As this blog is about living together well, I’d like to share about a new-to-me phenomenon that Rick and I encountered on our recent trip up to Lady Elliot Island: Airbnb.
Picture this: We’re in Hervey Bay, in a penthouse suite. We have the Hervey Bay marina arrayed before us, with its bobbing masts and reflective patches of water. Our room is large and nicely appointed with a king-size bed. Interesting art work abounds. We have a colourful little sitting room next door, and a bathroom. But we’re actually in someone’s home: a medium-sized apartment. Patricia lives there and she’s decided to open up her home to travellers, making a few dollars in the process ($80 a night for our luxurious accommodation). She has her own bedroom with ensuite, and is happy to share with her guests her kitchen, lounge, balcony, rooftop garden—and her life. She susses us out and decides we’re not honeymooners needing a world of our own, so offers suggestions about where to go for dinner and what to see in Hervey Bay. She makes reservations for us and books a taxi. She gets us sharing about what we’re up to on this trip, and shares about her own life.
We get to know Patricia well over the course of the two days we stay there (before and after our flight to Lady Elliot), and come to adore her. She, with a friend and a pick-up truck, closed her beloved art gallery over the weekend and she’s still heart-broken. She’s a chef and ran a successful fish and chips shop on the esplanade below us for several years. She’s a veteran of tourist towns like Hervey Bay and Airlie Beach. She’s a Facebook buff. She was enraptured with the idea of The Shedders and bought a copy of my book.
Prior to meeting Patricia, we spent a night in Toowoomba at Chris and Suzanne’s home in their elegant and newly renovated B&B—except it’s not a B&B yet, because they don’t have the final approvals, so they use Airbnb instead. Chris was a terrific host himself, genial and full of information, and made a perfect breakfast. He loves Toowoomba and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us.
And in Brisbane, on the way home, we struck gold yet again: Anthony has a house just over the bridge from Southbank. We had the lower floor to ourselves, again with sitting room and private bathroom. Outside our French door was an outdoor courtyard with an old claw-foot bathtub (that tub was tempting but the remote possibility of invasion slowed me down). A parking voucher was set out for us so that our car could stay on the street even in central Brisbane. Anthony’s a pilot and away for the day, so his friend Jen was looking after the customers. We exchanged a total of ten words with her. The keys and the instructions were managed by phone and notes.
Contrast this experience with that of our previous road trip. A year or two ago we drove all the way to Cairns to see the eclipse. We took the Inland Highway, which is a pretty barren stretch of road. We couldn’t find B&Bs along the way, and Airbnb hadn’t quite taken off yet, so we stayed mostly at motels. Now THAT is a soulless experience: prints, bed covers and furniture chosen by faceless people to provide a faceless non-event. Dodgy air-conditioning, views of the parking lot and always the vague smell of someone’s illicit cigarette. No personal touch, almost no human contact. No sharing. No connection.
Rick and I’ve always enjoyed staying at B&Bs, so it wasn’t a big step for us to try Airbnb, encouraged as we were by a number of friends. We signed on to Airbnb, a simple enough procedure, some months ago when we wanted to line up a place to stay in Victoria, Canada. To our surprise—not to mention chagrin—we were knocked back by the first couple of places we tried. Not enough information about you, they said. You don’t have any referrals or photos. In other words: we’d rather not risk having you in our home. Harrumph.
So we beefed up our Airbnb profile. Rick added a photo of us, and our friend Paul, who is a member, wrote us a recommendation. It must have done the trick because we got accepted by everyone on this trip.
We found the Airbnb systems simple and effortless. We booked and were accepted online, then got direct messages from our hosts by phone as we got closer to the day. It was a nice combination of automated and personal. And one of the joys is that there really is something for everyone. We didn’t take the “we love to party” place on offer in Brisbane, or the Southbank apartment at $308 per night. (Our friend Paul says he and his wife generally pay around $25 for a night.) To give you an example of how people reveal themselves, here’s a place on offer I stumbled across just now while trawling the Airbnb website: Great room in Awesome Newtown.
And Airbnb is truly international. Housemates Judy and Michael are booked into an Airbnb in New York, and another somewhere in India. Friend Diane is staying at someone’s house in Barcelona, and expects to set up stays in Scandinavia and Iceland. Can you imagine the extra adventures they’ll have?
There are a number of things I really like about the whole concept. For one thing, I love the entrepreneurialism and practicality of it. Someone thinks: “I have more room than I need and I might as well share it, making a dollar in the process.” But it’s much more than that. I relish the spirit of these people who open up their homes. They can tolerate a bit of risk and take a trusting view of the universe. They let you into their lives based on their instincts about what they read about you on the Airbnb website. They have basic confidence: “The odds of anything dodgy happening are slim and I can live with it if it does.”
And most of all they’re people who like to make connections. In other words, the kind of people you’d like to spend a bit of time with.
When I think back about our 10-day holiday, I think of Lady Elliot Island, of the Standing Stones in Glen Innes, of Brisbane’s Southbank, of long comfortable miles driving with Rick—but just as much I think about the people we met, the conversations we had, the stories people told. Airbnb provided a much deeper cut to our travels.