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Online tourist accommodation site Airbnb has become the go-to place to find a house, flat or just a room for rent when you’re on holiday or even a business trip. We talk to a few Antwerp residents who are discovering the joys of opening up their homes to travellers.
Flemings are opening up their homes to travellers through Airbnb
“In the last year we’ve had 60 or so guests staying with us at home,” says Fronk, who, with his partner Lieve, is one of the best-rated Flemish hosts on Airbnb, a hotel-like service for the digital age. “We have had guests from Brazil, the US, Canada, Iran, Japan, Bulgaria and more. Though no one from Africa has yet requested to stay.”
Airbnb is an online marketplace for temporary accommodation across 33,000 cities in 192 countries. Trip planners can find spare rooms, flats, sofa-beds and even igloos and private islands. Some hosts are simply renting out a spare room for a couple of weeks a month to travellers to supplement their incomes or to fill the house when they themselves are away.
Airbnb is in the vanguard of the so-called “sharing economy”, in which web services help private individuals monetise their possessions and share anything from school runs to electric drills. Flanders has more than 900 listings on the site.
Fronk and Lieve say that their guests have loved Antwerp and always have a good time. Yet if a number of their guests are visiting for tourism, many are in town for less conventional reasons. One was interviewing for a job at the opera house. Another was doing a course with world-famous contemporary artist Jan Fabre, while a third was studying with a leading dancer. A medievalist stayed for several weeks to learn Dutch for her research, while a Canadian rock band crashed when gigging down the road.
Connecting with new people with different world views is one of the attractions, as is discovering a unexpected shared interest. “The other day I was having a bowl of soup with one of our guests, who had just arrived from the United States,” recalls Fronk. “To our surprise, we soon discovered that we were both working on essays on the same subject.” Fronk, who is a literary translator of Russian and a performer, and Lieve, an organist and soprano, say that in their year of hosting they have yet to have a bad experience. Some guests stay several weeks, some come back for a second or third visit. “But we make it clear on the website that we are vegetarians, that we do yoga and that this is a family house,” Fronk explains. This attracts people who are into the same things (and probably discourages those who want to spend their time exploring Antwerp’s party scene).
Fronk and Lieve live in Borgerhout, a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population just east of the city’s Central Station, which is visible from their balcony. Borgerhout itself does not house many attractions and enjoys a reputation for being a rough sort of place. But guests have never had any problems, says Fronk. Indeed, he wistfully recalls a middle-aged American visitor looking out of the window at the district where Fronk grew up and declaring it a beautiful place.
Importantly for guests, the area provides easy access by foot or bike to Antwerp’s main sites, including the zoo; elephants can be heard vaguely trumpeting from the flat’s balcony.
Fronk and Lieve are not the only ones to have had a largely positive experience. Daniel, the 20-something owner of a pretty flat in the centre of Antwerp, is another of Flanders’ most popular hosts on Airbnb. The website relies on a registration and peer-review system, where guests and hosts rate their experiences and leave comments about one another. Guests who misbehave soon find it hard to find a place to stay, while hosts who misrepresent their offering are quickly ousted.
About a year ago, entrepreneurial Daniel moved from Antwerp to Ghent, and Airbnb seemed like an interesting way of making some money out of the flat he left behind. Only on one occasion was he at all concerned for his place, he said. The person who picked up the keys was not the same person as the one who booked over the Airbnb platform, soon had a party going on at the flat and announced he intended to stay a few days longer than expected. But with a little guidance from staff at Airbnb, Daniel’s fears were quickly laid to rest, and the stay turned into a success.
If ever you have a problem, Airbnb is very responsive, says Daniel. But all communications and payments should go through their website, he warns, to ensure that the renter is covered by their insurance scheme. “In any case, the typical Airbnb user is tech-savvy, young and cosmopolitan, so generally I’m not very worried about the guests,” he adds. “One guest once drunk a bottle of wine but left the money for it, and the guests normally leave the flat very clean.”
Nonetheless, Daniel is not convinced that Airbnb could ever be a long-term solution for a spare room or empty flat. Occupation rates can be sporadic, in particular outside popular cities such as Antwerp, and constantly welcoming guests proves time consuming.
As for Airbnb, the idea has proved a boon for its three founders in San Francisco, who started the company in 2008. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the company had been given a tentative valuation of $2.5 billion (€1.92b), while some have estimated that 2012 revenues were as high as $190 million (€146m). Airbnb takes a cut of each booking, reportedly between 6% and 12%, and charges owners a 3% fee for processing the payments online.
But Fronk, Lieve and Daniel are very pleased with the service they receive in exchange. In addition to the platform, Airbnb offers hosts free insurance for their possessions and property. The website, which has offices across 11 counties worldwide, also sends photographers to each new flat to ensure that the photos appearing on the website provide an accurate impression.