Performing “Home” in the Platform Economies of Tourism: A case study of Airbnb in Sofia, Bulgaria
Author: Maartje Roelofsen, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
Case study type: Airbnb and alternatives
Keywords: Airbnb, platform economy, hospitality, Bulgaria
Short-term rental platform Airbnb enables people to rent or rent out accommodation. In the last decade, the platform has been geared towards providing accommodation and tourist experiences for (business) travelers. However, it is currently considering expanding its offer to accommodate long-term tenants such as students and people who carry out long-term work in a location.
In 2016, Airbnb expanded its platform by introducing the City Hosts programme (now called Experiences), through which guests can book workshops and engage in activities with Airbnb-hosts against a set fee. Airbnb has promoted itself as “the world’s leading community- driven hospitality company” that connects travellers (guests) with local hosts. Guests can book a room on-site, which entails renting a (shared) bedroom within a host’s home, with the host typically physically present throughout the stay. Alternatively, a guest may rent a host’s entire accommodation without the host being physically present during a guest’s stay. The platform was initially conceived of as a “peer-to-peer” platform for people who wanted to rent out the homes in which they lived (or rooms/beds within those homes) to travellers. Today the platform is known to attract an increasing number of commercial hosts such as real estate investors, landlords and property managers who do not have their primary residence in the properties that they list and rent out online.
Various studies have shown that the majority of listings on the platform concern entire properties (apartments, houses etc.) and a much smaller percentage of listings on the platform concerns rooms or beds within properties. Since the platform company’s establishment in 2008, its operations have grown exponentially the world over – Airbnb now lists more than 7 million listings in over 100,000 cities on its website. As of 2020, Airbnb has an estimated US$ 26.0 billion firm valuation, making it one of the most notable “decacorns” globally – a start-up that has collected over 10 billion dollars in venture capital. Airbnb raises revenue by charging booking fees to both hosts and guests. Despite being a profitable economic activity for some accommodation providers, the benefits produced by Airbnb tend to be unevenly distributed among local populations. It has added to existing socio-economic disparities within cities by adversely impacting urban housing markets, local livelihoods and the hotel industry.
The general aim of this study is to provide a critical analysis of the role of Airbnb in shaping people’s everyday lives. In particular, it aims to flesh out the hosts and guests understanding and performance of “home” when staying together in an Airbnb-home. “Home”, in this respect, is more than the material “brick-and-mortar” understanding that is commonly associated with the concept of “house”. Although influenced by the physical/material structures of a house, “home” is a concept that reflects the emotions and relationships that bring it into being, as well as the cultural- and social expectations that people have of “home”. Empirically, this study focuses on the Airbnb economy within Sofia (Bulgaria) and intends to respond to the following questions: How are people’s intimate spatialities shared and the idea of “home” performed as part of the Airbnb experience? How is “home” made and unmade when relative “strangers” move in and out of home with each new transaction.
The study relies on an ethnographic and autoethnographic approach. In performing autoethnography, the living and embodied subjective self of the researcher is considered an active agent and a constitutive part of the research process. In my capacity as a guest, I thus considered myself an active agent in making-home rather than a passive observer who sits on the receiving end of the Airbnb experience. During a period of 3 months, I stayed with 11 different Airbnb hosts in Sofia, Bulgaria. Whilst staying with my hosts in their homes, I conducted interviews with them and undertook participant observation – joining them in different kinds of activities. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and my own experiences as a guest were documented in a (video) diary, whereas photos of my stays served as an ‘aide memoire’.
- The way Airbnb homes are shared and performed depends largely on the materialities of “home”, which are interwoven with the history and politics of their related contexts. People’s intimate spatialities are continuously shaped not just by themselves but also by outside forces. For example, with the largescale privatisation of energy in Bulgaria and the resulting rise in energy prices, many people struggled to afford their energy bills and to maintain thermal comfort. The inability to provide a comfortable thermal environment to guests, lead to feelings of unhomeliness on part of both host and guest.
- Under specific and sometimes challenging conditions, Airbnb hosts and guests engage in certain practices of home-making to make each other “feel at home”. These include implicit and explicit bordering practices such as: pointing out how certain spaces (bathroom, kitchen etc.) should be used; informing each other which spaces are to be avoided during the stay (bedroom, study room, communal hallway etc.); avoiding being overtly present in the communal areas of the house (kitchen, living room, garden etc.); being deliberately silent for the duration of the stay, between and outside “quiet hours” of the day.
- There was an ambiguous notion that some intimate practices should be shared as part of the Airbnb experience whereas others were not. For example, having breakfast together was (in some instances) encouraged, whereas leaving behind bodily products in the house was considered inappropriate.
- Certain materialities of home that are deemed to possess particular “symbolical” value are selectively re-signified by the hosts in order to “stage” an authentic experience of life and home.
- Both host and guest play a fundamental role in “home-making” by providing a hospitable atmosphere, not impinging on each other’s privacy, and performing “home” according to a set of social and cultural expectations on part of both host and guest.
Link to publication: Open Access: Roelofsen, M. (2018). Performing “home” in the sharing economies of tourism: the Airbnb experience in Sofia, Bulgaria. Fennia - International Journal of Geography, 196(1), 24-42. https://doi.org/10.11143…