I’ve had this maybe amazing idea whizzing around my head, involving Airbnb, to use its website structure to help loads of people, at no cost to the company and with universal benefit to society. I also thought of how to coerce them into doing it. I can’t find a flaw.
Please feel free to comment and please share this blog entry if you like the idea. Let’s make the ‘sharing economy’ live up to the tag.
10 Paid Nights, One Free Night.
Over the past three years Airbnb has grown hugely, exponentially, worldwide. If you don’t know it, Airbnb offers a website for people anywhere to rent out their spare rooms on an informal, short-term ‘holiday let’ basis. The system is kept clean and fair by a TripAdvisor-style open comment/rating facility, so people who rent out rooms are judged by those who’ve stayed with them. Like Tripadvisor and SpareRoom, Airbnb is having nothing short of a revolutionary effect; radically changing our lifestyles. We love Airbnb – for example we find it significantly more reliable than booking conventional hotels via Laterooms.com. We’ve stayed all over the place and met fascinating, lovely people.
So here’s what I want Airbnb to do (at first in the UK but with potential global roll-out). I think this could be a fantastic, enormous social benefit, while costing Airbnb almost nothing to implement. In fact it will benefit the company in long-term reputation and help to bring this new kind of informal web-connected marketplace model into the heart of our cultural mainstream. But also, in case Airbnb is unwilling to try it, I reckon the UK government has leverage to coerce.
10 paid nights, one free night. Airbnb makes people renting their rooms out offer respite accommodation for carers and digs for touring artists. Anyone letting out a room for money gets 10 nights as normal, then they have to donate one night in that same room for free. This is regardless of room price. The room is offered with exactly the same description and conditions as normal. People renting out their rooms must sign up to either (or both) of two schemes:
Scheme #1 provides respite breaks for full-time carers. Carers are ‘approved’ by the charities working in that field and once they’re accredited, can book Airbnb rooms for free, as and when they need, up to a certain total (perhaps 50 nights per year). The charities do what they normally do (provide respite care in their absence and other support mechanisms) but no longer need to fund the accommodation, for carers to get a break. There is no cap on the number of full-time carers who can register; as long as they qualify, they’re on the list.
Scheme #2 provides digs for touring performing artists of all kinds (theatre groups, actors, musicians, comedians, perhaps even writers on retreat). This requires a slightly more convoluted structure, accredited through the Arts Council. Rather than individual artists being accredited ad infinitum (which would be open to abuse) ACE accredits specific touring shows and projects (or perhaps artists for a specified ‘travelling work period’, such as two months). The artists then book through Airbnb in the normal way. (Perhaps there’s a rule whereby artists cannot opt into accommodation and at the same time get other public funding, so you either join the accommodation scheme, saving those costs, or you apply for funding in the normal way. Accommodation is a major cost of any tour – the biggest cost by far for small-scale touring. A whole swathe of working artists who don’t want the layers of complexity and uncertainty involved in applying for formal ACE funding would still sign up and benefit hugely from this simpler in-kind opportunity. But I digress…)
If people renting out their rooms want to offer more than one free night, that’s fine. Doing this builds up credit – so if they give away four free nights in a row, they have 40 paid nights before needing to donate again. A whole two weeks given free = another 140 paid nights before needing to re-up.
These new service users feed back on rooms they’ve stayed in, in exactly the same way as paying customers, in fact not distinguished from them unless they state it themselves. This beautifully blurs the line between people paying to stay and people who’ve been donated a room because they’re fulfilling a crucial social function. It gives them an equal voice.
And ideally, eventually, this becomes the standard Airbnb model: one free night for every 10 paid nights.
So here’s how we coerce Airbnb into doing it. Airbnb has grown so fast it is now valued in the £billions, if you can believe it, it’s already a significant proportion of the value of the world’s entire holiday accommodation industry. The mainstream hotel business is terrified and lobbying fiercely (particularly in the USA at the moment) to have governments clamp down. In particular they’re building concern that because it’s informal and based on thousands of individuals doing small, cash-in-hand transactions, the people who make money from it won’t declare their earnings as tax. Also, they don’t jump through any of the bureaucratic, or health-and-safety hoops that commercial hotel or B&B businesses have to navigate. So there’s the fear that people renting rooms through Airbnb will have their data passed to the state, or that the site might get made liable and shut down.
Meanwhile, historically, the British Government (specifically HMRC, regardless of which party is in power) has been bloody shit at collecting huge amounts of owed tax from massive multi-national companies, for no discernible reason except they’re chummy with the bosses. They have so much leverage in this area that goes to waste, it’s sick. Yet because Airbnb helps many non-rich people earn small amounts of extra money that may be taxable, likelihood is, Government (especially the current gimp coalition) will consider going after it aggressively.
What if, instead of getting lobbied into the courts to grab Airbnb’s data, the Government just takes the firm’s UK bosses out for dinner and quietly says to them: donate one room in 10 and we’ll leave you alone?
I don’t mean for a moment that people using Airbnb will avoid owed tax; they’re still totally liable. It’s just, well, HMRC has happily sat down for posh lunches and made informal bespoke arrangements to pay almost no tax at all, with big fat bastards like Vodafone, Amazon, Starbucks and that tiny little bastard Ecclestone. Why can’t they use their weight to do something good for a change? Imagine, this could be a shining light, a morally beautiful example of the government’s tax powers directly encouraging a social good, without even letting anyone off paying what is owed.
Or maybe, to get ahead of this possibility and earn huge, lasting public goodwill in one fell swoop, Airbnb will just do it off their own backs. Use the UK as a beta trial, to see how viable it is...
Even the website bolt-on required is simple; doesn’t get in the way of any transactional mechanisms. And of course, Airbnb can offset costs of the web-build. Or perhaps the web developers will do it pro bono because they’re hip like that. More broadly, I can even imagine a bold move like this from one market-leading company having a permanent, paradigm shifting positive effect across the entire ‘sharing economy’, creating a presumptive good-spirited norm that the service being offered also requires a charitable, community-led element. Surely that would be incredible and forever undercut the negative perceptions coming out of more traditional industries.
And that’s it. Airbnb gets ‘persuaded’ to go for 10 paid nights, one free night. Donated to carers needing respite, or touring artists needing digs. It’s so simple, it feels perfect.
What do you think? Beautiful but impossible? Does it have any holes? Feel free to jump in with a comment if you have one. And if you like it, please share this argument because – who knows – maybe the Arts Council and carer charities will just build their own rival system. Or even better, Airbnb will just decide to do it anyway, out of the kindness of their hearts.