Ask Harvey Hernandez about his upcoming real estate project in Kissimmee, Florida, and he’ll respond with the easy charm and outsized boasts endemic to his industry. The 324-unit complex near central Florida’s Disney World, the first of a string of tourism-related developments springing up across the U.S. under the Niido brand name, will merely “change the way people live.”
“It’s the reason we get up in the morning,” says Hernandez, who once used a Tesla X as the sweetener in a deal to sell his multimillion-dollar Brickell condo.
“People will imitate it, see the value we provide, and come up with their own iterations,” he says. “And guess what? Nobody else is doing this. That makes us very, very excited.”
Boutique hotels and glitzy apartment buildings come and go. What makes Hernandez so excited is the project’s advisor, Airbnb.
Set to open this spring, Niido represents the first of what many tourism analysts believe will be a popular real estate play: buildings customized for home-sharing sites. Each one-, two-, or three-bedroom unit, ranging from 750 to 1,200 square feet, will be located within a garden-style complex featuring keyless entry, run by master hosts who will take care of maintenance and cleaning. Tenants will be able to rent, and then share, their units in a “seamless, open, convenient, and safe way” for up to 180 nights a year.
Niido is also an example of the increased professionalization of Airbnb, which makes it easier for larger landlords and property owners to prosper. There may always be a market for cheap lodging in someone’s spare room, but increasingly, Airbnb and the services that have sprung up around it are set up to favor property owners with more real estate and greater resources.
While Hernandez’s Newgard Development Group put up the capital and will own the unit—Airbnb invested nothing and has no financial stake in the project, other than the cut it may take from future rentals on its own platform—the company’s touch is unmistakable. Airbnb provided input about how to design more appealing common areas and create more desirable layouts, collaborated on branding, trained the master hosts, and provided data on where to build and what markets to enter.
“Absolutely, they’re very, very involved with us,” Hernandez says. “We’re business people, and we want to be able to make business decisions. Their data was crucial.”
Niido is the latest in a string of projects, initiatives, and market shifts that signify how far Airbnb has moved from its roots. A scruffy startup marketed with the utopian slant that room-sharing would create a new way for travelers to engage with people and places, Airbnb has become, in a little more than a decade, a global, multibillion-dollar pillar of the sharing economy. In 2017, the company made $93 million in profit on $2.6 billion in revenue, exceeding expectations. Due to the company’s size, its strategy announcement on February 22 will be a global media event.
The platform also generates millions in profit for some users.
“They were founded on this idea of helping individuals make a few extra bucks while they’re away on vacation,” says Scott Shatford, founder and CEO of AirDNA, a company that analyzes the Airbnb marketplace. “But the driver on this market is the opportunity to buy property and make money.”
The platform has undoubtedly helped millions of part-time hosts make money on spare rooms and second homes, stories that are central to its marketing material and public image. But Airbnb has also become a marketplace where professional property managers and commercial concerns—including boutique hotels and actual bed and breakfasts, which can list rooms on the site, as well as large vacation rental services, such as Blanket Homesand VTrips—have perfected their business models. The homeshare and vacation rental markets predate Airbnb by decades. The tech firm just created a platform that, despite claims by some large owners that it can be unwieldy, has made it easier for many to manage multiple properties.
According to an AirDNA analysis for Curbed, the 25 top-grossing Airbnb accounts in the United States are far cries from that original collection of spare rooms, mom-and-pop operations, or the “one home, one host” policy the company introduced in certain cities, which mandates that hosts can only have listings at one address. While AirDNA can’t reveal the names or locations behind these accounts due to privacy policies, last year they each made more than $15 million, and each owned hundreds of units. The top-grossing account took in a little over $44 million by renting 1,062 rooms.
As Shatford has said, these numbers don’t represent a ”multimillionaire sitting on a gold mine.” But they do show the scale and ambition of some property owners and private management companies on Airbnb.
The Top 25 Airbnb Accounts in the U.S., by Revenue
|2017 Revenue||Property count|
Juan Giraldo is just a small player in this larger ecosystem. Beginning with a single property in Miami five years ago, he began signing up and managing properties, eventually overseeing 13 apartments in the same building in River Oaks. The 27-year-old now runs an international operation, Nomad Guru, with 15 employees and 34 properties sub-leased in Miami and additional properties in major Colombian cities, as well as accountants and support staff. The company has vacation rental permits and licenses—in Miami, putting multiple listings on the site is only limited in South Beach—and did $2 million in business last year.
Ever since he started, he’s noticed that the platform has become more competitive and professional, which has pushed prices down for guests.
“People are looking for professionals who manage properties,” he says. “They’re looking for places that compare to hotels. If you’re not dedicated to this every day as a host, you’re going to miss a lot. You can compete, but you won’t make as much money.”
A recent, multiyear analysis of Airbnb activity in New York City, conducted by McGill University professor David Wachsmuth, found that 28 percent of the site’s revenue was generated by commercial operators, which he defines as those hosts who control multiple entire-home/apartment listings or large portfolios of private rooms. The report found that, due to economies of scale, increased inventory, and the ability to rent at a more competitive rate, the top 10 percent of hosts earned 48 percent of total Airbnb revenues in New York City last year.
It’s a pattern Wachsmuth has found in other cities across the globe, including Vancouver, Cape Town, and Singapore; roughly 10 percent of the operators earn half the profits.
“It’s a structure that looks very similar to the hotel industry,” he says.
Airbnb won’t release similar data analysis. After reviewing Wachsmuth’s claims—and noting that his work is funded by the Hotel Trades Council, a group strongly opposed to Airbnb operations—the company disagreed strongly with the methodology, accuracy, and conclusions of AirDNA data, which is gathered by scraping data from the site. AirDNA says the methodology behind its reports on revenue and occupancy rates has been proven to be accurate within a margin of error of 5 percent. Wachsmuth freely admits the sponsorship of his research, says he’s following industry-standard research techniques, and believes he’s actually underestimating the number of commercial hosts.
“Although inconvenient for this author’s anti-home sharing bias, Airbnb supports legislation that would restrict home sharing to one single home, which would finally allow enforcement to focus on illegal hotel operators while protecting regular New Yorkers who are trying to make some extra money to live in a city that gets more expensive by the year,” wrote Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy at Airbnb, in a statement to Curbed.
Analysts and researchers agree that the platform has attracted larger property owners, businesses, and investors. They say that the pressure to maintain its high growth rate—in November 2016, the company had 3 million listings worldwide, almost three times the listings of the combined Marriott/Starwood brand—has turned the company into something that bears a much closer resemblance to a traditional business.
As cities and states and Airbnb continue to debate the right ways to tax, regulate, and oversee room sharing, it’s clear the company’s growth strategy is tied to regulations. Over the last few years, the platform has agreed to abide by various cities’ restrictions—paying taxes, limits on how many properties individual hosts can list and how many nights a unit can be rented—to push back against claims that they’re driving rent increases and gentrification, and to become a more accepted player in the local hospitality industry.
In places like New York, where supply is much more tightly regulated and many property managers say the city has gotten much more aggressive toward Airbnb, growth has actually plateaued. In cities where owners can list multiple units, investors and owners are creating companies with hundreds of units.
“Airbnb out of the gate was meant to democratize travel and provide an experience you couldn’t have at a hotel,” says Jan Freitag, senior VP for lodging insights at STR, a global consultancy focused on the hospitality industry. “But as Airbnb is competing more for hotel customers, we’ll see this more anonymized travel coming back. What they tried to get away from will ultimately be to their benefit.”
As Freitag says, Airbnb’s decisions are ROI decisions, and there’s nothing wrong with a platform built to make money doing just that. But those decisions are a step away from the company’s original stated mission.
“This is a gold rush,” says Andrew McConnell, CEO of Rented.com, which just created a fund to invest in $125 million worth of rental property business. “This is what finance was pre-2008. This is where money will be made and where wealth is going to be created. It’s attracting a lot of people to property management that never would have been interested before.”
Airbnb’s name refers back to its modest beginnings. In late 2007, founders Brian Cheskyand Joe Gebbia inflated air mattresses in a small room in San Francisco, aiming to attract attendees to a tech conference, and started their experiment with an online bed and breakfast.
The route from part-time to more professional hosts started soon after the platform opened. By taking care of payment processing and providing a website and, ostensibly, marketing, the site made it easy for anybody to become a property manager. With early additions such as instant booking, the site made it more scalable to own and sell multiple properties.
“Lots of people have hundreds and thousands of properties that hide behind hundreds and thousands of names,” says Shatford. “They’re hiding behind large property-management systems. As a host, you kind of have to do that, or the bad press, or the hotel lobby, comes out and batters you. It’s a big gray area that’s in flux.”
Changes to the platform, such as adding Airbnb to the Concur system of corporate expensing, expanded the potential customer base. By 2016, 50,000 companies had used Airbnb for business, and 10 percent of the site’s bookings were for business travel. A Skift study predicted that nearly a quarter of all business travelers would use the platform last year. Last fall, the company announced a pilot program with coworking site WeWork to offer travelers access to workspaces akin to hotel business centers.
“Airbnb talks out of both sides of their mouth,” says Steve Milo, CEO of VTrips, a large vacation rental service in 19 cities that lists some properties on Airbnb. “They want to be a large, online travel agency player, and in order to achieve that, you must deal with larger-scale enterprise customers. And if you look at customers like PayPal and eBay, they evolved from mom-and-pops to enterprise customers. That’s how you monetize the platform. ”
Taken with other decisions, such as the company’s suggestions that hosts standardize service and act more “hotel-like,” it’s clear Airbnb has been pushing for a more hotel-like level of service—and giving urban property-management operations new tools on the platform. There’s now an icon for online listings to certify a property is “business ready.” And four months ago, the site put out a call for affiliate partners and launched a new API and data dashboard, a long-time request from larger hosts that made it easier to support property management.
“Airbnb realized they couldn’t sustain that kind of growth rate they had early on with individual home owners and operators,” says Shatford. “The easiest way to do that would be to tap into those larger property managers and give them better tools.”
An entire business ecosystem has formed around this increasingly professionalized Airbnb. Management companies help keep apartments and homes clean. Investors buy properties to rent them out, and startups involved in the Airbnb management economy raise millions from investors (Hostmaker, an Airbnb management firm, raised $15 million last fall). As rentals on the platform become better able to approximate hotels, guests have come to expect perfect ratings, great communication, and professional photos—so that hosts are under even more pressure to provide those things.
Daniel Zammata co-founded Host Tonight, a service that manages more than 400 properties worldwide, including units in New York City, and generated $1.7 million in business for property owners last year. Zammata says success in hosting comes from managing guest expectations before, during, and after a stay through crisp listing photos, clean and well-organized rooms, and plenty of post-trip social media interaction. Blake Hinckley, who runs a similar service, Happy Host, says that his company spends $250 per stay cleaning rooms, swapping out linens, and stocking toiletries.
For Matt Lerner, who runs Metro Butler, it’s all about time, especially the hours spent managing and responding to leads and inquiries. His service, which manages hundreds of units in New York City, employs 10 people in New York and an offshore tech team of 15, which builds out tools to manage listings across multiple services. Their promotion and management can boost occupancy rates to 85 percent of available nights (the platform average is 45 percent).
“If you’re awake 24 hours a day, and responding to every request that’s coming in, you won’t want to use our service,” he says. “But most people aren’t like that.”
This shift mirrors the hospitality industry at large: Hotels aspire to be more authentic, customized, and unique as room-sharing sites become more professional. Hyatt’s strategic investment in Oasis, an upscale room-sharing service, is a prime example. McConnell believes all the investors in the property-rental market will only make it harder; with so much money invested in home sharing, and consumers clearly favoring these services, businesses will find ways around any rules the government or a website puts into place.
At Sonder, an Airbnb competitor backed by $50 million in investments, 40 percent of traffic comes from people who haven’t purchased a home but are simply looking to see what return they’ll get on potential investment properties, according to Shatford.
“The bar just keeps going up,” McConnell says. “As the professionals invest more money, it’s harder for the mom and pops. The individual hosts and managers can provide a personal touch, and while it’s a true experience, that’s not scalable.”
The increased number of property managers and commercial operators using Airbnb has changed the platform’s impact on cities.
Wachsmuth has done extensive research cross-referencing activity on the platform with local rental data to create a picture of how specific neighborhoods have been impacted.
His analysis mapped out the neighborhoods in Quebec, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York City where, based on prevailing rental rates and Airbnb activity, it’s more profitable for property owners to place units on Airbnb than on the long-term rental market. The activity tends to be very, very concentrated. In New York, half the activity on Airbnb occurs in an area where less than 10 percent of the population lives, and half the revenue is generated by an area with a little more than 5 percent of the population. Nearly 300 unique listings earned $100,000 or more last year.
The study found that this concentrated activity has increased rent in New York City by 1.4 percent over the last three years, resulting in a $380 annual median new rent increase for New York tenants.
“There’s a story about housing markets, and a story about competition on the Airbnb platform,” says Wachsmuth. “We found that large operators are able to significantly undercut other competitors. The way the market has evolved suggests it’s better to operate at scale. They know they’re getting their money from large commercial operators, they just can’t admit that.”
Airbnb argues that Wachsmuth’s analysis is flawed on several fronts. According to the company’s own analysis, 95 percent of hosts in the city who share an entire unit (as opposed to renting out a spare bedroom) only have one listing. The company’s research shows that “the overwhelming majority of our hosts are sharing their primary home,” and that only 9 percent of entire home listings are managed by hosts with more than one listing. His data may also count legal exceptions to New York regulations—bed and breakfasts, long-term corporate housing, and townhouses with multiple units rented out by one operator. And scraped data, which has no way of telling whether a room on the platform is actually booked or simply unavailable for rent, can grossly overstate how many rooms have been booked.
Wachsmuth concedes that he doesn’t have perfect data.
“We follow the same practices and methodologies that everybody does,” he says. “We use the system that everyone else does: third-party scraped data. There’s no way around that unless Airbnb commits to a level of openness they’re simply not willing to do.”
He also believes he’s likely undercounting the issue since many hosts rent their property via multiple accounts, where units are registered under different names, those of either family members or employees, so that there appear to be multiple hosts. It’s a strategy that Zammata at Host Tonight says is being used by some of his clients. (He won’t name names due to confidentiality agreements.) Airbnb says hosts are barred from listing more than one active entire home listing within the five boroughs, and the account may be suspended or deactivated if users are determined to manage listings at multiple addresses without a specific exception for each additional unit.
Now that the company has ruled out an IPO happening this year, Airbnb observers predict that its big announcement will revolve around continued growth via power users, both operators and travelers.
According to Shatford, the company will announce an Airbnb Lux rewards program, geared toward business travelers, a service Bloomberg reported on last year. The program will segment out properties on the site into different tiers, with an elite group promising a guaranteed level of quality. This move might have the side effect of attracting more large operators, such as boutique hotels and corporate housing.
Freitag agrees that the site’s next step is inviting more hotels onto the platform. In this scenario, Airbnb isn’t gunning for Hilton or other large chains; it’s actually becoming an online travel agency (OTA) like Expedia or Priceline. After all, Airbnb charges just 3 percent commission to host, compared to the 9 to 10 percent charged by other OTAs. For a hotel owner, it’s an attractive proposition.
“If I’m Airbnb and looking at going public, knowing I’ll be under more scrutiny, and looking for more growth to satisfy Wall Street, I’ll do the math and say, how do I add the growth to make investors happy?” he says. “Hotels. It’ll start with a few rooms in boutique hotels, then move to all brands that have a cool reputation. And then, why not any hotel?”
Freitag actually feels that even adding thousands of hotel rooms is thinking too small: The company is also growing its experience program and attempting to add entertainment and dining options to the platform.
Founder and CEO Brian Chesky still wants to stay away from what he calls “mass-produced hospitality.” But the company’s recent strategic shifts suggest any new host trying to make do with a spare room and an air mattress will face a lot more competition.