Can Airbnb learn from the mistakes of ebay?

In 2001 I saw a roadside billboard for eBay, an apparent ‘online auction’ website that claimed it was connecting sellers of junk with buyers of junk across the world.

Even with a firmly established career in ‘tech’, the sound of my loud scoff at the idea of this kind of concept succeeding echoed in our car for what seemed like an eternity. We sold that car eventually but the new owners probably still get it when they hit a pot hole.

But as a hoarder and collector of everything from coins to sea shells, I was still intrigued, and within a couple of years found myself trading with the best of them – sending stamps to Sweden, magazines to Mexico, and records to Romania. It wasn’t only a bit of extra cash on the side – it was fun – and over the years I slowly reduced my pile of personal rubble while saving enough to actually visit some of the exotic places I was exporting my trash to.

Over time however, eBay gradually eroded the essence of their online garage sale concept, the very elements that had made transacting enjoyable and even personable – I’m still connected to hundreds of like-minded collectors and fossickers across the world. Within a short period of time we saw; the loss of feedback for sellers, the hiding of auction winner identities, a never-ending toying with listing formats, an overhaul of item categories, promoted items in search results, the introduction of the compulsory use of PayPal, and the significant upping of listing and sale fees.

All these changes favoured the modern breed of eBay seller; ‘stores’ peddling new goods, mostly cheap rubbish, and operating e-retail businesses, resulting in a reduction of the grassroots swell of the now disillusioned low quantity and casual sellers. The old-timers either threw their hands in the air and gave up, or slowly backed away, their activity levels dropping to an all-time low.

So what’s all this got to do with Airbnb?

Well you might recall I mentioned I travel a bit? And I work in tech? Yes, I love Airbnb almost as much as I used to love eBay. The site has opened up accommodation opportunities to countries, regions and neighbourhoods that were previously unavailable, either because there were no official lodgings in the area, or the ones that did exist were exorbitantly priced and lacking quality, flexibility, and general homeliness.. When you add in the fact the Airbnb hosts are like your own personal in-country concierge, the benefits of being able to hand-pick the style, location and price of your accommodation are a winning combination.

In terms of the technology and operational structure of the two, the similarities are striking. Each was developed in a garage by a sole brainiac with a vision. They provide an online, secure forum for the owner of a product to offer it to a buyer of the product. Each party to the transaction has the chance to communicate/negotiate with, and get to know the other. Both services became wildly popular in a short period of time with the general population, but less so with the industry establishments, crashing old-school business traditions and catching complacent, under-resourced and bewildered governments napping. As a result each has run into its fair share of legal hassle and controversy.

I’ve used Airbnb since 2010, but in the last 2 years have noticed an increase in the number of hosts who are merely rental property managers, time-poor ‘just show me the money’ types, the equivalent of eBay ‘stores’, with little vested interest in the property, the neighbours and surrounds, or their client. Using Airbnb, once you’ve clicked the ‘book’ button, your payment for the  total accommodation cost is taken from your credit card and immediately goes into ‘escrow’ – held and controlled by Airbnb – even if your trip is months away. If you have a problem and need to change your travel plans, retrieving your money is difficult, and will depend on the booking conditions and attitude of the host. With rental property managers, the chances of being able to cancel or alter your booking are slim, and your money is as good as gone if you don’t arrive at your accommodation on check-in day.

All of my great experiences over the years have been with owner-hosts – I just love the meet and greet opportunity, personal stories, recommendations and occasionally even a coffee or glass of wine.

So what next for Airbnb – how can they avoid eBay’s pitfalls?

I would list my predicted “top 10 initiatives Airbnb might try and implement in order to sell out” if I weren’t afraid the company might read them and decide some of them were great ideas. Suffice to say they all involve some degree of either focussing on business owners over individuals, further depersonalisation, fee increases, market over saturation, and just general greed. All of these will inevitably contribute to the recent crackdown on Airbnb lettings by tenant associations, body corporates and governments.

Airbnb’s contribution to the decline of housing affordability and the ethics of its operations deserve expanded discussion in a separate article, in the meantime it seems to me that the service can stay on the right side of the moral argument by sticking to the fundamentals; putting people before profit, partnering with small-time hosts around the world, and just maintaining the element of fun.

Life among the hyphen-set in LA LA land


Many of you will have been to the dusty, fast-paced, vehicle-choked megalopolis that is LA. Some of you will have hated it.

I have to say, since my first visit almost 30 years ago, I’ve avoided Los Angeles like the plague. And the swine flu, or to be honest, even the common cold. Nothing could make me stay there for more than an overnight connection, and even then I’d protest, drag my heels reluctantly from LAX arrival hall to a taxi, then just drown my sorrows by the pool or in the hotel bar before setting my alarm for the 6am trek back to the airport the next morning – even if my outbound flight was in the afternoon.

There’s the constant smog, or haze, or whatever that is. The traffic is just nuts – it takes an hour to drive to, well to pretty much anywhere. There’s the constant fear of getting lost and being car-jacked, or worse still being written into the narrative as an ‘innocent bystander’ of a real-life Tarantino flick (“That’s Zed!”). What’s more, there aren’t any obvious ‘must see’ sights, and that’s including Hollywood and Disneyland. Finally there’s the people, who are everything they appear to be on TV – fast talking, plastic, sickly sweet and improbably insincere. Nowhere does the old adage “Fake it ’til you make it!” do more milage than here.

So what if after all that you were wrong? No not about the stuff I just mentioned, that’s as permanent as the imprints of Mel Gibson’s tiny hands in the concrete blocks in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. No I mean, what if there was more to LA? Recently, I resolved myself to wipe the thin film of grime from my sunglasses and take another look.

Since those early days of wanderlust I’ve learned that one of the best ways to enjoy most cities is to befriend a local. It doesn’t matter if you don’t meet them in their hometown, you just have to share a conversation, a laugh, some vaguely palatable social and political views, and most importantly, contact details. Even if they’re jerks, at the very least you’ve got someone to pick you up from the airport, take you to a local bar and point you in the direction of the couch at 3am when your lips are numb and you’ve forgotten your name. Better still, you rarely have to reciprocate, even the most intrepid foreigners will soon work out that Australia’s friggin’ miles away, and they will never make it ‘Down Under’ to your place and frighten your mum.

It’s at this point it makes sense for me to introduce my friend Lee. That’s his actual name by the way – he said I could use it. Lee’s white, conservative, typical American middle class military upbringing, anti-immigration, anti-Obama and pro-Trump. Lee hates taxes, ‘big government’ – or any sized government for that matter – and social handouts. Getting the picture? Most of you will be horrified by that description, but don’t be so concerned – to Lee it’s a compliment, a badge of honour. I know being friends with Lee leaves one of the main boxes above unchecked, but hey, he’s still a likeable guy.

Once you’ve made your friend, step two is to get them to introduce you to their friends. Suddenly the conversations are (slightly) broader, the settings varied, and the back-stories fascinating, even more so in LA, where an estimated 22% of people in the greater area’s 18 million inhabitants are employed in some capacity in an artistic/creative role or entertainment support industry.

And that’s how we end up at a Super Bowl party on US sport’s biggest day of the year. The watery beer is flowing, the pork ribs are sizzling and collagen lips are smacking.

“Hey come and meet Phil” says Lee. “He’s an agent-limo driver”.

“Hi” I say. “Nice shirt.”

“Hey have you met Nikki? She’s an actress-masseuse”

“How’s it goin?'”

“…And this is James” Lee continues, “he’s an actor and… hey what is it you’re doin’ now?”

“I drive an ice-cream truck” replies James, his million dollar smile fading to about a hundred bucks worth.

And the introductions continue. Actor-cook. Screenwriter-golf caddie. Make up artist-astrologist.

20 minutes in and I can’t take it any more. “Hey Lee,” I say taking him aside, “what’s with all these people? Why don’t they just pick a career that they like or they’re good at?”

Lee laughs. “Man, it’s LA, we’re all living only half the dream. Entertainment is the industry we’re in here. Take that away and all of a sudden we’re just a sad bunch of cooks, cleaners and taxi-drivers.” His gaze surveys the room “I may as well go back to Phoenix, Phil can go home to Pittsburgh, and James will just drift back to… Hey James! Where you from anyway?” he yells.

“The Valley!” comes the reply.

“Oh.” says Lee. “Well just forget James, but you know what I mean.”

I do know what he means, and then it hit’s me like the riff in that Courtney Love song Celebrity Skin: “Hooker-waitress, model-actress…” I’m living temporarily in the world of the hyphen people, where one’s very existence is hyphenated, and the road to success is long, hard, and more often than not, just a mirage. But who am I to judge? I’m a writer-web developer for goodness sake, and my time (and income) is heavily skewed to the latter, less impressive of those two titles.

I drift back to the conversation. One of Lee’s friends Rick is telling me about a movie he was in. “It’s only available on YouTube at the moment” he says earnestly, “We’re pushing hard for it to come out on DVD. A problem with the music rights”

Lee’s back. “Hey, you havin’ fun? They’re a great bunch of people huh ‘mate’?”

“Yeah” I say ignoring his hopeless attempt at an Aussie accent, “This is more than fun – it’s educational!.”

All of a sudden a light bulb goes off inside Lee’s skull and he’s serious. “Hey, you know what? You could make it here! You’re a writer, you’ve got other skills, you’re a good talker. LA might fit you – you could really ‘do’ LA!”

Maybe he’s right…

Before I start to see stars, the rest of Celebrity Skin wafts into my mind “You better watch out, Oh, what you wish for, It better be worth it”

Yeah I think I’ll leave that dream for the next director-stuntman that comes along, but in the meantime, perhaps I’ve found the real LA, an LA I could even grow to like.

Not so random act of kindness


Recently while on holiday I found myself in a situation where I needed cash quickly. In a foreign land with an empty wallet and ticking clock, the situation was peaking on the stress-level Richter scale.

kindness

So who doesn’t carry cash? Well, like most people checking out of their hotel on the final day of a short overseas trip, I used the last of my local currency to pay the bill – after all, Australian stores don’t tend to accept US dollars. So with the bags packed and flights checked in online, I could just drop the bags at the airport and put my feet up while waiting for the flight to board – right?

Wrong.

The hotel had provided me with a taxi that didn’t accept credit cards and upon arrival at the airport, my driver started pointing impatiently at a large sign on the back window that indicated this in bold type.

Much as I felt like launching into a lecture about what year it was, the amazing remote payment technologies that are now available, and how this situation could have been avoided if the “cash only” sign had been pointed out to me at the beginning of the journey, it wasn’t the time or audience. It was the time to embark on a wild dash for cash.

Running off into the vast departures area of the airport and half expecting to see 4 or 5 ATMs straight up, I quickly established that there were none. In fact there wasn’t really anything. The first person I came across was a woman absentmindly dusting a “Please Queue Here” sign.

She wasn’t wearing a badge that said “Airport Information” but she would have to do.

Naturally she had no idea where there was an ATM. “What do you need money for?” she said. “A taxi? How much do you need?” This was taking too long.

“$40?” She continued on, “OK, come with me, I have it.” Not sure where this was going, I followed nonetheless. The woman wandered over to the Korean Airlines desk, reached behind for her purse, and handed me a crisp $100 bill.

$100. To a complete stranger.

“Are you sure?” I said. “You know I will give this back to you, don’t you. That’s why you’re lending it to me, because I have an honest face, and I will return your money”

“No,” she said, “I don’t know if you’ll return the money. But there you go, I will be here.” She turned and started busying herself with other matters.

It was true, she had no idea, only I knew that I would be back. So I paid off the driver, took the woman the $60 change, eventually found an ATM, and returned with the remaining $40. I rushed off to the departure lounge, made the plane, and then completed an otherwise uneventful journey.

But I did reflect on my meeting with Gloria. Was this a random act of kindness? I decided that no, I think for some people, acts of kindness are not random at all, they are lived everyday, and perhaps require very little effort or thought.

The moral of this story could easily be “Don’t step into a cab that doesn’t take credit card if you don’t have any cash”, but really, the message was that their are still plenty of good, trusting people in the world who are prepared to act.

Why Hawai’i is the new black


Desperately seeking a holiday dream

MeI love to travel and although I don’t usually go five-star, I enjoy it when I can. I love the adventure of the journey as much as the destination, and appreciate the great outdoors, arts, culture and a three foot margarita by a sparkling pool in equal measures. Impress me!

YouYou’re a glitzy, hot, palm-tree lined beach paradise, with malls filled with designer jewellers, and towering apartments and hotels as far as the eye can see. Your locals are friendly and chilled, and the fashion, food and mood swings from sheer class to dag-a-rama with a puff of the Pacific breeze. You’re a pearl earring one minute, and a shark tooth necklace the next.

Let’s hook up soon!

Waikiki from Diamond head Summit

Waikiki from Diamond head Summit

Expecting your dream to be the Gold Coast? Imagine your surprise when your plane touches down on Oahu. Strolling along the arrival gate, you hear the first strains of a gentle guitar floating on the breeze, accompanied by a barely discernible waft of Ilima flower. You’re greeted by a trio of young men in colourful shirts singing traditional island tunes, and instead of a stern looks and tough questions, customs give you a Lei and a smile.

So why is Hawaii ‘hot’ all of a sudden? The truth is, it’s always been the fun, laid back, and culturally interesting destination that travellers are discovering today, the difference is that visitors are now island-hopping in greater numbers, not content to just shop, laze by the pool or wander along Waikiki beach, which although enjoyable, houses a strip of brands and franchises offered by dozens of destinations across Australia, Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, the collective islands of Hawaii offer a diverse range of activities and landscapes, and are easily accessible via the local airline.

The Duke, Waikiki, Oahu

The Duke, Waikiki, Oahu

Here’s a quick run-down of the main sights and things to do on the four most visited islands.

Oahu

The first port of call for most visitors, and also the most populous island, boasting busy Honolulu and nearby Waikiki Beach. Highlights include the steep steps leading up the Diamond Head summit trail, Pearl Harbour Memorial, the fabulous beaches of the North Shore, or if you’d prefer to tread the same sand as Elvis and hand-feed tropical fish while strumming a ukulele, head to Hanuama Bay. If you need more than resorts, pools and beaches, there are solutions at both ends of the spectrum; shopping malls and outlet centres at one end, and hikes to waterfalls, tropical forests and the Dole Pineapple Plantation at the other. You’ll never picture pineapples hanging from a tree again.

Snack time at Haleiwa Bowls, North Shore, Oahu

Snack time at Haleiwa Bowls, North Shore, Oahu

Maui

Famous for its surf, Maui is perhaps the next best known island. Don’t think it’s all about thongs and straw hats though, this small island is both exclusive and expensive. In the words of George Clooney in the movie The Descendants; “In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen”, and this island personifies that vibe. If you can drag yourself away from the pool or beach, the dormant volcano of Haleakala is popular at sunrise, you can fossick around the historic town of Lahaina, or take in the ‘Road to Hana’ – one of the most scenic drives in the world. Iao Needle – a lush green shard-like mountain on the island’s west – is also picturesque and popular.

Akaka Falls, The Big Island

Akaka Falls, The Big Island

Kaua’i

“The Garden Island” is exactly that, a place rich in flora, canyons and valleys. Hike the spectacular Nā Pali Coast trail, peek over the edge of the majestic Waimea Canyon, or if you’re game, take one of the cliff trails to the crashing water and cool swimming holes of Waipoo Falls. If you’re feeling less adventurous, visit a coffee plantation, wander the beach at Hanalei Bay, or drink and mingle with the friendly locals at the famous Tahiti Nui bar. Kaua’i is the tropical island dreams are made of – and films! Yes, this is the location of Jurassic Park, and with that in mind as you drive one of the coastal routes alongside jutting hills, you might half expect to see a flock of pterodactyls overhead at any moment.

View from the Na Pali coast trail, Kaua'i

View from the Na Pali coast trail, Kaua’i

The Big Island (Hawai’i)

A wonderfully diverse island where the terrain ranges from surprisingly semi-arid desert in the south, to the lush tropics in the north – with plenty of plains of ‘frozen’ lava rock flowing in between! Throw in the twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at over 13,000 feet each, and you have yet another island paradise with plenty to see and do. The Big Island, as it’s known, is just that, and although it might still look like a speck on the map, its area is greater than Oahu, Kaua’i, Maui and all the other islands combined. This presents the visitor with a challenge that is best met by… hiring a Jeep! Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is a rare opportunity to see a live volcano. You may not see flowing lava, but it’s still a moving experience as you take in the scene of sulphur dioxide gas rising above the crater, knowing that such an immense amount of power and energy is so close. The east coast of the island boasts some of the archipelago’s best beaches, and the north boasts the beautiful Kohalo and Hamakua coast drives – be sure to take the dip down to Laupahoehoe Point if you’re able.

Sunset over Hapuna Beach, The Big Island

Sunset over Hapuna Beach, The Big Island

The verdict… is it love at first sight?

So the news is, there’s more to Hawai’i than Waikiki, and with the help of cheaper airfares, Australians are intrigued and now exploring. The old travel advice of “pack… then take half as much luggage and twice as much money” holds true here as much as anywhere in the world – the US dollar is pretty much one-for-one on price-tag, and even value on most purchases, but the lower exchange rate hits home on the big ticket items – hotels with an ocean view, car hire, and restaurants, so take this into account.

Go, enjoy, and Mahalo for reading.

A hawaiian monk seal rests on Poipu beach, Kaua'i

A hawaiian monk seal rests on Poipu beach, Kaua’i

Who moved my adventure – has the internet ruined travel?

Like many Australians, my twenties were a time when I undertook a tour of duty as an overseas traveller, diligently exploring ‘the world and elsewhere’.

In an age before ‘glamping’ and ‘flash-packing’, this was a common rite of passage – thousands of us travelled either solo or in hastily assembled teams, descending en mass on the museums, cathedrals, and pubs of the ‘old’ world. Whether the time was spent kicking the dust along a gringo trail, or singing along to TV theme-songs with a bus load of hung-over antipodeans, we returned with a sense of fulfilment, satisfied in our new found wisdom and worldliness. I didn’t always know where I was going, what it would be like or what I would do when I got there, but I looked forward to unlocking the mystery, step by step, mile by mile, and meeting the challenges presented by less-than-honourable taxi drivers, cockroach infested bathrooms and dodgy curries head on.

Country Château or Parisian room with a view?

Country Château, or…

... or Parisian "room with a view"?

… a Parisian “room with a view”?

Recently, with these fond memories and my swiftly advancing years foremost in my mind, I was lucky enough to be able to return for another dose.

In preparation for this freshly named ‘mature aged gap year’, I pondered a common discussion point among frequent travellers: which is more fun, the planning or the doing? I find enjoyment in both, but in this age of the internet, between Airbnb, Tripadvisor and Google Streets, the element of surprise, the ‘go with flow’ spontaneous moments, and yes, the complete screw ups that we endured at the time but look back on with such fondness, are gone. There is now no need to fly with a tardy airline, eat at restaurants that rate poorly, or stay at a hotel with bedbugs. Every apartment, cafe and museum has been scrutinised, reviewed and rated to within 5 points of Pi, removing the element of doubt and anything potentially distasteful in the unknown.

Does the apartment have lightning fast Wi-Fi? How’s the hotel breakfast? Is that café the one with the Australian barista? No need to wonder, just read the reviews.

If, after all my online research I’m still not sure if the place is in a dodgy part of town, opposite a bus depot, or undergoing construction, I can just check Google streets. Hell, I can even wander the block and pick the café with the best ambience from 10,000 miles away!

So, once you’ve studied and absorbed all the available information, you could be forgiven for feeling a tad let down, perhaps even that you’ve already been there, or at least experienced 50% of the journey. So why still go?

We go because, no matter how many reviews we read, images we look at, or virtual strolls we take, nothing compares to stepping out of a taxi, or hauling our bags up the final flight of stairs from the underground rail, the sensation of sun, smog and rain stinging our face, and finally breathing in the smell of adventure, once again.