Racial bias by Airbnb’s hosts sparks minority alternatives

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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 resort.

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 to get.”

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.”

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