BACKPACKERS and business executives may occupy opposite ends of the travel spectrum, but one thing they often share is a desire to feel less like a tourist and more like a local.
And among the best ways for a backpacker to gain a more authentic experience is “couchsurfi ng” – the practice of using social networks to connect with like-minded people and then crash for a few days in whatever relatively clean space they have available.
Now a collection of travel websites is helping sophisticated travellers forgo five-star hotels or boutique properties for some couchsurfing of their own. If your first instinct is to recoil at the idea of bedding down on the couch of a hairy political science student, relax. These sites offer attractive upmarket apartments and homes whose owners are out of town.
One of the most popular and fastest growing sites is the San Francisco-based Airbnb, which recently raised $US7.8 million in venture capital funding. The company, which receives 10 per cent of its revenue from Australia, offers properties in 8000 cities and 167 countries, with options ranging from modest apartments in the heart of New York to a fairytale castle in Umbria – and pretty much everything in between (including boats, lighthouses and even an igloo).
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Since Airbnb arrived in late 2008 plenty of rivals – offering essentially the same model – have emerged. They include housetrip, with more than 100,000 properties in Europe, and, more recently, 9flats and My Friends Hotel.
But last year British start-up Onefinestay took the idea to a new level by introducing an innovative model designed specifi cally for business travellers. Rather than just holiday rentals, the company combines top-quality homes (average value of about £1 million) with the services that guests would expect from a four- or five-star hotel. Chief executive Greg Marsh says these “unhotels” offer the best elements of hotel service in the setting of a “carefully curated home”.
“What that means in practice is that we take great care to clean the place before each guest stay, deck it out with five-star linens and toiletries, greet guests on arrival and provide useful tools, such as a free iPhone to ensure we’re accessible 24/7.”
The properties have complimentary WiFi and the company puts barcodes on selected items – such as artworks and television set-top boxes – so guests can use an app on the iPhone to view short videos in which the owner explains an item or how it works.
Cultural differences mean some household gadgets have required more explanation that initially expected. “Americans can’t use kettles,” Marsh notes. “It’s because they’re much less common in the US. We had a case recently when a family put an electric kettle on a gas hob ... with predictable results.”
Onefinestay has proved particularly popular with business travellers from the US and Australia (the company’s secondlargest source market), who often stay in London for longer periods of time. “We have also had business travellers who arrive in groups or project teams and prefer to share a single living space, rather than having to crowd into the business lounge at a hotel or squeeze into a hotel room,” Marsh says.
Prices in the British capital range from £125 per night for a one-bedroom apartment in St James to £1145 per night for a five-bedroom house in South Kensington.
Marsh founded Onefinestay with two other entrepreneurs who had experience in the property management, logistics and technology fi elds. In March they raised $US3.7 million to fund expansion. Backers include some of the online travel industry’s most respected players, including Lastminute.com cofounder Brent Hoberman. The funds will be used to enlarge the company’s London operation, where it offers about 50 upscale properties. However, Marsh says he is “eagerly eyeing” other markets, including New York, Paris “and even Sydney”.
Onefinestay’s model is evolving. In response to guest demand, it recently started a partnership with food service Deliverance, which brings a choice of five different cuisines to the door. “When you place an order, it goes straight onto the fi nal bill. So it’s as simple as hotel room service, but more varied.”
He says the company is keen to launch a loyalty program. “And there are plenty of other services for guests we are keen to start experimenting with, from taxi services to a hotel-style concierge. We are in talks with a number of great London companies that provide those services at a world-class level.”