Designing for disruption

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As part of the Designing For... series by Elizabeth Meehan

My first experience of the homestay was with Housetrip. I found myself in Paris quite suddenly for an extra two weeks with few accommodation options. The prospect of staying in a hotel for this length of time felt stifling. Apartments were few at such short notice and the guest house for that duration, tedious. It was time to test the homestay, so I trawled through the options available – only two - given that I needed it for the next day. But in the end even that choice dissipated, leaving me to hope that the final result wouldn’t be too horrendous. In theory I loved the idea of stepping into Parisian everyday life; into the regular apartment and regular experience. Everyday life almost anywhere sounded fab, give or take a destination or two. But when I arrived and had to fend off the bottles and footwear spilling out onto the bathroom and bedroom floors, I was sure this wasn’t what I had in mind. This wasn’t ‘regular life’ but the literal threat of stepping into the occupants shoes if I wasn’t skilful navigating the tiled floors. The lack of respect was hard to overlook, and when not concentrating on staying upright, I found myself pondering what it was exactly I’d purchased. I must have hated it because thereafter I only searched uninhabited apartments. On the whole it worked well, the places had been clean, well furnished and I’ve loved the experience of living, not the tourist encounter, but off the radar on the non-tourist trail. And traveling in a group, the extra utilities and space made sense, by far a better option that the hotel or guest house comparisons. Never say never. On a similar cocktail of limited options and whim, I decided I was bound for Florence hours before I arrived. The notion of a hotel didn’t fit with the spirit of the trip or the desired experience, and so lacking imagination, I lazily opted for the Airbnb. 

As a Service Designer, I was curious to try the ‘family home’ option across the spectrum of experiences in this sector. In addition the immersive experience in Italian culture by one family appealed, given the degree to which I’d nestled in an English bubble. The organisation and timely response of my host was fab but the cheery texts and glossy pictures faded abruptly with the feeling that I’d been injected into their home. I might as well have knocked on a random door and asked to stay, the impact was no less significant. The effort to suppress their financial need to host was betrayed through the sighing and huffing that went on, so much so, that within five minutes I found myself assuring them I would’t make a sound and conveying that I understood it was their home. They told me communal areas was open to guests, but it would take a fairly oblivious character to miss the signs from this couple. I would’ve sacrificed a lot more than go into their kitchen and make that a coffee. Would I repeat this? A resounding No. The blurred lines between hospitality and home created a distressing experience. Was my radio too loud? (I could hardly hear it). Are my shoes making a sound? (No, I’m too afraid to move). Is my phone volume off? (I absolutely cannot take an incoming call!.) This isn’t a home from home, but imprisonment in the private intimate space of another person’s home. Compounded by their reluctance to provide internet even though it’s supposedly ‘unlimited’. When not concentrating on being the quietest possible version of myself, I began to disentangle the expectations from the experience. Yes, I had a place to sleep and shelter over my head, I had a beautiful view. I had a base from which to explore, but something was missing from the anticipated experience. The welcome perhaps? It reminded me of the previous writing residencies I’d undertaken. However desperate for the bursary funding offered, such places often resented the presence of outsiders disturbing their daily practise and lives. This was exactly the same. It was the difference between ‘having to’ offer the space, rather than wanting to, as in business. The blurred lines of private and public in the Airbnb meant it lacked the feeling of a defined business transaction and framework. This meant nothing was standardised and everything rested upon an unwritten code of conduct and stepping tactfully between the visible-invisible lines. 

Afterwards in the closing two minute conversation I had with the couple as I was leaving, I learn they work in the hospitality business. This highlights a further factor; the degree of blur, which explains a lot. They literally never escape work, so host and home become even more tricky. Hotels are defined places of work, while the Airbnb offer in contrast was created as an exchange, space in an apartment to help pay rent or mortgage. And even in their more evolved state, they are still different. Are they really a threat to the hotel? Even when the entire space is available in the Airbnb – it is different. It is no hotel, or guesthouse, B&B or hostel. The hotel, whose specific function is to provide a room away from home, often with breakfast and always with service, is something you can anticipate. With the Airbnb, you might get a bed, you might get a toaster, a dishwasher, one cup or ten, but whatever you get is always a gamble. Hotels may need to redefine what they do offer over and above the Airbnb and then spell that out to their customers. They need to list the kind of assurances they can provide, and they will find a customer base who will never settle for less than a guarantee. They can disrupt the disrupters.