July 8, 2020, guests booked more than a million nights’ worth of future stays at Airbnb listings all over the world. That was the first time in four months the lodging broker, which disrupted the hotel industry with its unprecedented platform 12 years before, achieved that threshold. After that, says Nathan Rotman, manager of Public Policy for Airbnb in Canada, “things started to look up.”
But, say some operators, things looked less positive for a long stretch — and for many of them, still do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen a massive chunk of Airbnb’s business since March, though the association will not say how much. For a time, travel stopped, or almost did, at every level (and that’s largely still the case across the country, save local jaunts). Then provinces started clamping down on short-term rentals (STR), particularly in its two most COVID-19-infested provinces. On April 4, Ontario limited STRs to people in need of emergency housing. In Quebec, they were banned outright. Other provinces, not so punitive, levied their own levels of restrictions. It was, says Rotman, an uncertain time.

Catherine Glass is an infectious-disease epidemiologist, and so feels she should have known better than to have been blown off her heels by the virus’s impact on the Airbnb she’s operated out of her Vancouver home for more than six years. “I knew intellectually it could happen,” she says. “I would tell my students, ‘Disease knows no borders.’” And yet she was cavalier at the beginning of the pandemic, rebuffing guests seeking full refunds in March. “Then it was cancellation after cancellation and I realized what circumstance we were in.”

That awakening sent Glass, an instructor at Vancouver’s Langara College, into anxiety about her Airbnb, which represents a third of her income, and on the cusp of July, her busiest month, she shut it down and left town. “I felt robbed,”
she says.

It was the same story for Adrienne Fonda, who’s operated a thriving Airbnb out of her Toronto home since 2016. The springtime surge never happened and Fonda blocked off her listing for a while, her eye on the virus, before pulling it altogether. She was tired of all the cleaning anyway, she says, and anxious about inviting people who might be carrying infection into her home. “I didn’t want to take the risk,” she says.

Airbnb Canada sought to mitigate the damage, offering hosts whose guests cancelled bookings made on or before March 14, up to a May 31 check-in, a piece of a USD$250-million relief pie. The company also petitioned the feds for financial benefits and tax breaks for hosts.

“There were some significant challenges that everyone in the travel-and-tourism industry were facing,” Rotman concedes. The company pivoted in the summer, refocusing on its roots, promoting core hosts’ experiences and local stays. “Even though people weren’t travelling, they certainly wanted to,” he says.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford agreed, citing demand along with economics when he lifted his province’s restrictions on June 5. Quebec loosened, too, and today guests can even rent in its red zones so long as guests are all from the same household.

The demand was apparent to Josey Cook, who’s run an Airbnb property north of Kingston, Ont., with her sister Cindy Steel, since July 2019. “We got busier than we ever thought we’d be,” Cook says of the post-restriction period. “We had so many people saying, ‘We’re just trying to find something somewhere,’” and they rented their four-season lake house every day to as many as they could accommodate. They were chock-a-block all summer, and have long-term renters who booked Labour Day to May while they build their own place across the lake. More than that, they already have three weeks booked for next summer with returning guests keen to sidestep this summer’s crush. “Everybody’s just trying to escape their four walls,”
Steel says.

“Part of me wondered whether we were a little bit ignorant or naïve,” says Cook, of their commitment to keep operating through a pandemic. “But we just thought, well, if people want to rent it, we’ll rent it to them.”

It’s not naiveté but location, says Rotman, who says COVID-19 changed how people travel. Remote work and remote schooling have gotten big {what does this mean} on its platform — there was a 128-per-cent increase from July to September in guest reviews talking about working remotely — and the emphasis is on the remote. “Travel on Airbnb has become less urban — it’s about getting away from the busy-ness of cities.”

That explains the slide for operators in Toronto and Vancouver, while Steel and Cook’s holiday proposal prospers. It also explains why 10 per cent of Airbnb’s September searches were for cabins and why interest has spiked in unique offerings, such as treehouses and barn stays.

The pandemic’s endurance has changed the landscape for Airbnbs, says Rotman, but not eliminated it. After you’ve been locked in your house for four or six months, you want something different, a new reality and that’s fuelling a new category of traveller. And they’re looking for longer sojourns than before, nearly double this August over last August. As for how many new travellers there are in these shaky times, Rotman is sketchy, saying only, “We’re seeing encouraging signs.”

But, as the country hunkers into a punishing second wave, there are other signs, too, and some are gunning for a return to more restrictive times. In late October, the mayor of Chelsea, Que., called for the re-instatement of the province-wide ban on vacation rentals after police broke up a 200-person party in that municipality north
of Ottawa.

In Toronto, the Waterfront-Island neighbourhood, which has led a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, is also the community with the highest number of Airbnb listings, says watchdog website Inside Airbnb. Hosts in several multi-tenant buildings have faced intense pressure from other residents to stop allowing guests to use the units. Fairbnb, a coalition that counts hotels and tenant advocacy groups among its supporters, threatened one downtown condominium corporation with a $3-million class-action lawsuit because it continued to welcome STR guests, increasing the chances of other residents being exposed to COVID-19.

“It’s a rough picture out there,” says Glass, who will re-list her house when she can. “I don’t think Airbnbs will come back to what they were for a long time.”

Written by Laura Pratt


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