‘No stopping an idea whose time has come’: Airbnb on regulatory hurdles

There is “no stopping an idea whose time has come”, said Mr Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at room-sharing service provider Airbnb, paraphrasing a quote by Romantic author Victor Hugo.

Commenting on the slew of regulatory roadblocks the company is currently facing across different markets, including Singapore, Mr Curtis told Channel NewsAsia in an interview on Thursday (May 26) that the situation is not uncommon and is being played out in various industries disrupted by similar sharing economy-type business models.

Airbnb is an online platform that connects homeowners and travellers so that the latter can rent either a room or the entire apartment from the former.

He said the world “needs such a service” as it gives homeowners a different source of revenue, and it allows travellers to have a more authentic travel experience by living in someone’s home rather than a hotel or hostel. “This is something the world needs, and the regulations will follow these needs,” he said, without directly referencing the situation in Singapore.

In 2014, Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk told Conversation With that he was optimistic of seeing Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats listed on the site, and hoped a policy change will open up options for public and private homeowners to become hosts to tourists coming into the country.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) later said that the results of its public consultation on short-term stays – concluded in April 2015 – were “split with no clear consensus”.

“On one hand, there was acknowledgement of the need to accommodate the demand for short term home-sharing. On the other hand, there was strong endorsement of URA’s existing controls on subletting, which are intended to preserve the privacy and sanctity valued by the vast majority of homeowners,” a spokesperson said earlier this week.

The spokesperson added that key feedback received was for any change in the rules to ensure a level playing field, noting that regulated accommodation providers such as hotels and serviced apartment operators are subject to regulatory requirements to ensure the safety and wellbeing of occupants. They are also subject to business taxes, she said.

“The issue on short-term stays is complex, multi-faceted, has wide-ranging implications and it warrants a careful and balanced review. URA needs more time to study the issue,” she said.

Private home owners can only lease out their residences for a minimum of six months, and those who do not observe this are liable to a S$200,000 fine, jail of up to 12 months, or both. Despite the regulations, there were more than 300 listings on the platform when Channel NewsAsia checked on Thursday.

The company is also facing regulatory hurdles in many markets, including Berlin, Germany, and France.


Regulatory hurdles aside, the vice president of engineering told Channel NewsAsia that the company is committed to investing in technology to help it stay ahead of its competitors such as Roomorama.

One example is smart pricing, a tool that allows homeowners the information they need to determine how they price their accommodations. Mr Curtis said his team had created an algorithm that allowed hosts to have recommended pricing for 90 days, factoring in things like whether an event is taking place near the neighbourhood, vicinity to amenities, etc.

“Through this, hosts who use the tool are 17 per cent more likely to be booked than those who don’t use,” he shared.

Internally, the company has also implemented AirPal – a user interface (UI) that allowed all employees access to its data warehouse and submit queries, regardless if they are data scientists, customer service officers or salespeople. This helps to imbue offices that may not have permanent engineering teams, such as Singapore, to adopt a data-first mindset, he added.

Since being deployed more than a year and a half ago, AirPal had seen more than one third of the company’s 2,000 staff submit at least one query, which has helped “democratise data”, he added.


The pantry and waiting area for guests at the Airbnb Singapore office.

Asked if he would be setting up development centres overseas, such as the Singapore office which acts as its Asia Pacific base, Mr Curtis said there are “no plans” currently to do so as it is “tough” to coordinate teams from different geographies and time zones and he wants to be “very disciplined during this period of growth”.

The company declined to disclose the staff strength of its office here.

That said, his engineers are rotated around the various international offices to get insight on the challenges and needs of the different markets, and he professed a desire to be more involved in the local engineering scene as it is an “exciting space now” with its Smart Nation aspirations.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in February said that perceptions about engineering need to change if the country is to follow in the footsteps of Silicon Valley and attract the best and brightest. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim also said there will an additional demand of 30,000 infocomm jobs to be filled by 2020 – highlighting the importance of the industry.

In general, Mr Curtis’ engineering team is the fastest growing within Airbnb, and is 400 strong. While declining to share how much money is being invested in engineering, the executive said his team doubled its size in 2015 and is looking to do so again this year.

There are also efforts to increase the number of female data scientist hires, he added, noting there was a doubling of female data scientists from 15 per cent to 30 per cent last year.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 26 May 2016

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