Why Pick on Airbnb? Because They’re Acting Like Jerks

Last week I wrote a story for Skift about Airbnb’s troubles in New York City. Like many other big cities that lots of people want to live in and visit, New York has lots of people and few places to put them. That’s why in the middle of a housing glut across the U.S., New York City has a record low availability for apartments.

One of the reasons is that at least 10,000 units are being rented out every night illegally on Airbnb, as well as other vacation rental sites. They’re doing this by openly flouting a law that’s been in effect since May of 2011 that says it’s illegal to rent full apartments for less than 30 days. It’s a pretty basic law that the city worked closely with state legislators to make as simple as possible so that enforcement would be easy. Airbnb says it’s complicated, but it’s not. It just doesn’t fit with their business model. Residents and community leaders had been complaining about a glut of illegal hotels for years, but a patchwork of laws meant that it was nearly impossible to put a real end to it.

And the profits were nice. A studio apartment on a vacation rental site can go for $175 or so a night, bringing in much more than the monthly income from someone with a standard year-long lease. Plus, the hosts could basically operate like a hotel, but without all the pesky safety regulations, insurance requirements, permits, or zoning that real businesses have to deal with. Or good neighbors for that matter.

Airbnb likes to argue that its hosts are just folks; actors renting out their place while they are on tour, snowbirds getting a bit extra cash while they go to Florida. But that’s not really the case. It’s big operators like Smart Apartments that run 200+ units in 50 buildings illegally, infuriating neighbors and turning residential apartment buildings into dorms of cheap tourists who are after “authentic” local experiences. These are the type of tourists who only like destinations that cater to them and don’t think hard enough about how their desire for cheap authenticity doesn’t mesh with not reducing the quality of life for people in living the destinations they are visiting.

In a frank interview with me, Airbnb’s head of public policy said to that Airbnb couldn’t be expected to know the law in every market they operate. I think that’s wrong. Businesses big or small (and I started a small business with big ambitions this summer) have a responsibility to be good neighbors but, failing that, at least understand the law of the land. Anything else is plain arrogance, whether or not you consider yourself “disruptive,” have a “.com” at the end of your name, or fancy yourself as the second coming of Jesus, but for apartment renting.

I like Airbnb. I think it’s website is inspiring for travelers, house hunters, and armchair dreamers. They’ve pulled vacation rentals kicking and screaming into the present century and they’ve made it look sexy.

But I also think they’re being total assholes.

In their major markets, the ones that represent the majority of their bookings, Airbnb relies upon properties the destinations consider to be illegal as the backbone of their  business, and it’s locals who are priced out of apartments or have to live with drunken German tourists banging on the front door who have to pay. Few people want a month-long rental in New York City, but lots of people want an apartment for the long weekend. What’s best for Airbnb is not best for their hosts, their users, or the communities they are operating in.

As for our story, we had some nice pickup, with a version of it appearing on NBCNews.com and highlights on tech and travel sites across the web. Ideally we’d see Airbnb respond by saying, “Hey, we’re going to operate according to the law in our leading markets and stop enabling and profiting from illegal activity.” But I don’t see that happening. I think that their leaders’ reality is so distant from everyone else’s that they honestly believe the nonsense that comes out of their mouths rather than the great prospects possible in the (legal) connections they make possible.

5-Star Treatment for Apple Users on Orbitz

Soon after I joined Skift, the Wall Street Journal ​ran an article that made many people think Orbitz was displaying higher prices for visitors who were using Apple products. in truth the prices weren’t different, they were simply organizing the default results page with more four- and five-star properties on the first page. Orbitz knows from years of user patterns that people who book on an Apple device are much more likely to do a four-star joint than a three-star one.

Considering all the ways consumers are targeted online, this doesn’t seem egregious to me. The search results page on a site like Orbitz never is going to tell me the perfect place; it will always be a mix of paid placement and profiling.​ So why not serve me up results it knows I’m going to buy anyway?

Leaving Frommers.com to Launch Skift.com

After nearly six really good years at Frommers.com I’m leaving to launch Skift.com, a new travel intelligence brand. Skift is the brainchild of my co-founder and CEO Rafat Ali. At Paidcontent.org, the company Rafat founded a decade ago, he redefined how digital content was covered and used the site’s voice to help break down the artificial barriers between online, print, and other forms of media. With Skift, we’ll be looking at travel news and information in a way that builds upon the work of great consumer and industry publications by adding compelling original reporting, intelligent curation, and data-driven products that help readers discover more from the information around them. And we think that travel is a lot more than we’ve become accustomed to thinking it is, too. We’re going to cover local discovery services just as closely as aviation and mobile apps as fervently as OTAs. Please visit us in early July to see how we’ll do it all.


Port Authority Cleans up NYC-area Airports

Just before the holidays, I worked with Frommers.com contributor Sascha Segan on two features: World’s Most Beautiful Airport Terminals and World’s Worst Terminals. We wanted to highlight places that did something very well for their visitors as well as highlight those that let peope down — and we should expect more from. The lists came out just before the new year and they quickly caught on, helped on by a collaboration with USA Today, eventually ending up on NBC Nightly News.

Last week the Port Authority of NY & NJ announced changes at all three NYC-area airports (each one had a terminal on the worsts list). At the conference, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said: “My goal is not to be on the Frommer’s list in 12 to 24 months.”

The NY Post had the best headline: “Stall-e-lujah! Filthy airport toilets get spruce-up.” As someone who flies in and out of EWR on the regular, I hope this is true. 

Are You in a Vacation Rut?

A few days before Irene hit the east coast, I got a call from a reporter at the Boston Herald who was shadowing President Obama and his family on Martha’s Vineyard. She wanted to know if I thought the president was in a “vacation rut.” I argued that being president means it’s tough to take advantage of a last-minute Jetsetter.com getaway, and then our conversation turned into both of us complaining about how few days people really have for vacation every year. One of the reasons people do the same thing every year is that they can’t afford to experiment out of a fear that they’ll blow the few days they’ve got on a destination they don’t like. If we had more time off, maybe we’d be a little more adventurous.