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Airbnb sees promise in rural Canada as company slowly rebuilds from pandemic lull


When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world last year, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky watched business shrivel up at record speed and his company's phonelines flood with cancellations, eventually leading him to lay off 1,900 workers.

But under that cloud of gloom, the head of the home rental giant noticed bright spots in corners of Canada he'd visit during youth hockey tournaments — locations that seldom attract the swarms of visitors seen in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

"Because people couldn't cross borders, they were forced to make a decision to either stay home or travel in their country ... what that did is really push people to rediscover the country they live in," Chesky said during a media roundtable earlier this week.

That meant city dwellers who'd typically travel to the U.S., Europe or farther afield instead hopped in the car and headed to rural spots within a few hours of home. Chesky believes that pattern will linger, boosting tourism in smaller communities.

The comments come as the San Francisco, Calif.-based company sees business begin to rebound in the U.S. amid widespread vaccinations and a recent EU announcement welcoming vaccinated American tourists this summer.

Canada, he concedes, is a different story. The last two weeks have been marked with calls for stricter border closures, bans on flights from India and Pakistan and new orders limiting some inter-provincial travel.

Much of the country is still locked down while waiting more vaccinations.

"The rebound in Canada is absolutely slower," Chesky said. "Canadians are more reticent to travel."

Canadians willing to travelling right now tend to be older and vaccinated, Chesky said. The country saw an almost 50 per cent increase in Airbnb searches for summer stays by guests age 60 and over in March, compared to February.

As younger people get jabbed, he believes they will act on their wanderlust too, but eschew business travel in favour of video conferencing and look towards local destinations.

Airbnb noticed a recent uptick in people searching for spring and summer rentals in Nova Scotia's Queens Municipality, Cheticamp and West Hants, New Brunswick's Caledonia Mountain and Newfoundland's Dunville.

Also trending were the Naramata, Telegraph Cove and Okanagan Falls regions of British Columbia and Louisville in Quebec.

"The playing field is now level," he said. "Travel is shifting ... from going to the same 20 or 30 cities to going everywhere.

"It's not like anyone's losing as much as I think it's being distributed in many places."

These days, he said, rural homeowners account for 20 per cent of Canadian hosts on the platform, have collectively earned $217.1 million on Airbnb since the start of the pandemic and typically make $3,000 each per summer.

But those promising signs belie some of the deep challenges Airbnb has had to address in recent years and will face as the tourism industry charts a new future.

Prior to the pandemic, Toronto unveiled a new short-term rental policy requiring people to live at the properties they list and register with the city before renting out their space.

The company has been trying to abide by the regulation while also grappling with Airbnb users who rent properties to throw unruly house parties.

Such bookings have sparked complaints from neighbours and in Ontario, the company has been criticized following a handful of shootings during parties at Airbnbs in recent years. 

The company unveiled a 24-hour neighbourhood support hotline to field complaints, a 16-person cap on Airbnb occupancies and a new policy requiring guests under 25 to have a history of positive reviews on its app to reserve entire homes in their area.

It also banned one-night bookings for entire homes on New Year's Eve and Halloween and suspended 40 properties in Ontario and 45 in Montreal from the platform.

"We're working really hard," Chesky said. "But we're in 100,000 communities, so I don't want to presume that we're always going to be perfect."

Chesky is determined to balance tackling these thorny issues while rebuilding his company after last year's mass layoff that saw him cut 25 per cent of staff in May.

He characterized the move as "the hardest decision I've ever made," but necessary after he forecast revenues for the year would be less than half of what they were in 2019.

Most of his laid off workers found employment elsewhere and he's slowly begun hiring again, but the incident inspired him to be more cautious — even as excitement around travel builds again.

"I just want to be a little bit more conservative about making sure the storm is truly over, there's not another wave, so we don't ever find ourselves in that position again," he said. 

"I generally told the company, 'let's hope for the best, but plan for the worst.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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