Airbnb has encountered a few sturdy road barriers in the last few weeks. The ingenuity it needs to hurdle these has to be shared, though, by traditional hoteliers. Otherwise it is hospitality itself that will be forever swimming against the tide.
The argument concerning Airbnb is about, on one side, filling a market gap, and on the other, having a level playing field that provides space for all and rewards ingenuity and initiative.
Of course, Airbnb has shown a bucketful of ingenuity and initiative, but most hoteliers argue that’s because the playing field is decidedly sloping.
Now the tide, I have detected, is showing sure signs of ebbing, with Airbnb racing downriver toward the waterfall’s edge.
That is, if Airbnb does not change direction. It has the capability of doing that—its market capitalization is supposedly now some $30 billion, larger than the combined Marriott-Starwood empire.
In the last few weeks, New York State has rallied against Airbnb and other sharing-economy providers with a bill that can exact fines of $7,500 against every host “if they are caught listing a property on a rental platform such as Airbnb” for fewer than 30 days, according to The New York Times.
The New York Times used the following language about Airbnb, and I quote: “Airbnb, which operates in a regulatory gray area around the globe ….”
Wow, that sounds as if a hotelier was given that day’s editorial guest slot.
Airbnb is retaliating. It said it intends to sue New York State because it believes that the bill will “cause it irreparable harm” and “violates (its) constitutional rights to free speech and due process.”
It has been illegal in New York City since 2010 to rent out a whole apartment for fewer than 30 days—in other words, essentially, to rent out to New Yorkers living and working in New York City. Everyone else can go to a hotel or serviced apartment.
In the United Kingdom, hotel and tourism lobby group The British Hospitality Association decided that its previous anti-Airbnb tactic was not working thoroughly enough. (The BHA tried to get to the government’s ear by outlining Airbnb’s supposed non-payment of taxes, its lack of security, fire, health and safety initiatives and coding, and the alleged increase in noise stemming from short-term guests).
The BHA’s new tack to conquer the river currents is to focus on the pressure Airbnb puts on the housing stock of London and the price of renting it.
All Londoners know that it is an expensive place to live, and that not all the expense of having a home can be justified by underlining the competitiveness of securing it.
On 28 October, the lower house in the French Parliament approved a law—which still must be signed by the upper house—to make sharing-economy hosts pay the same amount of tax as hoteliers do. There is a minimum amount for which no tax would be charged, but go over that and it’s the same percentage to be paid across bands of income.
French lawmakers have recognized what they see as a loopholes. There are taxes to be paid, too, if you rent out your recreational vehicle or car, or boat, or your overgrown pencil cactus or a very large pair of shoes.
If Airbnb starts hiring growing numbers of lawyers, is the game already essentially up?
What can it do apart from what it probably sees as jealousy, envy and hatred?
Perhaps one outcome is that Airbnb has already had its time in the sun, regulation has or might soon catch up and customers have become bored with yet another grumpy host or overzealously written description with fisheye-lens photo.
What usually happens, though, is that someone else very smart and currently sitting in their bedroom twirling their thumbs steps into the breach.
A decade ago, did anyone see an Airbnb as even remotely probable?
Ingenuity, I would add, is needed increasingly by all sides in this fight.
A strange footnote
I find very discomforting Airbnb’s new “Airbnb Community Commitment.” Everyone using Airbnb—those that host and those that are hosted—have to sign a commitment to being open to all, regardless of race, gender, etc.
All very good, one must say, but as of last Tuesday if anyone wishes to use Airbnb, they have to sign this online commitment or not use the service ever again. (Comments on this can be made to email@example.com.)
Why? Surely discrimination would come out via the old, trusted route of damaging TripAdvisor write-ups? Don’t worry, though, as news of the commitment will come to you—well, it did to me—“Sent with ♥ from Airbnb.”
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