I have to hand it to the folks running Airbnb. Their brilliance in communicating their message makes all of us in the hotel business look a bit amateurish. And incredibly for that matter, Airbnb’s latest TV missive has nothing to do with travel or even accommodations.
The ad depicts a retired couple talking about how renting out a room in their home helps them keep up with payments. It goes on to suggest that Airbnb is helping thousands of friendly folks just like them make ends meet. Moreover, the ads are geotargeted. The one I saw focused on Toronto – my home city – with classically iconic CN Tower photography thrown in for good measure. My sister reported similarly bespoke cutaway stock shots adapted for the New York City market.
Clearly, these ads are not directly targeting the traveler looking for a stay for the weekend, even though they can work subliminally simply by throwing the company logo up on the screen. One might naively believe that they are primarily aimed at cash-strapped, middle-class homeowners with the hidden objective of building rooms inventory in a given market. Hardly, though, as the real audience for these ads is elected officials – anyone who has the responsibility of passing legislation that would limit Airbnb from operating in their jurisdictions.
First, note that the advertising does not lie. An individual renting out a spare bedroom can indeed net a few extra dollars. And from a hotelier’s perspective, I don’t think any of us would object to Uncle Max and Aunt Mary renting out their extra room to a few twentysomething backpackers. Sure, Max and Mary need the companionship and they’re eager to make them breakfast, too!
But Airbnb didn’t grow into a multibillion-dollar empire solely from folks on Social Security finding new short-term friends. What the ads do not show are those who rent their entire apartment unit or the landlords who deal in scores of units, even entire buildings, with the result being that these places are removed of the long-term rental market. The travesty is presenting a good deed – that is, helping Max and Mary – as a red herring for the underground economy of acting as hotels without owning the real estate or paying the proper taxes.
Let’s hope the town councillors and mayors of the world aren’t gullible enough to be taken by some 30-second TV spots of slick creative.
What should hoteliers do about this?
There’s nothing illegal here. The ads just aren’t telling the full story. But a response from our industry would be fully justified. Instead of presenting the case for helping a few pensioners, steer the conversation towards jobs. The hotel industry is a big employer; Airbnb is not. People with jobs pay taxes and help communities grow. And hint-hint, employed folks also help candidates get re-elected, too.
No advertising campaign of this nature can be undertaken by an individual property or even by a single big brand. Hoteliers need to band together, ideally through a revitalized non-profit hotel association. This requires serious lobbying efforts, including advertising, to tell our story to the wider public. But it has to be initiated now before voter sentiment shifts irreversibly away from our camp. So, what are we waiting for?