It was early in my tech coverage days, back in 2017, when I stumbled upon a video of Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s co-founder, giving a TED Talk on how his company “designs for trust.” Gebbia describes how complicated it was for the startup to get funding during its early days: “No one in their right minds would invest in a service that allows strangers to sleep in people’s homes. Why? Because we’ve all been taught as kids: Strangers equal danger.”
It was indeed remarkable that having the key to a stranger’s fully furnished house for the weekend was not only possible, but could become an all-out hit. A sense of security came from the company’s two-side review system, able to hold back the impulse for self-preservation fed by paranoid tales of online scammers or dangerous hosts.
Nowadays, the sense of trust between Airbnb hosts and guests seems strong: The company says it saw 4.3 million more guest stays in the region in 2021 than in 2019. But the company’s home-sharing service has transformed, going from a platform run on host-visitor trust to a hospitality company in which the physical building and the neighborhood’s aesthetics are often much more important than whoever is hosting.
Maricarmen Herrerías, co-founder of Casai, a short-term luxury apartment rental startup founded in 2020, told me that the type of traveler that Airbnb successfully created in Latin America has been evolving in the past few years.“They want the coziness of a home but the perks of something more VIP,” she said, like touch screens, high-speed Wi-Fi, or luxurious linens.
The 1,600 listings Casai offers in Brazil and Mexico have all of these perks and other standardized features, and most are available for rent through Airbnb. Herrerías says Casai’s listings on the platform cannot indicate they’re run by her startup, though. “Airbnb is very careful when it comes to protecting its brand,” she said.
First-time users are often unaware that these properties are not someone’s home, as Airbnb says upfront, but that they’re managed by another startup. Airbnb’s trustworthiness is producing hotel rooms that look like local homes — a convenient offering both for guests that pay for a certain type of authenticity and companies that provide it.
According to the Inside Airbnb project, Peruvian Wynwood House or Mexican Kukun are also offering the “home experience, hotel quality” through Airbnb. Entire developments are being built and sold to “become Airbnbs,” designed never to be homes, each unit curated to quench the millennial thirst for standardized authenticity: places decorated with an aesthetic that mixes local flavor and global comfort.
The company’s trust-building efforts have not extended to the communities that surround its listed properties. To long-time residents living close to popular Airbnb listings in San Juan, Mexico City, or Havana, the name is now a synonym for gentrification: old historic buildings are being bought, refurbished in a similar aesthetic, and rented out at high prices that remote tech workers are willing to pay. Tech nomads moving to Latin America are not the only ones to blame for gentrification — companies selling the manicured experiences they seek also play a part.
Airbnb’s trust mechanisms have changed the meaning of the word “stranger”: It’s gone from “homeowner/home manager” to “company owner” in the years after Gebbia’s TED Talk. And judging by the company’s popularity, despite its controversies, trusting guests in Latin America don’t really mind.