Airbnb and the NYC Marathon: Is Airbnb Out to Hurt Runners?

English: ING NYC Marathon
Chances are, many marathoners here used Airbnb for their NYC accommodations. And they’re runners, so the know that timing and preparation is everything. Airbnb, take note! (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

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.

Which one of these medals is not like the other? (Hint: it has nothing to do with purple.)
Which one of these medals is not like the other? (Hint: it has nothing to do with purple.)

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…

Is Airbnb really cheering runners on, or are they trying to give themselves a popularity boost?
Is Airbnb really cheering runners on, or are they trying to give themselves a popularity boost?

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? 

A Minnesota girl living in New York City. I'm a middle school teacher (by choice!), runner, bike commuter, traveler, and general do-er of things. My next goal is to change my finally crush my marathon PR of 4:01 to under 4:00.

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10 comments

  1. Thanks for the really interesting commentary here! Knowing that the marathon is a commitment both mental and physical, the common thread here seems to be the agency and decision-making ability of each individual runner. Yes! Absolutely!

    I decided that I could not make a marathon-level commitment at this time -no question there- but their offer left me with the two bigger questions. Mainly, could Airbnb have been prepared to offer this opportunity sooner? Secondly, how did they choose the people to reach out to? That’s another issue of cross-referencing NYRR and Airbnb data and opens up a whole other can of worms regarding marketing and privacy. Any thoughts on whether that’s a questionable practice?

  2. I agree with many of the other comments – most that would be interested in running NYCM are likely already training for a fall race. Given that NYCM is later than most, many could take advantage of that bib. I have a few friends that got into MCM, but chose a September marathon as their goal race and are just running MCM for the fun/experience of it. It’s up to the runner to decide if they’d be ready or not in 2 months.

  3. Agree with others that there are many runners who’d be ready to go on 2 months notice. Tens of thousands are already in training for a fall marathon – many will be done with time to recover before NYC, many would likely be happy to abandon their currently-planned marathon to run NYC instead, many others are almost perpetually marathon-ready.

  4. I do not really understand the point of this article. Airbnb offers a bib to you. In case you missed the opportunity to get a bib, this is a great opportunity! After that, if you do not feel you cannot run it, this is up to you to refuse but this is a very generous offer!

    I am coaching somebody to run NYC and for my own training I am running 70 to 100 miles per week, so, running a marathon is not a big issue for me. I would be really happy to get a bib just to run the course with the people I coached during the last few months.

    If you do not feel you can run it, do not do it – but there is no reason to blame the company, they are just offering a bib for you in case you feel you could finish the race!

  5. I don’t think it’s in the least shady. It’s not up to AirBnB, or any other company for that matter, to be sure that those it offers bibs to are in racing shape. It’s up to the runner to decide if they are, or can be, in good enough shape on race day. Frankly, I would find it insulting paternalistic for a company to withhold bibs from runners because they had decided for them that they couldn’t be in shape on race day. There are all sorts of scenarios in which a person might be race ready with two months notice (ultra runner on hiatus? just finished a half and would be starting with a 13 mile base run? just super fit?), but none of that is relevant because it’s up to the runner to decide for themselves, not for some company to decide for them.

    1. This is a good point. I don’t think they should police runners worthiness to participate, I just hate that gobs of money gets them the ability to basically do whatever they want with entries while other people have to play by pretty strict rules to gain entry.

  6. This is a really interesting topic! To Cardamom’s point, I disagree to a degree. Airbnb might not be out to hurt runners intentionally, but they are out to exploit the market of runners and when companies do that, especially ones not serving the market of runners (difference between exploiting a market for profit and serving one for profit) there is unintentional harm. While it’s just a few people who will run the marathon who are totally unprepared, these people jumping in on a whim take spots from very hard working dedicated runners who can’t get in. I’m not sure the harm is a necessary evil. They can sponsor the race without a reckless bib distribution policy and they could field runners who qualified to get in or only those who were rejected from the lottery or something else. While this is a #firstworldproblem to the max, I am not satisfied that money can buy corporations or anyone the ability to do whatever they want just to make things a little cheaper for the rest of us or for any other reason. I am not opposed at all to corporate sponsorship, but I hate this idea that money buys the ability to be reckless a-holes who can do whatever they want and can bump dedicated hard working runners out of hard-earned marathon spots. Whether Airbnb are being reckless a-holes here is debatable, but I think at a minimum they could be a bit more responsible and respectful to the market they’re exploiting by more closely following our rules.

  7. I don’t think AirBnB is out to hurt runners intentionally. AirBnB is not the first nor the only company to do this. I’ve seen plenty of charities offer bibs at the “last minute” (within 2 months of a marathon) because they weren’t able to find enough runners. If the goal is simply to complete a marathon (not race it), then two months (provided you’re in reasonable health and shape) is plenty of time “to train” because you’d be walking a lot of it. The NYC marathon course is open for 6.5 hours (15 min pace = 4 mph = slow jog).

    As much as I would love to live in a utopia without commercialization, unfortunately sponsorship from corporations is a necessary evil. These events would be FAR more expensive without them underwriting a portion of the costs.

    1. I do see the necessity of corporate sponsorship in order to make the experience as accessible to as many people as it does, and thankfully, running in a World Marathon Major isn’t as commercial an experience as, say, the Superbowl. But by no means do they not have enough runners. The field has grown to over 50,000 people with thousands more rejected in the lottery process. I was trying to parse out here what might be Airbnb’s motivation behind their sponsorship and this year’s bib offer, as their entry to our arena is still relatively new. I’ll be interested to see if they’re on the promo materials for future races!