Airbnb Tries to Behave More Like a Hotel

For nine years, Jill Bishop enjoyed the camaraderie of renting out her spare bedroom on Airbnb.

Guests hung out on her comfy sofas. They dined together. They shared her bathroom, which was filled with half-empty shampoo bottles and an array of lotions.

Then, things changed.

Airbnb urged Ms. Bishop to make the bathroom look more like a hotel. New local regulations governing Airbnb meant she had to start collecting city lodging taxes, which made her feel awkward when she had to ask guests for money. And Airbnb began conditioning her to host people who are just looking for a place to sleep — not a home to share.

When one of those travelers finally arrived last year, it jarred her. “He told me that he just uses Airbnb as an alternative to hotels and that he doesn’t really want to talk to his hosts,” said Ms. Bishop, 63, who lives in a single-story ranch house in the North Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. “He really did just come in and sit in his room, with the door closed, while I sat in the living room.”

Airbnb — the sharing-economy start-up born with a crash-on-my-couch informality — is now trying to professionalize its more than two million “hosts” around the world.

In just nine years, the company has built a global hospitality brand on the backs of homeowners like Ms. Bishop. The company’s valuation has skyrocketed to more than $30 billion. Yet to expand further, Airbnb must attract travelers who prefer the predictability of hotels to the quirky array of spare rooms, empty homes and even the occasional yurt that Airbnb has long touted as its backbone.

Travelers accustomed to hotels have come to expect that they can automatically book an Airbnb without having to ask first for the owner’s permission — something that has long been a fixture of the hotel booking process. They want to know that their reservation is firm. They expect fresh linens and privacy. They also anticipate that hosts will act like hotel staff members, meaning they will be courteous and blend into the background.

As a result, Airbnb’s hosts have had to deal with more rules, fees and guidelines. Many have taken on responsibilities that would be handled at the front desk of a hotel, such as explaining (and sometimes collecting) an expanding list of fees and taxes. They are grappling with new tools that let travelers instantly book Airbnbs, much like a hotel reservation system. Airbnb has also introduced recommendations around cancellations and check-in times that mirror those of hotels, and it allows guests to hide listings that ignore that guidance.

Airbnb cannot force homeowners who use its site to adopt its tools and policies; they are not full-time employees. But interviews with more than two dozen hosts showed that many felt pressured to comply. The lesson, Ms. Bishop said, is that Airbnb wants her spare bedroom to be more like a Hilton or a Hyatt, and for her to act like a mini-hotelier.

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