It is early Friday evening in “midsummer”, and as the sea mists sweep across the bay and block out the sun that has, by all accounts, turned swathes of coastal Britain into sunny Costas, I am looping the loop in the backstreets of St Ives, hoping to stumble across a parking space at the end of a 300-mile drive. I am already late for Airbnb’s “Cornwall In-Person Hosting Event” at the St Ives Harbour Hotel, and I am wondering if choosing a town with no parking space is some kind of in-joke.
I have been an Airbnb host for nearly a decade, over four consecutive properties – and I am clearly one of a very large tribe, at least in Cornwall. Last week, local councillor Andrew Mitchell reportedly claimed he had 1,000 leaflets left over from the recent elections because most of the homes he canvassed had been empty. I am clearly not the only person to have bought a holiday home during lockdown (a property on a holiday park near Newquay), since three per cent of English households now own second homes and recent figures suggest that Cornwall has 12,776 of them – and more than 11,000 holiday lets.
In Cornwall, the tourism sector is the biggest employer, supporting one in five jobs – yet those jobs are largely seasonal and not well-paid, meaning long-term careers are impossible to sustain and local people can’t afford rents and mortgages. It has been well reported that during the pandemic buyers from cities moved to the coast to retire early, work remotely and invest in the staycation boom. I am one of them, though we use the property ourselves, too.
However, all is not well in the world of Airbnb. After a bumper post-lockdown staycation season in 2021 (during which my property was booked solid from May to October), there is now tumbleweed rolling through my calendar for the first time in nine years. Usually, all the school holiday weeks are fully booked by early May, but this year I still have availability in July and August, as well as in the months either side. My resort’s Facebook owners’ group is full of posts asking: “Anyone know what’s going on?… Anybody else not getting bookings?”
I can hear the anti-Airbnb crowd gleefully muttering “First World problems. Suck it up.” Yet, while I am disappointed, I am not particularly surprised: after two years at home, punters arguably fell out of love with the UK almost as quickly as they had fallen in love with it, thanks to the cost of living crisis and our underwhelming climate. Also, while Airbnb used to be your go-to for a bargain stay, some properties are now priced higher than hotels, with hosts accused of price-hiking and being “grabby”.
To which hosts like me will say they are only passing on costs from their suppliers (I paid £75 per changeover clean last year, and this year the fee is £150). Certainly, some hosts do charge eye-watering amounts for underwhelming spaces. Indeed, I have stayed in a few myself. (My advice: you get what you pay for – book with a Superhost.) Many of us also opt into the firm’s “smart pricing” tool which uses an algorithm to boost the nightly rate of a property based on demand. So, if you are looking at Cornwall in mid-August, the prices simply reflect that a lot of other people are likely to be looking, too. Looking but, thus far, not booking.
Elsewhere, hosts in towns and cities who target customers travelling largely for business have yet to see their rental incomes recover post-pandemic – and the ongoing rail strikes are the final straw. Could it also be that the market is saturated?
Back to St Ives, where things were well under way by the time I arrived, albeit in a surprisingly homespun fashion; about 100 hosts were struggling to hear Amanda Cupples, the tech giant’s Northern Europe general manager, grappling with a sub-par sound system. On the upside, there was wine.
I chatted to a fellow Superhost (let’s call her Clare). “We’re not professional hosts,” she said. “We’re just retired and decided to convert the garage [of a cottage in a Cornish village] into a little self-contained unit. It has always been fully booked, which has been brilliant for topping up our pensions. This year, with the cost of living crisis and the energy bills, that income really is vital for us. I’m a bit worried about it all, to be honest.”
Me too, Clare – for the past nine years, Airbnb has provided me with around a third of my annual income. This year, I will be lucky to cover my costs. A few days after a drizzle-dampened pitstop in my place near Newquay – spent taking meter readings, sweeping the terrace, wondering why the hot water wasn’t working and pondering why the sun was still literally everywhere else in the country – I reconnected with Cupples via the less acoustically challenging medium of FaceTime.
“Has the UK really fallen out of love with Airbnb?” I asked.
“Well, what I can say is that our guests have been impacted by the cost-of-living crisis in particular, and are looking for affordable travel. Airbnb was built on the idea that travel could and should be affordable, so we offer lots of price points. There are some common host concerns: around a third tell us they use their Airbnb income to make ends meet," Cupples says.
“But it’s very clear that there is a lack of long-term affordable housing, very clear that there is concern over holiday lets – which, let’s face it, are not all on Airbnb. We are really pushing the Government to set up a Tourism Accommodation Register, otherwise we can’t know the scale of the problem.”
So, there is a problem? “We acknowledge that there is an issue – and while Airbnb... is just one platform in a broader industry, it is absolutely right that we should be working with communities so that [in places] like Cornwall, they can enjoy the benefits of tourism – and manage the downsides," Cupples says. "We can be a tech platform and support communities.”
On a personal note, I reckon I will find out soon enough whether my previously happy little “Airbnbubble” is finally bursting or, during the so-called “summer of discontent”, merely deflating a bit – which, I suppose, makes a change from the trend for inflation. There are mutterings among hosts that, at the eleventh hour, we may benefit from bookings by customers put off travelling abroad by the prospect of yet more short-haul air travel chaos.
Cupples, however, remains in her comfort zone: “There are lots of reasons why you might still have availability for this summer, but we have hosted over a billion people on Airbnb and it is still the place to come to for open-minded, curious guests looking for real magic and unique experiences. So yes, we feel confident there are still lots of guests out there for you.”
We’ll see, Airbnb – we’ll see.