The platform has made short-stay home rental a global business, its co-founder and chief strategy officer speaks to Ian Taylor

Nathan Blecharczyk greets me with the courtesy I imagine he shows Airbnb guests at his San Francisco home, despite just coming off an overnight flight from the US and on his way to China.

The company he co-founded recently recruited US aviation industry figure Fred Reid as its global head of transportation, so the first thing I ask is whether Airbnb is going to add flights to its platform.

Blecharczyk is not saying, insisting: “We’re very early on in this. There is a bunch of stuff we’re thinking about, but I can’t say [what].”

And yet he has just told the Pacific Asia Travel Association summit: “We’re not going to start an airline. The focus will be on improving the experience.”

So what experience is Airbnb aiming to improve – the booking?

He says: “If you ask [airline] travellers about their experience arriving or departing and look at the Net Promoter Scores of airlines [on the willingness of customers to recommend a company], they are not good. It is the least favourite part of a trip and we don’t think it has to be that way.” So? “We have ideas. I can’t speculate.”

We don’t have much time, so I ask about Airbnb’s attitude to hospitality taxes and whether its hosts pay these. He insists: “We are committed to paying all taxes hotels pay – all transient occupancy taxes. Any jurisdiction that would like us to do that, we implement that, and we’ve made it very easy. We’ve collected more than $1 billion [in taxes]. It has created a level playing field with the traditional industry.”

Clear rules

That would work out at a maximum $2 per Airbnb guest per stay, which seems low by city-tax standards. But we move on to regulation. “To be regulated is to be recognised,” he says.

“We support clear rules. So many of our hosts are ordinary people, but they have been operating in a grey area. We don’t want our community to not know where they stand.

“Every place makes its own rules and it’s important to make sure we don’t add so much weight or so much friction as to make it difficult for ordinary people. If it’s too difficult, that is the type of person who is going to drop out. It is the professionals who fill out forms. We encourage policymakers to understand that.”

He cites Japan as an example, saying: “Japan has made it fairly difficult. That means more professionals [landlords on Airbnb] and there are a lot of them.”

So, are more Airbnb hosts ‘ordinary people’ or professional landlords? “It varies. In Asia, it is generally more professional [landlords].”

Then he adds: “The whole conversation about ‘Is it professional or not’ – why does it matter? There is the guest experience and how it’s delivered. The guest experience we want is the experience of a home, the amenities of a home. You might meet a host, you might not. The common denominator is the uniqueness and the amenities. It can be delivered by a boutique hotel, by an individual or by a property manager.”

He points out: “Airbnb has continually evolved. It was about airbeds. If it had stayed like that, we would not be talking about it.”

So why the criticisms of Airbnb in some quarters? “There is a lot of misinformation. We’re a high-profile company and we’re in a contentious space. Historically, hotels are not welcoming of new entrants.”

Local regulations

What about adherence to regulations on health and safety, city zoning and residential property use?

Blecharczyk says: “For every jurisdiction, we have a responsiblehosting page. We try to publicise local regulations. There is a lot of detail specific to a destination. We play a role in educating hosts. We remind hosts to pay tax.”

I point out there is no check on the adherence to health and safety or fire regulations of listed properties – that it is left to hosts to comply or not.

He says: “There is a confusion of ends and means. The end is to provide safety. Traditionally, how often does a fire inspection happen? What might change in the meantime?

“More than half our guests leave feedback. We get information every few days. We learn a lot more than a traditional inspection might.” Blecharczyk insists: “We would not be in business and able to service 500 million guests if we did not take this seriously.

“We started from a place where there was inherent mistrust and we had to come to a place where this is an accepted idea. I’m very proud of our safety record. The way we achieve that is different from the traditional hotel industry, but we are accountable to the same goal.”

‘Quick to blame’

Airbnb is frequently cited as a contributor to overtourism in cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona or Venice. What does he say to that?

Blecharczyk points out: “We’re in 81,000 cities and overtourism is specific.” It’s a fair point. He insists: “We want to be a good partner. We want to work with cities. We want to be seen as a net positive.”

Yet he adds: “There is a lot more to this than meets the eye. There is a lot of politics involved. It should not all be about us. Competing platforms don’t do nearly as much [as Airbnb]. When we limit ourselves, people just go on another platform.

“There is a complex set of issues. We work closely with Amsterdam. Has it [overtourism] got something to do with the way Amsterdam markets itself?

“We’re so high-profile. People are quick to blame every issue on us. I don’t say there are no issues. We want to do our part. We can help on these issues, we can help spread tourists over a broader area. But we also need to be pragmatic, work together, understand there will be trade-offs and recognise the bigger picture.”

He adds: “These conversations are not balanced. Everyone has their own agenda and there is a lot of misinformation. We want this to be a fact-based conversation. I’m an engineer – I like facts.”

Quick fire

How did Airbnb start?
In summer 2007, I was living in San Francisco [with Airbnb’s two other founders]. The rent was raised. I thought ‘I’m moving out.’ The other two were designers and there was a design conference coming to San Francisco. All the hotels were full. They decided to rent out my room with an airbed and breakfast and put it on a blog post. Three designers stayed. We charged $80 a night each for four nights and made $1,000. We thought, ‘Why not make it as easy to book someone’s room as to book a hotel?’

When did it take off?
It wasn’t easy going. Investors said: ‘It’s probably not a big market. Is it safe?’ It wasn’t until 2009, after the financial crisis, that it started to take off in New York.

What was key?
We pioneered two things – how we handled money and reviews. We hold the money until a guest arrives. If something is not right, we return it. And guests review the host and hosts review the guests. They are very straightforward things that others weren’t doing. It helpeddevelop trust.

Do you still host?
I’ve had 650 guests stay in my home in the last four years.