Airbnb — the sharing-economy start-up born with a crash-on-my-couch informality — is now trying to professionalize its more than two million “hosts” around the world.
In just nine years, the company has built a global hospitality brand on the backs of homeowners like Ms. Bishop. The company’s valuation has skyrocketed to more than $30 billion. Yet to expand further, Airbnb must attract travelers who prefer the predictability of hotels to the quirky array of spare rooms, empty homes and even the occasional yurt that Airbnb has long touted as its backbone.
Travelers accustomed to hotels have come to expect that they can automatically book an Airbnb without having to ask first for the owner’s permission — something that has long been a fixture of the hotel booking process. They want to know that their reservation is firm. They expect fresh linens and privacy. They also anticipate that hosts will act like hotel staff members, meaning they will be courteous and blend into the background.
As a result, Airbnb’s hosts have had to deal with more rules, fees and guidelines. Many have taken on responsibilities that would be handled at the front desk of a hotel, such as explaining (and sometimes collecting) an expanding list of fees and taxes. They are grappling with new tools that let travelers instantly book Airbnbs, much like a hotel reservation system. Airbnb has also introduced recommendations around cancellations and check-in times that mirror those of hotels, and it allows guests to hide listings that ignore that guidance.
Airbnb cannot force homeowners who use its site to adopt its tools and policies; they are not full-time employees. But interviews with more than two dozen hosts showed that many felt pressured to comply. The lesson, Ms. Bishop said, is that Airbnb wants her spare bedroom to be more like a Hilton or a Hyatt, and for her to act like a mini-hotelier.
“Airbnb was so life-enriching for me,” she said. “Now I’m less in touch with how life-enriching it was and more in touch with the hassle.”
Driving the changes is Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, who has said the company ultimately wants to go into many different fields — perhaps even “one day redefine how we fly.” To get there, Airbnb needs to provide guests with a reliable experience. That has been a challenge, given the idiosyncrasies of hosts.
Vina Ayers, a graphic designer, experienced the pitfalls when she stayed with her husband and friends at an Airbnb in upstate New York in 2015. She said the group became alarmed when they arrived at the rental home and found the house had an odd and offensive odor. On their last morning there, they were confronted by strangers who believed the owner of the home had stolen their dog. Those strangers followed Ms. Ayers to a nearby restaurant. Eventually, the police intervened.
“I would never use Airbnb again and have since deleted my account,” she said.
A spokesman for Airbnb said in a statement: “Our initial response to this matter didn’t come close to meeting the high standards we set for ourselves. While this host hasn’t had a guest since 2015, we have formally suspended this account while we investigate, and we will take appropriate action.”
Airbnb’s shift has divided its host community. Some are embracing the changes around instant booking and appealing to business travelers. Mark Scheel, 42, a software engineer who runs a monthly meetup for Airbnb hosts in Denver, began renting out his ski condo on Airbnb five years ago. He just bought a second vacation condo because the first was occupied by Airbnb guests all the time.
“The changes that added more rigidity have also led to a better guest experience, which makes them happier and brings in more business for me,” Mr. Scheel said.
Other hosts are less comfortable with the added layers and new tools. “The Airbnb guys started the business as a way to make money to pay rent, with airbeds and cereal,” said John Garber, a host in Denver who has rented out an apartment on Airbnb since August 2016. “Now they do a lot of nudging to get you to do what they might call best practices. It’s a little nanny state.”
Chip Conley, Airbnb’s former global head of hospitality and strategy, who remains an adviser, said the company continued “to keep a good relationship with hosts, and they’re consistently happy.” On behalf of Airbnb, he cited data showing that over half of all hosts today are willing to recommend being a host, about the same as in 2014.
Airbnb has acknowledged that hosting can be a great deal of work, as it did this month when it made its website easier for hosts to use. The company also said it would include hosts in one board meeting a year, giving them more say in the company.
The consistency of a guest’s experience is a major issue that Airbnb wants to solve. That is because it bothers even some of the company’s big fans.
Consider Alex Tibbetts, 46, a marketer who lives in San Francisco and who began regularly using Airbnb in 2013 for work travel. While she likes the service and is trying to book an Airbnb for her family of four in Sydney, Australia, later this year, Ms. Tibbetts doesn’t fully trust that Airbnb’s hosts will behave reliably. As a result, she prefers listings where she does not have to interact with hosts once she arrives.
“The big downside of using Airbnb instead of a hotel is the risk, because of the potential lack of consistency,” she said. “When an Airbnb is bad, it’s really bad.”
Airbnb began tackling the predictability of its guest experience early on by providing a rating system, so people could read about Airbnbs from other travelers. In 2009, the company created a special designation called superhosts for those who could be depended upon to provide a strong guest experience. The program today includes hosts who average nearly one booking a month, do not cancel reservations, respond quickly to inquiries and have high ratings.
In 2010, Airbnb introduced Instant Book, a tool that lets travelers reserve rooms immediately, instead of asking hosts directly for a room and then waiting for their approval. Guests wanted a mechanism for speedier booking, but hosts were wary of giving up control over whom they allowed into their homes. (The company later hoped that the tool could also make it harder for hosts to discriminate against travelers.)
A year later, Airbnb hired Mr. Conley, the founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, a boutique hotel chain, for the newly created role of global head of hospitality and strategy. His job, in part, was to teach hospitality to hosts.
Mr. Conley quickly began making changes. Among them: He helped create hospitality standards around cleanliness, communication and cancellations. He rolled out a mobile app so hosts could respond faster to guests.
In 2015, Airbnb also introduced a surge pricing tool, which lowers and raises room rates based on demand, much like a hotel. Over the past few years, the company has experimented with setting default cancellation policies and check-in and checkout times. Hosts who didn’t want to participate could opt out.
Some of Mr. Conley’s ideas have not come to fruition, like a full-service cleaning operation and a transportation service. But the standardization of a guest’s experience was in motion. All hosts were asked to confirm they had smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in 2014. (The company has since said the devices are not mandatory.)
A year later, hosts could earn badges for having “business travel ready” listings, which must have standard amenities like a hair dryer and Wi-Fi. Hosts cannot cancel such listings within seven days of the reservation date.
The changes made it clear that Airbnb was “taking a page from the hotel industry,” said Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at the lodging research group STR.
Yet even as Airbnb has pushed hosts to be more hotel-like, it has not given them the same control over their businesses as a hotel. John Wong, an Airbnb host in Ottawa, who rents out a condo on the site, experienced this firsthand this year.
After some guests had a party in Mr. Wong’s condo, they refused to cover the cost of smoke and water damage. While a hotel would have had a guest’s credit card on file and been able to charge the customer, Mr. Wong did not have that backup. He turned to Airbnb for help, and the company did little, he said.
After The New York Times contacted Airbnb about the incident, the company began paying Mr. Wong for property damages. “We’ve grown fast,” Airbnb said in a statement, “and we haven’t always been perfect.”
Mr. Wong said his overall experience with Airbnb was positive, but “there needs to be a better process to hold problematic guests accountable, rather than relying on the media to help intervene.”
Meantime, Airbnb has diversified its offerings by branching into tours and restaurant reservations. Mr. Chesky has said that these new services may someday account for more than half of the company’s revenue. All of those may turn Airbnb into a full-service, online travel agency like Orbitz, making hosts a smaller part of the picture.
A Growing Burden
For more than 20 years, Ms. Bishop taught English as a second language. In 2003, after separating from her husband, she moved to North Park Hill, which was close to the dance school of her daughter, who was a teenager at the time. To make the new house her own, she decorated it with portraits and still lifes by local artists.
Ms. Bishop heard about Airbnb, which was then called AirbedAndBreakfast, in 2008. At the time, Denver was bracing for 80,000 people to descend on the city for the Democratic National Convention. With hotels unable to accommodate all the travelers, AirbedAndBreakfast was looking for people willing to host convention attendees in their homes. Ms. Bishop signed up as user No. 933.
She immediately liked hosting. Visitors napped in her living room and ate at her table surrounded by family photographs, paperwork, stray mail and recycling items. She befriended guests who, in turn, later hosted her in Italy and Germany.
“People like it here because of how comfortable and at home they feel,” Ms. Bishop said. In short order, she became a superhost.
The company, by that time renamed Airbnb, sent flowers when Ms. Bishop hosted her 200th guest, and another time when she helped find alternative lodging for a man who was caught in a blizzard several towns away. In 2015, while waiting to speak at an event in Paris for Airbnb hosts, she met Joe Gebbia, one of the company’s founders. He recognized her from her listing and thanked her for being an early host when so few others were willing to do it.
In 2012, she decided that she was making enough money from Airbnb to retire early from teaching. She was booked all the time, and she enjoyed meeting travelers like the Ikrams, a Pakistani family of three who recently stayed with her. While the Ikrams initially seemed apprehensive about being in close quarters with a woman who was divorced, by their third day they offered to host her in Pakistan, even though she was unsure about the safety in the country.
“The father changed his mind about me, and I realized I had preconceived notions I didn’t think I had about Pakistan,” Ms. Bishop said.
Then hosting became more complicated. City officials in Denver, which has about 3,500 Airbnb listings, made it clear last year that they planned to regulate the short-term rental market. Ms. Bishop volunteered to meet with officials to help influence the legislation, essentially acting as an unpaid lobbyist.
Denver ultimately passed rules that required Airbnb hosts like Ms. Bishop to buy a short-term rental license and individually collect and remit lodging taxes. Airbnb said it soon hopes to collect and remit municipal taxes in Denver, as it does in most cities.
Ms. Bishop said she sometimes felt burned out by the complexities of hosting. In a hotel, some employees clean up after guests, while others handle concierge services and make conversation with visitors, while yet another group deals with regulators and bookkeeping. She was doing all of those tasks.
“Sometimes I joke that my job is washing sheets and towels,” she said. “But the right conversation with a guest makes it enriching again.”
This spring, Ms. Bishop received a gift from Airbnb, a copy of a new book called “The Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions … and Created Plenty of Controversy.”
Ms. Bishop said she was too busy preparing her spare room for guests, attending host meetups and doing other activities to read the book. But now she no longer knows where the copy is. It has, she said, gotten lost somewhere in her house.