Airbnb, the San Francisco-based rental booking company, uses the slogan “live like a local” to market its non-traditional hospitality service to customers who want to steer away from touristic experiences. In a report released by Airbnb in September, the company claimed that this approach has brought millions of dollars to restaurants and bars in Oakland neighborhoods that have not traditionally benefited from the flock of tourists browsing the city’s main attractions.
According to its report, Airbnb estimates that over the last year, guests spent around $34 million on restaurants in the East Bay, with around $22 million spent in Oakland. The home-sharing company’s report attributes that to the fact that “roughly three-quarters” of its listings are outside tourist neighborhoods.
But finding out where that $22 million might have gone is a difficult task. While some Oakland business owners say they have seen an increase in business, it’s hard for them to tell whether the boost comes from tourism, and specifically tourism from Airbnb guests. Airbnb officials, however, said that businesses benefit when Airbnb hosts recommend their favorite restaurants and cafes to their guests.
“When people are staying in a residential area, a lot of times you’re just walking to the coffee shop down at the corner of the street or you ask your host what’s a good place to go eat at,” said a company spokesperson who declined to give their name. The spokesperson also declined to answer questions on the record, instead referring Oakland North to a press release about the report.
According to the report, the figures were calculated “using internal Airbnb data and survey data on Airbnb guest activity.” The report is based on the “Annual Community Compact Survey,” which asked guests in 44 cities across the world to estimate their total expenditures across several categories such as restaurants and transportation. The survey was conducted between September 1, 2016 and September 1, 2017.
The report does not state how many people took part in this survey, or how many spent their money in the Bay Area or Oakland, and Airbnb officials did not disclose how they arrived at that figure. They also did not specify which businesses in Oakland had received Airbnb tourist traffic, other than Robert Gott, owner of Ba Bite on Piedmont Avenue. In a press release emailed by Airbnb, Got stated: “Ba Bite thrives on word of mouth recommendations. When Airbnb guests stay in Oakland, they ask local hosts where to eat, shop, and visit. Home sharing is bringing in business to every part of Oakland.”
It’s true that tourism and visitor spending have increased in Oakland over the past few years. According to a report by Visit Oakland, the city’s official marketing organization, spending by tourists has increased by 27 percent in the last four years. Last year, the city attracted 3.7 million travellers, who spent around $627 million, with $156 of that spent on restaurants and bars.
“We’ve seen meeting attendees who stay in hotels for their conventions and either extend their hotel nights, or book an Airbnb, for their rest of their stay. It’s the best of both worlds. As long as Oakland keeps attracting them with cool neighborhoods, an exciting restaurant scene, and a vibrant night life, it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Frances Wong, senior public relations manager at Visit Oakland.
And it’s not hard to find Airbnb hosts who say they recommend local shops and eateries to their guests. Host Joan Tyhurst, who lives near Lake Merritt, said she often recommends family-owned businesses in her neighborhood so she can see them flourish. “Based on my feedback from my guests, they absolutely go locally. I would say the restaurants and groceries probably see an increase because of Airbnbs in the area, at least Whole Foods across from me. I send people there all the time,” she told Oakland North in a phone interview.
“We do indeed recommend local restaurants,” said Christian Petke, an Airbnb host with a West Oakland rental, who responded through the site’s messaging feature. It is part of the whole Airbnb experience. I usually recommend the Pretty Lady because it’s a great place and is easy walking distance. Next is the whole Swan’s Market/Old Oakland area.”
But Larry Benedetto, who rents out a room in Crocker Highlands, said that most of his guests end up going to San Francisco, instead.
“70-80 percent of my guests do not stay in Oakland, they go in the morning to San Francisco and come back late at night. The other 20-30 percent come to see their family in my neighborhood and are usually with them,” he wrote, using the site’s message service.
Still, it’s hard for local business owners to know if they’re getting an Airbnb boost; some think it’s likely, but others are not sure.
Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, executive director at Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District, said that foot traffic has been steadily increasing in the Temescal, one of Oakland’s oldest neighborhoods. And she said that there has been a general increase in tourism in Oakland, adding that Temescal has been getting international visitors who come for either vacation or business, although she was unable to offer any statistics.
She pointed out that the neighborhood’s density has increased in the last couple of years thanks to more housing being built. De Benedictis-Kessner thinks it’s likely that some of these homeowners are Airbnb hosts, who contribute to the tourist economy.
“We’re very unique, as we’re this very narrow commercial district right up against single family homes. Sometimes these homes have an extra room or bed, so they’ll rent it out on Airbnb,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of hotels here. We’re not like downtown Oakland where there’s a ton of hotels. So our version of hotels would be Airbnb.”
But representatives of two other business districts said they had no way to know whether shoppers were Airbnb guests.
“I have no idea. We have a few Airbnbs here, but I have no idea,” said Chris Jackson, operations manager at the Rockridge Business Improvement District, adding that the majority of foot traffic in Rockridge comes from residents, while some comes from neighboring cities such as Walnut Creek.
Tamiko Garner, administrative coordinator at the Downtown Oakland Association, said that they do not keep track of information on tourism in their neighborhood, so she wouldn’t know.
Oakland North contacted staff at 20 restaurants and bars to ask if they had seen an increase in Airbnb traffic. Some just hung up the phone. The rest said they had no way to check if guests were from Airbnb. While some said business had been up overall, others said it had been down.
“Most customers come from Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Walnut Creek and few from San Francisco, but we don’t have tourists. I can’t say we have this percentage of tourists in this area,” said Kesete Yohannes, owner of Asmara, an Ethiopian restaurant in Temescal.
“I don’t know if I get a lot of Airbnb guests,” said John Stewart-Streit, owner of the Hog’s Apothecary in Temescal. “We’re off on a side street in a residential neighborhood, so we don’t get the same number of tourists as if we were by the hotels in downtown.”
“It’s hard for me to tell. It’s a pretty diverse area, so there are always people speaking different languages,” said John, an employee at Slicer Pizzeria on Piedmont Avenue, who declined to give his last name.
Paul Guido, a server at Pizzaiolo in Temescal, said while it would be difficult to tell if a customer was an Airbnb guest, traffic at the restaurant had been increasing in the last couple of years.
“We have a ton of repeat customers and regulars, other than that we do get a lot of people from out of town. There’s a lot of international people,” Guido said.
Guido, who has been working at Pizzaiolo since its founding in 2005, has said that the neighborhood had changed drastically in the last couple of years. He said that it was once a “fringy neighborhood” with a lot of crime. Then, the neighborhood attracted a lot of people searching for more affordable housing.
“Now, we get a lot of kids here in the morning during café hours. Friday nights are 90 percent families,” he said.
Around four months ago, in order to accommodate the rise in traffic, management at Pizzaiolo had to increase operating hours for its morning café to seven days a week, Guido said.
According to general manager Gina Seghi, around 75 percent of Pizzaiolo’s customers are “regulars,” while others are newcomers.
She added that Pizzaiolo has also relied solely on word-of-mouth for a marketing strategy; they don’t spend any money on marketing.
In addition to word-of-mouth, Airbnb recently launched “guidebooks” last year curated by local hosts, in which they suggest the best places in their neighborhood to grab coffee or something to eat. In the report, Airbnb also announced its partnership with Resy, a restaurant-booking app, which would allow users to book a “hand-picked selection of the best restaurants” in 16 cities in the US, which exclude the East Bay.
“With this increased access to locally-owned restaurants across the US, guest spending can bring even more economic gains to communities,” the report states.