Business·CBC Investigates

Who's behind the smiling faces of some Airbnb hosts? Multimillion-dollar corporations

While Airbnb touts stays in real people's homes and relationships with personable hosts, its biggest players in Canada are actually — and sometimes secretly — multimillion-dollar for-profit corporations, a CBC News data analysis finds.

Personable biographies or even fake photos obscure the operations of big businesses

'Alejandro' from Montreal was Canada's top Airbnb host, by number of listings for entire-home rentals, as of earlier this month. But he was just the frontman for a multimillion-dollar national company. (Airbnb)

Sporting a crisp button-up shirt in his profile photo, smiling Airbnb host "Alejandro" states he's been around the world and thus understands other travellers "much better."

The profile pic for "Mike" shows him bearded, grinning, and relaxing to whatever's playing on his iPhone – remarkably chill for someone who runs 61 listings on Airbnb and has hosted more than 7,900 stays.

"Aj" organizes bachelor party trips when he's not managing his 90-plus Airbnb listings.

They are all among Canada's most prolific Airbnb hosts, according to a CBC News tally of 32,000 entire apartment, condo and house listings that appeared on the popular accommodation-booking website in 16 major cities in the country.

But while Airbnb promotes itself as a darling of the sharing economy, touting stays in real people's homes and relationships with personable hosts, its biggest players in Canada are actually — and sometimes secretly — multimillion-dollar for-profit corporations, a CBC News data analysis found.

"Most of what's happening on Airbnb isn't home-sharing," said McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth, who has studied the company for several years. "Instead, it's something much more like commercial short-term rental operations."

It's a far cry from co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky's vision of "ordinary people" becoming micro-entrepreneurs and earning a little extra income to help them make their own rent.

Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-founder of Airbnb, speaks in New York on March 13, 2017. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Airbnb did not suggest that anyone CBC News spoke to was violating its terms of service, though some jurisdictions restrict multiple listings under local regulations.

'Makes it more enticing'

Take "Alejandro." According to the Airbnb data gathered by CBC News over a 24-hour period earlier this month, he had 238 listings in Montreal, the Ottawa area, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver — more than any other host. Surely a Herculean task for one man to manage, even one who declares "hospitality my life!"

It turns out Alejandro had help. An internet image-matching search using his profile photo shows he was actually a paid employee, described as an "Airbnb specialist," for Montreal-based Corporate Stays, a multimillion-dollar company that mostly rents longer-term executive suites to businesses relocating staff.

Corporate Stays was founded a decade ago and is run by Vladimir de Suarez d'Aulan, a Frenchman who studied business in Montreal and whose social media posts document his globe-trotting. When there are vacancies among its 600 or so furnished suites in Canada, the company rents some of them out for extended stays through Airbnb.

"I was just basically reserving for guests [and] managing all of them," Alejandro said when CBC News reached him in Montreal.

The company's head of sales, Frédéric Aouad, said they made Alejandro the face of their Airbnb account because "it helps the performance of our listings."

"It's much more personable to be talking to a human being," Aouad explained. "It makes it more enticing." But he said it's not a ploy, and Alejandro would make it clear to prospective renters before they booked that he represented a corporate housing company.

Alejandro lost his title as Canada's Airbnb king last week. His face disappeared from all his listings, replaced by a Corporate Stays logo. There are now only 87. Aouad said the company has been cutting back on its tourist offerings to focus on longer-term business bookings, and added that his company's image was suffering from the noise complaints and neighbours' gripes associated with many Airbnbs.

Alejandro's job has been eliminated.

Fake profile photos

The new leader in the rankings is a company called Sonder, also founded in Montreal, but which has since followed the lure of $135 million US in venture capital to San Francisco.

Like Corporate Stays, Sonder has sleekly furnished whole apartments for rent, though its Canadian offerings — 232 listings in Montreal, as of earlier this month — are just a fraction of its worldwide inventory. But unlike Corporate Stays, the Sonder logo and company name have been front and centre on its Airbnb profiles. Through a PR firm, Sonder declined to comment on its strategy.

And while Sonder is clear it's a company running a business on Airbnb, other top Canadian players on the platform are not.

The profile for 'Mike,' one of the most prolific Airbnb hosts in Canada, now uses a stock photo for the picture and an alias for the name. 'Mike' told CBC News he had 'previous issues with racist comments about my looks.' (Airbnb)

There's "Mike," who has more reviews than anyone — 7,955 as of Monday night — spread over 64 listings. That means "Mike" has hosted people at least 7,955 times, putting to the test his self-description as "an easy going person" who loves "to be with and around people."

His photo isn't real; an internet image-matching search shows it's a stock picture that has been used dozens of times on unrelated sites all over the web. On older reviews for his properties, guests refer to him as "Hakim."

It turns out that "Mike," too, is a front for a Montreal company that operates listings commercially. Through Airbnb messages, he said he uses the stock photo — of a bearded, smiling, youthful white male — "because I had previous issues with racist comments about my looks."

He chose the alias "Mike" because it's the nickname of an employee. He wouldn't reveal the name of his company, but said it pays all taxes and is in the process of becoming compliant with provincial and municipal regulations. "Hakim" was an employee who used to manage the company's Airbnb account, he said.

Properties listed multiple times

"Aj" is a self-described former software engineer managing 90 Montreal listings as of earlier this month. "I plan events and organize bachelor party trips full time," his profile reads. He, too, uses a stock photo for his account, one that can be found on more than a hundred separate social media profiles and websites.

Aj is his real name, but the photo is a stock image. 'This is from a liability perspective,' he said. (Airbnb)

But Aj is real. Full name: Alexander (A.J.) Zakowski. His business mostly rents furnished apartments during the school year to university students, especially students on exchange for three or four months who don't want the burden of a full-year lease or buying furniture. When they take off for the summer, his company puts the suites on Airbnb as nightly rentals.

He still aims to give it a human touch, he said — which is why the Airbnb account is in his name, not his company's. "If I was travelling, I'd rather be dealing with a person than a company," he told CBC News.

He uses the phoney photo, he said, for his and his family's safety. "This is from a liability perspective. When guests do have issues, we don't want them, like, taking it out personally on me."

44% of hosts are 'multi-listers'

The data gathered by CBC News provides just a one-day snapshot of the Airbnb market for entire homes, apartments or condos, which account for about two-thirds of the platform's listings in major Canadian cities. Numbers can vary widely with the tourist season or the school year, and the data is far from definitive. Airbnb has repeatedly called such independently obtained figures "very unreliable."

For instance, Zakowski said many commercial Airbnb operators — himself included — might list each of their properties multiple times: each room could have a listing as part of a shared space, and then the apartment as a whole is listed, to appeal to a range of potential guests. So his total number of listings is possibly twice the number of properties he manages.

But the numbers captured earlier this month are consistent in a key respect: In city after city, a considerable portion of the listings are from people who have more than one entire home, condo or apartment up for grabs. Our national analysis found 44 per cent of hosts had at least two listings, and 22 per cent had at least five.

McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth says he's in favour of true home-sharing, but not commercial operators on Airbnb who take up what would otherwise be rental housing. (Radio-Canada)

"A sizeable chunk of those are effectively hotels that are operating out of what used to be, or what otherwise could be, people's homes," McGill's Wachsmuth stated. He's in favour of true home-sharing, he said, but not commercial operations on the sly that drive up housing prices and rents.

"I don't think there's any reasonable public policy justification for these to exist at all, let alone to be proliferating."

Airbnb declined an interview but said in a statement that "in any city with an Airbnb presence, homes listed on our platform account for a tiny percentage of the total local housing supply." The company said it supports cities' efforts to protect the supply of affordable housing.

It also said commercial hospitality businesses' use of its service fits within its mission of "ensuring our platform offers greater choice for our guests and helps all types of hosts succeed."

"Responsible home sharing strengthens neighbourhoods and generates meaningful economic impact for communities and our hosts."

Methodology: How did CBC analyze Airbnb listings?

CBC News monitored and collected the price, number of reviews, star rating and geolocation of all listings advertising an entire home or suite that appeared on Airbnb's website on April 10, 2019, for 16 Canadian cities. A minority of listings might be duplicates of the same property created by the same host as a marketing strategy.

Airbnb has consistently said that data gathered in this manner is unreliable and can have significant gaps because of the limited information available on its public web pages.

Follow Zach Dubinsky on Twitter @DubinskyZach and Valérie Ouellet @valerie_ouellet

With files from CBC's Anita Elash & data analysis from CBC's Inayat Singh, Radio-Canada's Naël Shiab