Sharing economy darling Airbnb has had its hands full lately fighting (and losing) a major lawsuit in New York and battling PR disasters caused by poorly behaved guests, which probably hasn’t been helped much by its suggestive new logo.
Amid all that, Airbnb representatives paid a visit to the White House today to showcase, alongside other tech firms including Google and TaskRabbit, a new emergency response initiative to offer housing to folks displaced after a disaster. And getting the president's backing as a beacon of community good right now would certainly be a boon for the growing company.
Airbnb and city officials from Portland, Oregon and San Francisco made the eastward trek to nation's capitol to attend the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo Day, where they announced a new partnership that will help cities work with Airbnb hosts to respond to local emergencies.
It basically gives hosts in those cities a chance to volunteer to house and help displaced residents after a disaster. It will also position Airbnb as a sort of emergency preparedness resource; the company says it will offer hosts educational materials and disaster training, and even send out alerts warning about hazardous incidents.
In a company announcement today, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee praised the partnership as the fruits of innovation and the sharing economy, and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales heralded the spirt of neighborliness and community. But beyond that good stuff, the initiative could help further legitimize Airbnb, which is still fighting to cement its place in the hospitality industry it's shaking up.
Perhaps fittingly, the idea of using the site’s global community for disaster housing started in New York City, now the center of the regulatory spat. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the company encouraged New Yorkers to offer free housing to people displaced by the storm, which hundreds of people agreed to do. Bolstered by the response, Airbnb launched its Disaster Response Tool shortly after to make it easier for hosts and disaster victims to connect without fees and with added customer support.
Image: Screenshot of Airbnb's donated Sandy relief housing
Sandy came at a time when tensions were escalating between the startup and New York City, which claims that some two-thirds of Airbnb hosts in the city are renting out their spaces illegally. The hope was that the show of good faith community support would help the company as the regulatory battle waged on. Not so much.
Now the company is taking the disaster response initiative even further, all the way to the White House. Meanwhile, in a similar move to cement its place in the industry, Airbnb is now marketing itself to business travelers as well as vacationers. Yesterday, it announced an initiative connecting professionals with host apartments tailored to corporate travelers.
Airbnb has been grabbing headlines for squatters that refuse to leave rented spaces, brothels and sex parties being run out of host listings, and a rebranded logo that bears a strange resemblance to genitalia. Now it appears the company hopes that an alternate image—Airbnb as a business resource and community do-gooder—will win out.