Travel Talk

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Is hip travel company Airbnb all it’s cracked up to be (&B?)

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Tanya Sweeney ventures inside the apparent new coolest place to work in Ireland, to find out what makes it tick.

Tanya Sweeney

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

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Pictured is the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is Carolina Vicente the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is Carolina Vicente the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is the Dublin headquarters of Airbnb in Ringsend. Photo: El Keegan

There's something slightly disconcerting about walking into an office that looks just like an Irish pub, but hey, that's how Airbnb rolls.

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Enter the reception area of their European HQ in Ringsend, and you’ll find affable receptionist Klara standing behind a long mahogany bar, beckoning confused newcomers in with a yes-this-is-the-right-place gesture. Further adding to the puzzlement, today is 80s day in Airbnb HQ, and everyone has risen spectacularly to the occasion. Boy Georges, Beastie Boys and Madonnas are every which way you look. Later on, it will be Happy Hour for the entire team. It’s not so much an office as the Happiest Place in Dublin 4.

Certainly, it’s a far cry from many Irish workplaces; ones long marked with anxiety and uncertainty. Airbnb’s office — designed by architects Heneghan Peng — boasts a life-size giraffe model, an ‘Irish hill’ of green bean bags used for meetings and lunches, Irish telephone boxes, and walls of free snacks. There’s even an office dog — JohnJohn — ambling about. American-style office rituals aside, the energy in Airbnb HQ crackles with positivity and excitement. As well it might: the website — one that allows people to rent out their own homes or rooms to visitors — is expanding at a rate of knots. On a typical weekend in May, over 300,000 people stayed in Airbnb-listed properties around the world. Fifteen million guests have stayed in Airbnb properties since the site was launched five years ago, and nowadays, the site hosts 1 million guests every month. Growing from small acorns in San Francisco (Ashton Kutcher is a notable investor), the company now has offices in 13 other countries worldwide. After hiring 100 people in Dublin earlier this year — most of them bilingual — it’s expected that the team will double by year’s end.

Speaking to staff, it becomes apparent that there’s an almost evangelical zeal in working at Airbnb. It may look like endless fun, but everyone, I am assured, is ‘working their asses off’, according to communications manager Jakob Kerr.

“It is a really great place to come to work every day,” notes Dubliner Aisling Hassell, head of International Customer Experience. “I believe that our team’s passion for Airbnb is what created the office energy, rather than the other way around. People join Airbnb because they’re excited by the mission of the company, and that excitement creates energy and optimism around the office. I would describe it as creative, collaborative and productive.”

“It’s such an open office, which allows for people to work as teams,” explains office manager Nic Roome. “When someone’s talking on the phone (to a customer) you can sense what mood they’re in, so that’s why we drive the collaborative feel so much. People working here have to be congenial for it to work. It’s important that all the furniture in the office makes it feel a bit like home.”

And, like many great ideas, Airbnb was born out of necessity: two of its founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, created an ad hoc B&B in their San Francisco loft during a design conference. Short on rent, the pair accommodated three guests on air mattresses and provided homemade breakfast. Thus, a new website was born in March 2009… and with it, an entirely new way of travelling. Gaining traction in San Francisco and New York, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world followed suit.

Lovin’ Dublin founder Niall Harbison (www.lovindublin.com) ‘couldn’t be more bullish’ about his enthusiasm for the Airbnb service, recently renting his Ranelagh house at a day rate of up to €500.

“I started renting my house two years ago now,” he says. “I've never been worried about security. I tend to be careful enough about who I let rent the house and mostly go for families or older people rather than young groups of lads. Absolutely no disasters to date, thank god.”

Getting around four email requests a week from people — mainly families and business travellers — wanting to rent from him, Harbison has noticed a surge in Irish users in the last 12 months (to date, there are over 1,800 Irish listings on the site). On his own blog, Harbison extolled the virtues of using Airbnb as a way to “pay off your mortgage in half the time”. It certainly makes good fiscal sense in a trying economy for cash-strapped Irish people to list their spare rooms. One Dublin-based Airbnb host, who wishes to remain unnamed, makes around €15,000 a year from renting his city centre property, electing to fly to London or sleep in a friend’s spare room nearby when his place is occupied.

“I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg here in Ireland,” Harbison observes. “Irish people are still a little nervous (about using the site) but they'll get there.”

The site is set up in such a way as to protect both hosts and visitors from instances of theft, vandalism or wrongdoing. The property owner doesn’t get paid until 24 hours after the visitor’s arrival, and both parties get to ‘review’ each other on the site. So far, the system has largely worked, creating an element of goodwill between both factions.

“People have a natural incentive to keep their noses clean on the site,” explains Kerr. “They see that they’ll want to use the site again, which helps.”

Initially, folks from the design, tech and creative fields made up many of the early adopters of Airbnb, giving the site a hipster feel. They were people who wanted a more experiential travelling experience: who wanted to mainline right into a city, to feel its quotidian, off-the-beaten-path pulse.

“It’s a new way of travelling,” asserts Kerr. “You experience a new place like a local as opposed to like a tourist.”

There’s little doubting that Airbnb has changed the entire hospitality landscape, but Kerr doesn’t believe it’s hurting the hotel sector.

“What’s interesting is that the opposite is happening,” he says. “Tourism in general is growing so drastically that in big cities, hotel occupancy rates are at their highest, and growing at the same rate we’re growing.”

Plans are afoot in Airbnb HQ to expand not only its Irish workforce but the capabilities of the website itself. Mobile users will soon be able to book properties within a couple of clicks. But perhaps more crucially, there’s a renewed focus on hosts not only providing bed and breakfast, but to also acting as guides and experts on their own locale.

“Now when we travel, we want to have a unique experience,” says global project manager Clément Marcelet. “We want to be helped by a local to live like a local very quickly. It’s very gratifying to be able to say, ‘hey, I went to Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower… but I also hung out with Parisians and went where they like to go out.”

For more information see www.airbnb.ie

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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