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With help from a local entrepreneur, the homestay company is upending the hotel industry on the Caribbean island. Writer Darshana shares how.
Text: Darshana Mahtani
Country: Barbados

arbados has a reputation as one of the most desirable and luxurious destinations in the Caribbean, offering up an inviting blend of fine dining, relaxed beach lifestyle, and adventures.

The West Coast is where the island’s luxury reputation has its roots. It is also sometimes labeled the Platinum Coast, given the number of luxury hotels here. They include the legendary Sandy Lane, a five-star beachfront resort that many celebrities and political figures from around the world consider to be their home away from home.

Ten years ago, if you were to visit Barbados, your accommodation options were very limited. The only available options were hotels or guest houses. Depending on the facility’s location, the amenities offered, and how close it was to the beach, the price could vary anywhere between $150US to $1,500US a night. In recent years there has been an increase in demand for alternative forms of accommodation. This gave rise to a spike in villas, condominiums, and apartments being developed to satisfy visitors’ needs. Nonetheless, this option continues to favor the well-heeled visitor.

On the other hand, Airbnb has been flying very discreetly under the radar for the past few years, offering visitors of a different income bracket an opportunity to visit the country and stay with local hosts in their homes. The 10-year-old company is now present in over 190 countries and has over 4 million listings worldwide.

Airbnb’s website permits ordinary people to rent out their residences as tourist accommodation. These accommodations center on cost-savings, household amenities, and the potential for more authentic local experiences. However, despite Airbnb’s growing popularity, many Airbnb rentals are actually illegal due to short-term rental regulations under Barbados law. These legal issues and their corresponding tax concerns are in the spotlight of the Barbadian hospitality sector at the moment. There is a growing concern that Airbnb has the potential to significantly disrupt the traditional accommodation sector and may also have serious negative impacts on the destination as a whole. The hotel industry agrees that Barbadians engaged in the shared accommodation business must pay their fair share of taxes if they want to collect a share of the tourism profits.

I sat down with Neeraj Vensimal, a Barbadian entrepreneur who is now considered by the tourism industry as the face and protector of Airbnb hosts in Barbados, to tell us a little more about these developments.

How did you get involved in Airbnb?

Well, that’s a funny story. It was actually a coincidence. You see, as a wedding gift my parents had built a house for my brother right next to theirs in Christ Church. However, my brother wanted to live on the East Coast, away from the city, so he and his wife moved to the East Coast and suddenly there was this very big and empty house next door. My parents didn’t want to sell it nor did they want to rent it out long-term on the off chance that my brother might want to come back and live in it, so they asked me for help in trying to find short-term tenants for the house. At that time, Airbnb was pretty popular but only in a few select cities. Actually, at that time Airbnb wasn’t even an option here in Barbados. I remember sending an inquiry letter asking when they thought they would operate in my country. I got a reply from Shawn Sullivan, Airbnb’s public policy manager. At the time he was only heading North America. He asked for my help in establishing a policy for Airbnb to get started in Barbados. I flew to Paris to meet him and attend an Airbnb conference, and the rest was history. I just fell in love with the brand, the team, and everything they stood for, so I guess you could say I’m a pioneer.

So you established Airbnb in Barbados and became one of the first hosts on the website. What happened next?

Well, I told my parents about the plan to rent out the house to tourists. At first, they didn’t like the idea but eventually they came around. I studied college in Miami so I started sending out the link to the house to all my friends and contacts overseas. In the beginning, I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what to have on hand. I thought about all the times I’d stayed in hotels and guest houses to cover the basics and then I also thought about what I would’ve liked a place to have.

Can you give me an example?

So I was once in Jamaica staying in this very cool villa overlooking the Blue Mountains. But the house was completely empty. There was nothing. No coffee, no milk, no snacks. We arrived around 10p.m. to the place, so in the morning we were starving and there was nothing! So as beautiful as the place was, I’ll never forget that hungover walk we had to make to the market in the morning to get some basic breakfast essentials. So now, in the house I keep it fully stocked with bread, butter, ham, cheese, milk and good coffee. The guests don’t have to pay anything extra for it and they don’t even have to use it, but at least they know it’s there if they need it. Those little details make all the difference sometimes.

Have you had many guests since you started with Airbnb?

Ufff… too many to count. I think hundreds, if not thousands, of people have passed by my house by now. It’s been amazing. You meet all these people from all over the world and your circle just keeps expanding.

What’s been your favorite experience as an Airbnb host so far?

It’s hard to say you know, but if I had to choose I’d say karaoke on the roof. Once, I had a group of seven visiting from Germany. They were young and loud and outgoing. One night, I took them to “Sugar” (a local nightclub) for a party and when we returned home, they were so pumped they didn’t want to sleep. Kat, one of the girls, put music on a wireless speaker I have in the house and they started a karaoke session. I suggested we go to the roof to lie down under the stars so we all went up and sang at the top of our lungs under the night sky. It was epic. I put a sofa set up there now so guests can chill anytime they want.

Why do you think guests choose to stay in an Airbnb instead of a hotel?

I think the most important reason is price. Hotels are super expensive here, and you can rent a room out on Airbnb for as little as $20. That’s the first thing: the visitor’s budget. And staying in someone else’s home makes you feel at home too, in a way. You feel comfortable and relaxed. Like you can do whatever you want.

Isn’t that dangerous? To do whatever you want?

So far, it hasn’t been.

How do you think Airbnb differentiates itself from other accommodation options on the island?

I don’t think you can compare Airbnb to anything else. It’s a product in and of itself. We offer a complete package to the guest. What’s different, I guess, is how much each one of us (the hosts) put into it. What I offer is that I pick the guests up from the airport and drive them back to the house. I give them the full tour of the house so they know where everything is. The house is fully equipped with internet and Netflix and air-conditioning, etc., so I make sure they have access to all of that. Then I show them a little presentation I made of the island including an introduction to our beaches, our food, our culture, nightlife, currency, what tours are available, etc. I let them know what’s near the house and how to get to the beach by foot. Since there’s no Uber yet, I give them numbers of taxis available and certain restaurants that do delivery if they want to stay in and chill. And it depends on the guests too. For example, I like to take the guests out, so I try to either organize a tour I can do with them or a night out of partying where I introduce them to the nightlife. I find it’s a great way to make them feel welcome and get to know more about them.

Do you charge separately for that?

No, not really. I mean, it’s probably something I would do on my own anyway with my friends so it’s just like I’m bringing extra people to the party. The guests are usually very grateful and generous though; they buy me drinks or give me a tip after they’ve checked out.

So why do you think the hotel industry feels threatened by the rise of Airbnb?

Think about it. We are local people. That means we know the ins and outs of the island. We know the best places to eat and party. And those places aren’t usually the tourist places that hotels get paid to send you to. Unfortunately, it’s all about money and the bottom line. Tourists can save a ton of money by staying at an Airbnb. They are more likely to contribute directly to the local economy rather than the tourism sector. This brings tourist numbers down. And that’s got everyone in a panic.

Is that why you founded the Barbados Entrepreneurship & Tourism Association (BETA)?

Yup. The main argument from the sector is that we, as inexperienced hosts, will “tarnish” the Barbados name, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, they should be thanking us. Each Airbnb host goes out of their way to ensure customer satisfaction.

What’s your vision for the future of Airbnb?

Oh, man, Airbnb is doing amazing things. Have you heard of Trips? It’s a new segment coming out which basically offers the guest an experience with the host. Say, for example, that I’m a music producer in Barbados. I can offer to produce a CD for you on the island if you’re in the mood! It could be anything. Diving lessons, cooking lessons, a rum tour, you name it. If you have an experience to offer, Airbnb will help you promote it. It’s incredible. I can’t wait. Neeraj is optimistic that Airbnb will only continue to grow and add to the tourism offer in a way that supports the local economy.

However, Javon Griffith, general manager of The Atlantis Historic Inn, has a different view of Airbnb. We caught up with him on his way to the airport to attend an international conference to find out his position.

Why are you advocating against Airbnb?

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Airbnb. I think it’s a great concept and company, but it’s just not for Barbados. It’s not who we are. It’s not part of our product. Airbnb lets any Tom, Dick, or Harry rent out their room or apartment to visitors. Who regulates those standards? What if there was criminality involved? What if someone got hurt? Who’s responsible? As hoteliers, we have very clear guidelines on liability and responsibility. We also have vigorous standards in terms of service, cleanliness, and hospitality. As far as I know, there is no one on the Airbnb team who can enforce such standards. Barbados is too small a country for Airbnb, I believe. That’s why we don’t have Uber either. Can you imagine what would happen to the livelihood of taxi drivers and public transportation workers? The same thing is happening with Airbnb. They are depriving the sector of income. And I think it needs to stop.

Other important figures and policymakers in the industry have taken to the media to voice their opinions on the topic. But Airbnb’s growth cannot be stopped, and as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. A landmark agreement was recently signed between Airbnb and the government to develop a set of policy principles and recommendations on the sharing economy for Caribbean governments and other stakeholders.

Airbnb is gaining traction with locals and visitors abroad. With this new momentum, there is no telling how influential Airbnb hosts could become to the tourism offer, the local economy, and Barbados as a whole in the future.

Information box

● Airbnb accounts for 2% of tourist arrivals in Barbados over the past year.

● At least 7,000 visitors came to Barbados during the recently finished Crop Over Festival using the growing Airbnb option.

● Airbnb is currently developing a new dining booking app called Resy that will be available in Barbados starting in2019.

● Airbnb is contributing an estimated $8 million to Barbados per year.

● Airbnb is present in over 190 countries and has over 4 million listings worldwide.

● There are approximately 1,100 Airbnb hosts in Barbados.

● On Airbnb and Trip Advisor the BETA listings show an average rating of 4.7 versus 4.2 for the hotels, in both product and hospitality.




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Is Barbados big enough for Airbnb?


Barbados is one of the most desirable and luxurious destinations in the Caribbean. It offers an inviting blend of fine dining, relaxed beach lifestyle, and adventures. But until recently, the only available accommodations were hotels and guest houses.

However, a few years ago, Airbnb arrived on the island thanks to Neeraj Vensimal, a Barbadian entrepreneur who is now considered the face and protector of Airbnb hosts in Barbados. Neeraj was one of the first hosts on the island, renting out his brother's house after he moved to the East Coast with his wife.

At first he sent out his link to his friends and contacts overseas, but soon strangers started arriving as well. He says he's had hundreds, maybe even thousands, of guests over the years. Neeraj believes people choose Airbnb over hotels mainly due to the price. Hotels are very expensive and you can rent a room out on Arbnb for as little as $20. It's also more comfortable and relaxed so people feel like they're at home.

Neeraj says Airbnb offers a complete package to the guest and it varies according to each host. He usually picks his guests up from the airport and gives them a tour of the house when they arrive. His house is fully equipped with internet, Netflix, etc. He also has some basic food and good coffee on hand and he shows them a little presentation he made about the island. And to top it all off he will sometimes take them out to a nightclub or organize a tour with them.

But not everyone on the island is happy with Airbnb. Javon Griffith, general manager of the Atlantis Historic Inn feels that Airbnb is not good for the island. He believes there is nobody to regulate the standards of the rooms and nobody to take responsibility if someone gets hurt. The main argument from the hotel sector is that inexperienced hosts can tarnish the Barbados name. But Nareej disagrees; he says that "each Airbnb host goes out of their way to ensure customer satisfaction."

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, Airbnb is gaining traction both with locals and visitors abroad.

 

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