Before I go any further, I just want to say that I love Airbnb. Any time I travel, they’re my go-to site for accommodations. I’ve used it to stay in the bustling center of Sao Paulo, as a triathlon home base a block from San Francisco Bay, and as a weekend getaway in the Adirondack foothills all at a fraction of the cost of traditional hotels or resorts. Even more than that, I love the idea that open-minded people can connect and that hosts can make a little extra income from their otherwise unused space: a sharing economy utopia, right?
Hmmm. Maybe not.
Besides Airbnb image and legal problems you might have heard about, Airbnb is also pretty shady when it comes to runners. How has Airbnb attempted to sell itself as a sharing economy utopia? By aligning itself with a popular movement that has high visibility through major events and that has no sign of its explosive growth stopping any time soon. That means running, of course! And how is Airbnb accomplishing this, and how did they almost sponsor me on a reckless running escapade? Read on!
Last year as I was watching the 2014 NYC Marathon near Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, I spotted a few young guys in Airbnb t-shirts handing out swag: kazoos, foam fingers, and (I think) snacks. This was near a stage dubbed as one of the Airbnb “cheer zones,” and their canvassers were out working the crowd, spreading the idea that Airbnb supports runners.
Fast forward a few months to last spring, and one of the most popular half marathon’s in the city, the Brooklyn Half, had become The Airbnb Brooklyn Half. Hmmm… I figured that the company was just trying to combat all of the bad press it had been getting by New York State’s Attorney General calling them “illegal.” And since most major races have a title sponsor, I didn’t think much else of it.
Airbnb is a service that allows homeowners to rent out their spare room, loft, barn, farmhouse -you name it- by the night or longer periods of time. They set the rate, post photos, add to a neighborhood map on the Airbnb website, and Airbnb gets a service fee. They take care of validating both parties and handling the credit card transactions. It’s part of the so-called “sharing economy” that Uber and time bank participants use to leverage their talents in order provide lower costs as long as customers are willing to share something – in this case, space and privacy. The legality of it becomes sticky when the hosts are not owners but renters who share the building with neighbors who might not be as lassiez-faire about living with strangers.
Now, as we are in the final months before the 2015 NYC Marathon, I’ve seen a lot more press that lists Airbnb as one of the official race partners. On NYRR’s website, Airbnb is listed just below the title sponsor, alongside Asics and United Airlines. They’re even in a higher tier than Gatorade!
I am not running this year’s marathon. I didn’t do all the qualifying races this time, nor did I get in through the lottery. And I was ok with that. I’ll get to cheer on my friends again.
But, last week on Monday, I got an email from Airbnb that read:
Airbnb is once again sponsoring this year’s TCS NYC Marathon and we have a ton of exciting activities planned for the Airbnb community. We identified that you might be a potential runner so are reaching out to see whether you would like to be involved!
Simply fill in this short form [link removed] if you’re interested in being kept updated on exclusive events, fun activities, and opportunities to meet other runners.
We look forward to hearing from you!
“Cool,” I thought. I like supporting the communities I’m a part of. It didn’t even bother me that I don’t quite know how they managed to find out how I might be “a potential runner”. I’m always interested in connecting with other people over a shared interest. So I went to the online survey in search of more info.
A lot of the questions were centered around the idea of going to Airbnb sponsored events to mingle and probably get recruited to one of those street teams along the race course. Yet, there was one that had me thinking for the next few days. The question had two parts. It asked if I was running this year’s marathon. Then, it asked if I wasn’t running, would I be interested in running? First, I clicked “No”… and then I clicked “Yes.”
In my mind I thought, “Are they asking this because they want to give me a bib? No way can they do that! It’s the last week of August!” I wondered what they were really getting at.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Three days later I got another email from the same Airbnb address:
Thank you for filling out the runners survey that we sent out earlier this week!
You expressed interest in running in the 2015 TSC New York City Marathon and since Airbnb is a sponsor and appreciate you being part of the Airbnb community, we would like to offer you a bib to run on November 1st this year!
There was more, but I had stopped reading.
“WHAT?! You mean I could run the freaking marathon? This year?!”
I wasn’t excited. I was shocked.
It didn’t take me long to decide that I had to write back to Airbnb and call them out for their irresponsible offer to let me run a marathon that is only two months out. Don’t they understand that training for 26.2 miles takes at least four solid months. Accelerating a training plan is a recipe for injury! Most athletes I know have done at least a 16- to 20-mile training run by now!
Aside from the physical aspects, my mind is not in the place to take on marathon training this season. I’ve made other commitments that would make finding time to train way to stressful.
NYC Marathon, I love you, nothing against you, but I’ll catch you again next year. Airbnb, we need to talk…
There’s no doubt that getting on board with runners is a lucrative business bet. Any company that markets to runners is guaranteed to reach hundreds of thousands of potential customers per year. A few weeks ago we discussed the high-end clothing company Anthropologie launching a new line of activewear. This is only one example, and it’s no coincidence that it comes at a time when participation in running events is higher than ever and major races are increasing their capacity.
But the commercialization of running also means that companies that aren’t even related to health, fitness, or running are trying to get a slice of the market. Hence the Airbnb offer to let me into a sold out race.
I’m no salesperson, but I think companies should know something about the product you are selling before you offer it to people. How can Airbnb think that 1) sensible runners with any modicum of experience will jump on this opportunity and 2) those runners are going to have positive things to say about their company if and when they cross the finish line with inadequate preparation??? I bet Asics wouldn’t have made such a ridiculous proposal.
I’m not saying that Airbnb shouldn’t have extended spots it probably has through sponsorship to members of its traveling community. Sharing is what they do, and I still love them for no doubt providing cheaper hotel alternatives to those marathoners who come to cruise our boroughs. I am criticizing their decision not to make their offer sooner. If I had read this email in June, or if I just happened to already be in peak running form, then I wouldn’t have hesitated at all. And if anyone did take Airbnb up on their bib offer, I wish them an injury-free and enjoyable race.
This November 1st, at my running group’s usual spot under the trees at Fifth Avenue and Central Park, watching 50,000 runners whiz by, I’ll cheer my heart out and look forward to running it next year in a spot I earned, but I won’t be wearing my Airbnb foam finger.
So what do you think? Is this whole AirBnB NYC Marathon thing shady? Should companies be able to buy spots in extremely popular races to use for marketing purposes?