A big idea for Airbnb, respite care and touring artists
posted on May 11th, 2014

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.

The idea.

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.

  1. An AirBNB Host
    4:57 pm on 5/11/14

    I am commenting as someone who lets out their spare room via AirBNB.

    I like the idea that AirBNB should use some of its money to fund respite for carers and accomodation for touring artists. I think companies should be more socially responsible in ways like this and these are both causes I support.

    But as far as I can tell, it’s not AirBNB’s money that would fund these causes. It’s the money of the people renting out their rooms. I rent mine out for £20 per night, AirBNB takes £1 of that. Personally I don’t think that it would be fair of AirBNB to expect me to lose out on £19 when they only lose out on £1. A fairer system might be if AirBNB were to pay their hosts for the one free night given to carers/artists (though in order for them to still turn a profit, that would drastically reduce the rate of free nights, in my case to 1 in 20 or more).

    That’s the biggest hole I can see – that and I would want to make sure that any scheme which allowed one night in X nights for free still allowed hosts to vet the guests they choose to take in, as is currently the case.

  2. 5:35 pm on 5/11/14

    There are two reasons my model has you ‘paying’ rather than Airbnb directly.

    First, you currently benefit from the system, as you didn’t have to pass health & safety tests, nor go through legal bureaucratic procedures to set up a professional B&B or hotel business, before you started making money. You undercut traditional hotels using Airbnb’s structure, making money with no conventional oversight. If the Government hits Airbnb for all that stuff (plus, for example, the possibility that some hosts don’t declare taxable income, or (more commonly I imagine) technically break their mortgage/rental agreements by subletting), it’s you hosts who’ll be screwed when the system collapses.

    The second reason is a logistic one – this proposal can be rolled out leaving the financial transaction set-up entirely unchanged, rather than introducing a new money flow. If Airbnb were meant to fund your extra night, that’s a new, separate flow of money to build.

    I guess my broader point is, we need a way to protect this new kind of hard-to-regulate but otherwise excellent web based economic model, rather than having states and established business communities trying to destroy it. This is a run at that goal, using reputational tactics, which have the side benefit of doing incredible good.

    Finally, your personal answer is easy too: just shove your price up a small amount (to £23?) to pass the cost onto your customers. Remember, all your competitors within the Airbnb structure also face the same situation, so you won’t be less competitive with them. If anything, it rebalances modestly (though only modestly) back in favour of conventional B&Bs and hotels, who your new business is currently (rightly) smashing in the balls. 🙂

  3. Charlie P
    8:03 pm on 5/11/14

    Hi Chris
    I’m commenting on this as an airbnb user, but as yet, not a host (although I have considered whether this is logistically feasible for me with work commitments)., and partly whether the hassle outweighs the income, but if I felt somebody other than myself was benefitting it would make a difference as to whether I sign up as a host.
    I LOVE this idea, and in fact would spur me into signing up as a host. I have often wondered whether there is a scheme whereby I could host artists/musicians/actors that is in someway regulated. Presumably the scheme proposed would allow you to host artists more regularly than 1 night in 11 if you wish?
    I’m not sure how I could be of help with this, but you have my email address and I would love to be involved in any way I can
    Good luck – we need more ideas like this to make the world a better place to live in!

  4. person
    11:15 am on 5/12/14

    Airbnb is running an almost entirely illegal business for dozens of reasons (zoning, no regulations, breaking city laws, breaking leases) and in order to fix the problem which is the core of their activity you are recommending that their customers – which burden the entire risk as it is, go out of their way and donate free nights so that Airbnb can bribe officials with their good will? How stupid can you be?!

  5. 11:34 am on 5/12/14

    That’s an interesting way of looking at it, though you don’t need to call me stupid just because you oppose Airbnb. The problem with your illegality points are, you’re blatantly transferring responsibility from users to the startup that built an enabling framework, waxing all sorry for the ‘customers’, when its them breaking the law (if that’s what’s happening). Nobody *forces* people to use Airbnb and the site doesn’t offer anything that people couldn’t do anyway offline, they just make the connecting part easier.

    I think the context of my argument is: this is the future for (a phenomenal proportion of) ALL business – informal, global, connected, hard-to-regulate – and we need to accept that as the paradigm we’re moving inevitably into. Trust me, I make music, I know how fundamental and irreversible the shift is. It’s all very well to whine that it’s illegal but you’re not doing shit to stop it.

© Chris T-T 2008–2013
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