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The Next Economy
Alternative Accommodation Platforms Prioritize Social Connection, Community Care

As tourism continues to evolve and travelers become more aware of both their positive and negative impacts, the accommodation industry has an opportunity to respond in a meaningful way.

Airbnb’s origin story is the stuff startup dreams are made of: Desperate to make rent on their San Francisco apartment in 2007, co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out an air mattress on their floor and served breakfast for their overnight guests. It was a small idea that has grown into a multibillion-dollar company in more than 220 countries and regions across the globe. But what was, at one point, a way for people to rent out an extra bedroom and for travelers to meet local hosts has become a housing issue for residents, a legal and financial challenge for city governments, and a contentious problem for conscientious travelers.

To be fair, it’s not just Airbnb that’s causing accommodation mayhem around the globe — platforms such as VRBO and Vacasa are also contributing to the widespread issues created by the explosion in the vacation-rental market. But as destinations ranging from Paris to Dallas and Catalonia to New York City attempt to quell the overwhelming number of listings — and knock-on negative consequences — several other companies have focused attention on offering accommodation platforms that prioritize sustainable, positively impactful, and personal stays.

“A homestay booking has two people on either end of the transaction; it is not akin to renting an empty property, where a set of keys are handed over,” said Yvonne Finlay, managing director of Homestay.com. The platform, launched in 2013, features more than 37,000 homestay opportunities in more than 170 countries.

Homestay.com’s most common travelers are students and those participating in study-abroad and work-placement trips, and guest experience is at the heart of the company’s service.

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“A lot of our hosts invest time in our guests — showing them the locality, giving advice, offering help in getting established in a location, and often continue to stay in touch once the stay is over,” Finlay said.

That guest experience and personal touch is a top priority for many accommodation platforms that have stepped in to provide different choices for travelers — reflecting a growing travel trend that turns away from the impersonal, mass-tourism model prevalent over the last several years.

“When people go there, they’re not just interested in staying there. They’re interested in the people, in the community, and in getting involved and understanding the daily life,” Alex Haufschild, co-founder of socialbnb, tells Sustainable Brands® — reflecting on this trend and the fact that travelers increasingly want to give back to the places they visit.

socialbnb’s model is built around 360 social- and ecological-impact projects in 45 countries. Travelers who book a stay at an accommodation affiliated with the project inject direct financial support into the project. A snapshot of the company’s positive impact is captured in the company’s 2022 impact report: Among the many projects benefited, overnight stays booked through socialbnb contributed US$3,570 toward protection of Tanzania’s Chumbe Island Coral Park, as well as environmental education programs; US$341.70 supported the species-appropriate, sustainable organic rearing of endangered sheep through Wampendobler Paradies in Germany; and $793.90 went toward Indonesia’s Project Wings, which operates in the world’s largest plastic-waste recycling village.

Often, guests are invited to learn about and engage with the socialbnb projects or experiences they directly support — which is an interesting addition to a trip and highlights the positive impact of their stay.

Transparency like that exhibited by socialbnb and thorough vetting processes are built deep into the ethos of most of these alternative accommodation portals. This is a departure from traditional booking platforms, which are stubbornly opaque.

France-based GreenGo, for example, uses an extensive set of selection criteria to ensure listed accommodations prioritize environmental and climate initiatives. Calling itself “the responsible alternative to Booking and Airbnb,” the company is in communication with every host, who must sign a charter that underpins a relationship built on trust. Similarly, Green Getaways — based in Australia — lists accommodations actively incorporating, and publicly displaying, their sustainability initiatives. Many of these properties, located in vulnerable areas, are involved in “rehabilitation and landcare programs,” according to Green Getaways’ website.

“At the beginning, we focused on the accommodation, because we saw this as the resource these projects had in some way,” Haufschild said. In the rural Cambodian village where socialbnb was born, for example, there was space to develop homestay accommodations as a means to create funding for a local school.

Across these socially and environmentally aligned booking platforms, the majority of booking fees stay within the destination, and residents’ needs are prioritized and directly served. Providing travelers a place to stay, a unique experience, and a meaningful story is the means of achieving this goal. For example, socialbnb contributes 85 percent of the booking price directly to the project affiliated with the accommodation while the company takes a 15 percent commission.

Similarly, at Fairbnb — a cooperative inspired by fair-trade principles, the circular economy, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals — 50 percent of the net commission of a booking goes directly to a community project in the host area chosen by the guest. The remainder goes to the lawful and sustainable hosts that are proactively participating in a model whereby tourism dollars directly serve the local community.

“This is a big problem we’ve discovered in the tourism industry in general,” Haufschild said. “Touristic revenue doesn’t stay in the region where it’s spent. Many times, it leaves the country because many tourist businesses aren’t in local hands.”

This is the reality of how tourism has historically operated: Chesky and Gebbia may have built their business model around someone crashing in a spare room; but today, most Airbnb guests never see or speak with a host. Impersonal management companies and international enterprises embrace a business model that generates profit but little goodwill within destinations. People may travel far from home — but they remain disconnected from the people, culture and stories that make places unique.

But, as the tourism industry evolves and people change their travel styles in response to both their positive and negative impacts, the accommodation sector has an opportunity to respond in a meaningful way.

“When I talk to some of our customers, they say, ‘It was so nice. I didn’t feel like a tourist at all. I felt like I was part of this, visiting these people — more like we are friends,’” Haufschild said. “I think this is a feeling that makes our concept so special.”

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