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Can Airbnb Professionalize Without Losing the Personal Touch?

June 18, 2017, 8:21 PM UTC

Airbnb was born under the banner of the “sharing” or “on-demand” economy, and much of its immense brand cachet was built on travelers’ desire to “belong” rather than just be tourists. But as the company works to standardize customers’ experiences across an array of different rentals, the company might be eroding some of the warmth that set it apart from traditional hotels.

That, at least, is the perspective of some of the hosts profiled in a New York Times feature story detailing the startup’s push towards professionalism. Several hosts describe pressure from Airbnb to upgrade their accommodations, handle complexities such as local taxes, and provide better service to guests.

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Serious efforts to make the Airbnb experience more consistent date to 2014 when hotelier Chip Conley became the company’s head of hospitality. He implemented broad standards around communication, check-in procedures, and cleanliness, training hosts to run, in essence, miniature hotels, at least as far as service is concerned.

But those hosts also describe a decrease in their ability to choose who rents with them, thanks to guest-friendly features like instant booking and a decline in the kind of personal connections that many early guests and hosts valued. Some hosts also reported limited or slow support from Airbnb when renters caused damage.

On the other hand, Airbnb’s efforts are appreciated by many renters. Despite the site’s rating system, accommodations can still sometimes fall short—and as one frequent Airbnb user told the Times, “When an Airbnb is bad, it’s really bad.” Negative experiences can range from funny-smelling rooms to, in what is still a prickly problem for the company, instances of racial discrimination. (“I think we were late to this issue,” CEO Brian Chesky acknowledged at Fortune’s 2016 Brainstorm Tech conference.)

Stopping headline-grabbing snafus before they happen is just as important to Airbnb as appealing to a wider spectrum of customers. Venture capitalist Chris Sacca has said he didn’t invest in Airbnb because he was worried a guest could “get murdered and the blood would be on [Airbnb’s] hands.” That scenario has never unfolded, and Airbnb has mostly weathered the smaller mishaps that have come along since its launch in 2008.

That might be because Airbnb has managed to build a generally positive reputation within its community of hosts and renters. While its push for higher standards may sometimes chafe, Airbnb is generally regarded, as the Times piece demonstrates, as a company that treats its customers well—far better than on-demand economy counterpart Uber has treated some of its drivers. That’s a tradeoff most Airbnb hosts and renters are likely to make.