It’s early Friday night in ‘midsummer’, and as sea mists sweep across the bay and block out the sun that has by all accounts turned parts of Britain’s coastline into sunny shores, I’m giving it a whirl. a walk through the streets of St. Ives, expecting to stumble into a parking spot at the end of a 300-mile drive. I’m already late for Airbnb’s “Cornwall In-Person Hosting Event” at the St Ives Harbor Hotel, and I’m wondering if choosing a city with no parking space is some kind of inside joke.
I’ve been an Airbnb host for nearly a decade, on four properties in a row – and I’m clearly part of a very large tribe, at least in Cornwall. Last week, local councilor Andrew Mitchell allegedly claimed he had 1,000 flyers left over from the recent elections because most of the houses he investigated were empty. Clearly, I’m not the only person buying a holiday home during the lockdown (a property in a holiday park near Newquay) as three per cent of English families now own second homes and recent figures suggest Cornwall has 12,776 them – and more than 11,000 vacations allow.
In Cornwall, the tourism sector is the biggest employer, supporting one in five jobs – but these jobs are largely seasonal and poorly paid, meaning long-term careers are impossible to sustain and local people cannot afford it. leases and mortgages. It has been well reported that during the pandemic, city shoppers have moved to the coast to retire early, work remotely and invest in the staycation boom. I am one of them, although we also use the property.
However, all is not well in the Airbnb world. After a season of post-lockdown stay in 2021 (during which my property was booked from May to October), there is now tumbleweed rolling on my calendar for the first time in nine years. Normally every school holiday week is fully booked in early May, but this year I still have availability in July and August as well as the months on either side. My resort owner’s Facebook group is full of posts asking, “Does anyone know what’s going on?… Is anyone else not getting reservations?”
I can hear the anti-Airbnb crowd happily muttering “First World Problems. Suck it.” However, while I’m disappointed, I’m not particularly surprised: after two years at home, punters have fallen out of love with the UK almost as quickly as they’ve fallen in love with it, thanks to the cost-of-living crisis and our climate disappointment. Also, while Airbnb used to be your go-to destination for a bargain stay, some properties are now priced higher than hotels, with hosts accused of going up in price and getting “grabbed”.
To which hosts like me will say they’re just passing on costs from their providers (I paid £75 per clean move last year, and this year the fee is £150). Certainly, some hosts charge eye-watering amounts for underwhelming spaces. In fact, I’ve stayed in a few myself. (My advice: you get what you pay for – book with a Superhost.) Many of us have also opted for the company’s “smart pricing” tool, which uses an algorithm to increase a property’s nightly rate based on demand. So if you’re looking at Cornwall in mid-August, the prices simply reflect that a lot of other people will likely be looking too. Looking for but so far not booking.
Elsewhere, hosts in towns and cities targeting customers who travel primarily on business have yet to see their rental incomes recover in the wake of the pandemic — and the ongoing rail strikes are the final straw. Is the market also saturated?
Back in St Ives, where things were well under way when I arrived, albeit surprisingly homely; about 100 presenters were struggling to hear Amanda Cupples, general manager of the northern European tech giant, struggling with a sub-par sound system. On the plus side, there was wine.
I spoke with a fellow Superhost (let’s call her Clare). “We are not professional hosts,” she said. “We have just retired and have decided to convert the garage [of a cottage in a Cornish village] in a small standalone unit. It was always full, which was brilliant for supplementing our pensions. This year, with the cost of living crisis and energy bills, that income is really vital for us. I’m a little worried about all of this, to be honest.”
So do I, Clare – for the past nine years, Airbnb has provided me with about a third of my annual income. This year, I’ll be lucky to cover my costs. A few days after a wet drizzle pitstop at my house near Newquay – spent taking meter readings, sweeping the terrace, wondering why the hot water wasn’t working and pondering why the sun was still literally everywhere else in the world. country – I reconnected with Cupples through the less acoustically challenging medium of FaceTime.
“Has the UK really fallen out of love with Airbnb?” I asked.
“Well what I can say is that our guests have been impacted by the cost of living crisis in particular and are looking for affordable travel. Airbnb was built on the idea that travel can and should be affordable, so we offer a lot of pricing. There are some common concerns for hosts: About a third tell us they use their Airbnb income to make ends meet,” Cupples says.
“But it is very clear that there is a lack of affordable long-term housing, very clear that there is a concern about vacation rentals – which, let’s face it, are not all on Airbnb. We are really putting pressure on the Government to create a Tourist Accommodation Register, otherwise we cannot know the scale of the problem.”
So is there a problem? “We recognize that there is a problem – and while Airbnb is just one platform in a broader industry, it is absolutely right that we must work with communities to [in places] like Cornwall, they can enjoy the benefits of tourism – and manage the downsides,” says Cupples. “We can be a technology platform and support communities.”
Personally, I think I will soon find out whether my previously happy “Airbn bubble” finally bursts or, during the so-called “summer of discontent”, just deflating a little – which, I suppose, makes a change from the inflation trend. There are rumors among hosts that, at the last minute, we may benefit from postponed guest bookings to travel abroad at the prospect of even more chaos in short-haul air travel.
Cupples, however, remains in its comfort zone: “There are many reasons why you might still have availability for this summer, but we host over a billion people on Airbnb and it is still the place for the open-minded, guests curious in search of real magic and unique experiences. So yes, we are confident that there are still plenty of guests for you.”
We’ll see, Airbnb – we’ll see.