Is something lost when a budgeteers’ staple goes upscale? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since it was announced that Airbnb was testing a premium product. According to the releases, Airbnb is looking at creating a special section on its site for these "special" listings, all of which will have swanky amenities, concierge-like service, and will be regularly inspected by the corporate giant.
So why did that news cause me to feel a pang?
The answer may well be in the seismic change I’ve seen come to the world of hostelling. When I was younger—cue Annie Lennox—hostelling was something to do to make your travel dollar go further. You put up with potential snorers and mildew-cloaked shared bathrooms because it meant that you’d have a place to sleep that likely cost as much as one of the meals on your trip. So if you were short, you could ramen-noodle it for lunch and still have a pillow come nightfall.
More than that, hostels were a place to connect with others like yourself. You’d wander into the lobby, shyly look for an open seat, book at ready just in case no one talked with you… and inevitably you never got further than two pages into The Sun Also Rises before you’d make a new friend or find a group to explore with.
One of the best days my 20-year-old self had was when I met a Brit named Molly in Nice, France, and adventured for two days before winding up, much to our surprise, at a massive, outdoor David Bowie concert where we couldn’t see a thing except gargantuan spider that adorned the stage….and it didn’t matter a whit.
Today, though, many hostels are putting design over fellowship. Yes, they still have mostly dorm accommodations, but these are chic dorms with multiple outlets by each bed—upscale beds with upscale prices to go with them. And their common rooms can be deadly quiet—travelers are hunched over their devices so these days, starting a spontaneous conversation would be an intrusion.
Airbnb going premium, I fear, will have the same chilling effect on the Airbnb experience. For me, the charm of doing an Airbnb stay, over a hotel, was how personal it felt. When staying in a room in someone’s house, you’d chat about the day's news or local hotspots. That happened at the key drop-off even when you were renting the entire place. I’ve had Airbnb owners drive me to their favorite restaurants, share their own upcoming travel plans, and show me pictures of grandchildren all of which made travel lose its alienating edge. I can’t imagine the pseudo-concierge style hosts of the premium Airbnb doing so.
The service will be geared toward business travelers who, notoriously, are mostly concerned with work when they travel. Superfluous human contact can often be a “no-no” with that crowd. Will hosts now find that they can only get that coveted "premium" status by being more aloof? And adding unnecessary throw pillows to jack prices?
Will the funky fun of Airbnb be drummed out? We'll have to wait and watch.
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