How gender and safety play a role in Airbnb's popularity

Experiential travel is a buzzword that applies to all aspects of hospitality, but it may be Airbnb that does it best. By offering travelers the opportunity to "live like a local" in the destination of their choice, Airbnb changed the game for experiential travel overnight. Two researchers at the University of Missouri, intrigued by Airbnb's rapid success, became interested in the way consumers perceive Airbnb and experiential travel, and their findings present interesting data as to how men and women interact with the sharing economy.

Dae-Young Kim, an associate professor of hospitality management, and Seunghwan Lee, a doctoral student at the UM College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, conducted a national survey looking into the public's perception of Airbnb, with initial interest in how consumers view the company with regard to liability.

"Airbnb is one of the fastest growing companies out there, a sudden dinosaur that appeared in the lodging industry, so I was instantly interested in the organization," Kim told HOTEL MANAGEMENT. "The company has an interesting structure, being a part of the sharing economy it doesn't have any properties and is just a platform for booking. Not only that, it's a source of controversy and legal issues."

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Kim is referring to Airbnb's dodgy relationship with cities and municipalities. Depending on the market, the company is viewed as a welcome addition for homeowners looking to rent out rooms or an interloper that doesn't pay taxes or follow safety laws, lowers property values and creates a confusing maze of legal uncertainty regarding the future of lodging. From a consumer standpoint, Airbnb represents almost unlimited variety—but what could potentially hold it back?

Airbnb's promise is that it allows travelers to live like locals, an attractive prospect to many.

To figure this out, Kim and Lee decided to analyze the brand's personality as if it were a human being. Through their study, they came up with five dimensions that characterized brands and organizations: Excitement, ruggedness, sincerity, competence and sophistication.

"It was important to do it this way because it is this framework that helps an organization shape the way people think about products or services," Kim said. "Airbnb scored high for sincerity, excitement and competency, but the company had weaknesses when it came to sophistication."

What does this mean? For a company peddling experiential travel, it means almost everything. Airbnb is frequently criticized for not forcing its hosts to comply with regulatory measures such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or other safety codes, and this lower sophistication score showed where many travelers' trust with Airbnb fell through. Particularly, Kim and Lee's study found that while men had an overly positive outlook about the brand, "women's perceptions swing positively or negatively depending on the individual location where they stay on a specific trip." 

This, according to Lee, had everything to do with safety and privacy. The study found that men value privacy less than women, and if female survey respondents felt a specific location was less safe they would have greater negative perceptions of it. The same was true for locations perceived as safer; they would earn a more positive reaction from female travelers, which was not necessarily true for male travelers. When asked why this may be, Kim said he believes it had to do with recent negative media coverage regarding Airbnb, citing instances of hosts installing hidden cameras to watch guests and even sexual assaults taking place in Airbnb host rooms.

"The problem is a lack of oversight," Kim said. "Even if something bad happens and it's something small like a guest being injured by furniture, it's never a situation Airbnb can fix. They are a reservation platform, and injuries aren't necessarily covered by them. Ownership and management under Airbnb are separate, like in many hotels, but in Airbnb's case one of those parties is a citizen, not a company. The overall brand image suffers because of that."

Airbnb allows guests to stay in the homes of its hosts, often without true security.

Despite their findings, Airbnb remains one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. When asked if public perception had any power to curtail this growth in the future, Kim was unsure.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but it will be interesting to see how future fights between Airbnb and traditional hotels play out," he said. "Airbnb is aware of the negative consequences of how they are doing business, and they are trying to evolve. Some hotel companies are catching on as well by offering similar services, but I have mixed feelings about the future of this company."

Kim pointed to Uber as a comparison to Airbnb, another company that continues to grow but is now meeting significant backlash from many in the public. "Taxation and other legal issues are also going to get in the way for Airbnb, and so will regulations on who can be a host," Kim said. "If they cannot overcome this in the near future, customers may return to hotels, but it really depends on how they handle those issues, and how the hotel industry reacts as well."

Kim and Lee's study, "Brand personality of Airbnb: application of user involvement and gender differences," can be found here.

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