Responding to a growing number of claims that many Airbnb
hosts are refusing to rent their homes or rooms to African-American travelers,
black entrepreneur Rohan Gilkes is launching Innclusive.com, an alternative
peer-to-peer accommodations website.
Meanwhile, travel agent Donna Brooks Lucas said last week
that she doesn’t book her primarily African-American clientele at Airbnb units,
largely because they don’t trust the hosts or the product.
As millions of U.S. consumers gravitate toward peer-to-peer
accommodations services such as Airbnb and HomeAway for their lodging needs,
black travelers are using such services at a substantially lower frequency than
their white counterparts.
Many home-based hosts appear to be less willing to accept
reservation requests from African-Americans than from other prospective guests.
And the wariness appears to be mutual, as fewer upscale, black travelers are
willing to take a leap of faith and stay anywhere but at a traditional hotel or
Sensing opportunity, black entrepreneurs are hatching
websites, such as Noirbnb.com and Innclusive.com, to create what they say will
eliminate racial bias among hosts.
Gilkes said he was spurred to launch his site after a white
friend had to make an Airbnb booking in Idaho for Gilkes earlier this year
because his own reservation request for the same dates was rejected.
“I don’t want to knock Airbnb,” Gilkes said. “It’s a symbol
of a larger bias issue.”
The extent to which that bias issue is shifting black
travelers’ dollars away from home-based accommodations and toward traditional
lodging is unknown. The most recent survey of annual travel spending by
African-Americans, who make up about 14% of the U.S. population, was conducted
by Mandala Research in 2011. It pegged spending by black travelers at about $48
billion. No travel associations track black travel spending, and neither the
American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) nor lodging-research firm
STR collect data about lodging spending by race.
According to MMGY Global’s 2016 Portrait of American
Travelers survey, African-Americans on average spend about 20% less on travel
per year than Americans of other races, and fewer of those are going to
home-based hosts. Of those polled, 14% of African-Americans said they had
stayed at a home-based unit, compared with 21% for all other U.S. travelers.
Some of that disparity might be due to that fact that some
black travelers, like their counterparts of other races, want to avoid the
relative uncertainty of a home-operated lodging unit rather than a hotel or
resort, said Lucas, a Kenilworth, Ill.-based travel adviser with Travel 100
Group, part of the Signature Travel Network.
“My clients trust that I know
where I’m sending them, that I know they’ll be safe, and there’s value for
their money,” Lucas said. “With Airbnb, you can’t really tell what you’re going
Airbnb has taken notice. The privately held company last
month hired former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to consult on the
company’s anti-discrimination policy after becoming the target of a growing
number of claims that its hosts discriminate against minorities.
A Harvard Business School study released in January found
that prospective guests with “distinctly African-American names” were about 16%
less likely to have their reservation requests granted by Airbnb hosts than
guests with “distinctly white names.”
“We have an obligation to be honest about our own
shortcomings, and do more to get our house in order,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky
wrote on a July 20 blog post explaining Holder’s hiring.
Tiffany Gill, associate professor of black studies and
history at the University of Delaware, said the appearance of alternative,
minority-run accommodations sites brings to mind the Green Book, a guide
published between 1936 and 1966 to help African-American motorists find safe
places to stay, eat and refuel during the Jim Crow era.
“It’s a sad commentary that there’s still such a great need
for something that African-Americans were trying to avoid, but it’s not
surprising,” Gill said. “Discriminatory practices don’t take vacations.”
While Gilkes said he viewed Airbnb’s hiring of Holder as
more of a political move than a sign of progress, Gill said she saw it as “a
smart business move.”
Lucas said she did not know how successful Airbnb was going
to be at fighting discrimination by its hosts, “because Airbnb is working with
people that own their own properties. But at least they’re trying to do
something about the problem.”
Meanwhile, Lucas and Gill, both African-American, agreed
with Gilkes’ assertion that there are travel biases at play that go far beyond
Airbnb and home-sharing.
Lucas recounted experiences at resorts, which she declined
to identify, where her family had either been seated or served at restaurants
after white guests who had arrived or been seated after them.
Gill recalled times when she and other black travelers
overheard disparaging remarks from other travelers at luxury resorts. Both said
they felt that the discrimination against black travelers was not improving.
And while Innclusive.com and Noirbnb.com look to attract
both prospective hosts and guests who will self-select from a wider range of
backgrounds, there will still be wariness on the part of both black travelers
and the agents serving them.
When asked about Onefinestay, the higher-end home-based
accommodations service that was acquired this spring by Paris-based
AccorHotels, Lucas said she’d “absolutely” consider using the service, though
primarily because “we use Sofitel, and that’s a brand that we
trust.” Sofitel is a luxury brand owned by Accor.
As for Gill, she said that when she signed up for Airbnb for
a research trip to Atlanta last year, she felt the need to “justify” herself to
prospective hosts and make sure her professorial credentials were out front in
order to avoid bias issues. Ultimately, she stayed at a hotel. “At the last
minute, I chickened out,” she said. “I still have hang-ups.”