Airbnb in the Land of Living Skies

You’ve probably heard that Airbnb is the worlds largest accommodation provider—yet owns no real estate.  A TechCrunch article by Tom Goodwin made the rounds on social media in 2015, pointing out the ‘disruptive’ change that Airbnb has had on the accommodation industry.

Airbnb has grown around the world and Saskatchewan has embraced the technology. There are well over 300 hosts in Saskatchewan, mostly concentrated in the major centres but small towns and cabins near provincial parks are there too. It’s not a surprise that Saskatchewan has joined an app that opens your home to travelling strangers. After all, strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.

That’s the case for one Airbnb host couple.  “The shared economy model made sense to us,” says L. who requested anonymity, “Airbnb has connected us to families from India, China, Iran and Dubai in our first year of operation.” While investigating the site to determine if it was safe for their grown daughter to use, they decided it might provide extra income and connect them to a global community. They haven’t looked back since.

Photo by Kristin Ator

“It’s so easy,” continues L, “I love that we don’t have to chase people for money. There’s been no theft, no vandalism and we’ve never been stiffed.” While the couple admit they are not the most tech savvy, they were able to sign up in minutes, were operational immediately—and saw results within days. Their first year as hosts introduced them to several families and created deep friendships. For safety and comfort, guests and hosts rate one another. There’s obviously a huge range of hosts—but this couple personifies the Airbnb experience. They act as ambassadors to their community, and provide a high level of service at an affordable price.

Obviously not every Airbnb host provides that level of professionalism—the app allows virtually anyone to set up shop. The simplicity and popularity of Airbnb has definitely had a negative impact on traditional Bed & Breakfasts. “Competition brings out the best, as long as people are all playing by the same rules,” says Rick Urbanski, owner of Dragon’s Nest Bed & Breakfast in Regina. The beautiful home in Regina’s Cathedral area has hosted guests since 2004. They take pride in their reputation and the guest relationships they have developed over the years. They have also taken great pains to ensure their business is running in accordance with the city bylaws.

Rick and many other Bed & Breakfast owners face a choice: adhere to the costly rules, taxes, fees, inspections and maintenance—or join Airbnb to level the playing field. Bed & Breakfasts don’t want to cut corners on safety, quality of service, courtesy to their neighbours and the professionalism of their business. However, the technology has outpaced regulations. It’s a hard time to own a traditional Bed & Breakfast.

“There’s been a large increase in room supply, and Airbnb rentals are in demand. People love them, and we need to deal with that and frame the conversation moving forward,” says Todd Brandt, President and CEO at Tourism Saskatoon.

“There are major concerns of course: licensing, revenue reporting – are they operating as a proper business?” says Brandt. “Safety is a major concern in some areas. People who live in an apartment with secure access and are renting out units in that building—there’s a perceived risk to their neighbours. Some places an Airbnb makes sense and in some places, there are definitely concerns.”

Tourism Saskatoon works closely with their largest client, the accommodation industry. The addition of over 300 accommodation spots in Saskatoon alone—ranging from couch surfing to complete houses for rent—without regulation changes has been a concern. Worldwide, municipalities are trying to catch up with the technology.

“There’s a process underway in Saskatoon, to try and get a handle on this – things are all over the map,” says Brandt, referring to licensing and regulations. He says they’re seeing the impact on Bed & Breakfasts—with many of them closing their doors. It is possible they are seeking the lower cost and less scrutiny of being an Airbnb host. Brandt agrees that intuitively, spending patterns will shift. Less spent on accommodation means more dollars available for retail, recreation, food and beverage. People who book online accommodation will likely also be online looking for food, drink and entertainment options. That is good for tourism.

There are definitely concerns about the safety and regulation of the industry. However, consumers have spoken. They’re willing to take on the risk and explore the new technology, and Tourism Saskatoon wants to be supportive of things that bring awareness—and visitors—to the city. Brandt echoes Rick Urbanski’s sentiments: “We want to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.”

There is no doubt that Airbnb has changed the accommodation industry in Saskatchewan. What remains to be seen is how the industry and local governments deal with the change.