park listed on the site.
By the time COVID shut down airports and upended the rental car industry last year, Airbnb had slipped well out of harm’s way. Despite reports heralding the company’s end in early 2020, it was actually perfectly positioned for pandemic-era travel. With a few new cleaning protocols here and a few more days between guests there, travelers (and investors) were happy to trust the company again. It wasn’t the end of Airbnb; it was the end of the original Airbnb — or it could have been.
There are places where Airbnb’s original vision is alive and well, like at Cynthia Upchurch’s house. She began renting rooms in her Fall Branch, Tennessee, home in 2020, during the pandemic. “It makes a difference to be made to feel comfortable, like you’re part of the family,” Upchurch says. She rises early on weekends to cook up feasts for the guests staying in her house, like one recent morning meal that included fried catfish, cheese grits, scrambled eggs, and toast with strawberry freezer jam from a friend’s farm nearby. Though she doesn’t include dinner as an amenity, if guests arrive late after a day of driving, Upchurch will save them a plate of whatever she’s making. “That’s why we stay full. We’ve got nothing but love and food for you.”
Food is a common selling point for homestays. Even as tech companies find ways to remove friction (aka human contact) from our daily eating routines — with job-stealing autonomous delivery robots, mobbed app-based automats, and cashierless grocery stores run by surveillance — most of us make exceptions while traveling because we know that locals are the best sources on their own cultures and foodways. The same person who fires up an app to avoid talking with a line worker at their local salad chain may go out of their way to strike up a conversation with their server at a diner in Sydney, steakhouse in Rio, or bakery in Beijing. “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s?” Anthony Bourdain asked in his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential. No, of course we don’t. We want to mingle with the people, to absorb the “local flavor.” We want to immerse.
Except, nobody wants to immerse in a pandemic; we want — or at least accept — electronic cocoons. According to vacation rental industry website VRM Intel, COVID has served as a great excuse for erecting digital barriers between guests and hosts in the name of hygiene. For several years, the booming “property tech” industry supplied rentals with plenty of toys: keyless locks, smart thermostats, noise monitors, video cameras, and every other remote monitoring system to make live hosts obsolete (while introducing another dilemma for Airbnb: hosts secretly recording guests).
Even as travelers have become more comfortable in 2021, a recent Morning Consult poll shows interest in home sharing has lagged behind boutique hotels and major hotel chains for months. While the poll didn’t specifically address remotely managed short-term rentals, it’s clear that most travelers are more game to return to anonymous, private travel than sharing space with strangers.
Before the pandemic, Maggie Odhner would give guests tours of her 300-year-old farmhouse in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania. At the farmstay (a rural take on the homestay), Odhner considered herself and her husband Calvin as “part of the package deal,” even playing canasta with visitors. “Especially if I connected with a guest, I would make them breakfast too,” she says. “Now I don’t even have eggs in the kitchen.”
During the pandemic, the couple launched a “socially distanced special.” Like many 18th-century farms, their house had been expanded over the years. The Odhners segmented off a later addition with its own entrance for themselves, and allowed guests to have their run of the rest of the house. It cost three times the standard price — and Maggie says she missed seeing and talking with her guests — but it was a hit with travelers from New York and Philadelphia who needed an escape. While Maggie tried to keep up old habits, cooking breakfast for guests who wanted her around, it became too much work to clean out the fridge for social distance specials, so the couple built a separate kitchen in an out-building and began to dine separately.
Derek Rath doesn’t buy it. Since he began hosting on Airbnb, the architectural photographer has personally welcomed nearly every guest to a small additional dwelling unit in the back of his Venice, California, home. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years-ish, from back when Airbnb touted itself as ‘sharing your home,’ which is definitely not so much the case anymore,” he says. “It’s always been my sense that if you are going to share your home, and if a stranger is going to come into your home, then the more welcoming you can be, the better.” The same goes during the pandemic. Though he admits it can be awkward to negotiate health safety boundaries with each new guest, Rath’s particular setup has allowed him to continue chatting with guests in the shared yard area and providing (and receiving) tips on restaurants and entertainment. “I’ve pretty much carried on doing what I do but just outside rather than inside,” he says. “You can’t really avoid having some connection with people, so rather than try to avoid them, I’m trying to make it as nice as possible.”
Around the world, in Springfield, on the South Island of New Zealand, Isabella Irsigler has worked just as hard to make guests feel welcome through the pandemic. Like Rath, Odhner, and Upchurch, Irsigler has earned Airbnb’s designation as a superhost (which recognizes hosts who go above and beyond to provide superior stays) for running the Raven’s Nest, a Lord of the Rings-themed tiny home, with her husband Wayde Szumyn next door to their own home. The couple deliver “second breakfast” baskets and fresh cookies, decorate the house with flowers from the garden, supply gumboots and blankets, and light candles for guests arriving late.
Nevertheless Irsigler has still strained to satisfy guests, she explains, partly because Airbnb inflates expectations (and that’s coming from someone who runs a fantastical Hobbit house). “Guests don’t expect cheap and easy accommodations in somebody’s home, but a special experience in an outstanding place,” she says. “Usually our guests ‘get what we do’ and love the place, but then there are always some with special demands for more or with somewhat weird wishes. One guest found our trees aren’t cut the way he wants trees cut. Another found the knives not sharp enough. [Another] was unhappy the shower curtain touched her. Remembering how Airbnb started, I find the contrast harsh.” Irsigler has also been upset by the intensifying competition the company has encouraged between hosts, and finds the designation as a superhost to be a patronizing “pat on the head,” she says, “especially when I see how much Airbnb made through us.”
It’s not unreasonable to want privacy during a pandemic. Like many Airbnb users, I’ve spent more time in whole place rentals than homestays since March, 2020. But I’m concerned that the pandemic has permanently distorted our expectations and reinforced some bad habits, capping a decade-long trend away from chance interactions between travelers and hosts, moments that remind everyone about the human side of travel.
Post-pandemic (and post-IPO), Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is predicting a travel revolution as work, travel, and daily life collapse into one unsettling mixture. Chesky is looking forward to more long-term stays, helping people live-work-travel for months at a time in houses around the world (and rent out their own apartments while they’re gone). This is great for digital nomads fleeing cubicles, but maybe not so great for homestay hosts, the ones still trying to help travelers live like a local. Do they have a place in the revolution?
Returning rentals to their roots in the sharing economy, putting hosts back in the house, might not prevent landlords from evicting tenants, party houses from annoying neighbors, or management companies from muscling out mom-and-pop renters — but it couldn’t hurt. In many cases, it also makes for a better vacation. But the disconnect between renters and hosts isn’t on an (ostensible) tech company to fix. It’s on guests to choose where to stay, whom to reward with their dollars, how many precious minutes of a trip to devote to connecting with a host, and how much food and drink to accept. It’s on us.
The pandemic could have signaled the end of the homestay and forever cemented remote management, self check-in, and full-house rentals as the norm. It didn’t, any more than it permanently eradicated offices, movie theaters, or restaurants. All of these spaces will look different after the pandemic, but their core elements endure. In the case of the vacation rental, that throughline is hospitality. We all just have to remember what it looks like.
Ana Matsusaki is an illustrator living in Brazil.