I don’t think that people are attracted to Airbnb just because of the cheaper rates or better amenities when compared with more traditional vacation rentals.  I think what they are most attracted to is the promise of authenticity. Of being off the beaten path and making a personal connection with a place. Authenticity, by definition, is hard to fake. Many tourist traps have tried to establish the flavor of an experience for guests, but tend to overblow the whole thing.

I’m not suggesting that the charm of packed streets with lines of people filing into another Ripley’s Wax Museum isn’t attractive in its own way, but I see more and more evidence of people reaching out to connect with something meaningful on their vacation. Whether it’s adventure travel or yoga retreats or staying in a tree-house, making a personal connection is paramount.

I recently made a trip to Puerto Rico and stayed with an Airbnb host; not in San Juan or near the more populated areas of tourism, but in the town of Puntas in Rincon on the west corner of the island. Other than the rooster’s incessant crowing, which never let me forget that I was having a “real” experience, I had a great time finding the best local restaurants, nightlife and surf spots. I had a wonderful host who happened to be available to point me in the right direction. This was the authenticity that I was looking for, and it was worth far more than any paid tour I’d ever been on. I experienced my trip like a local, which, for me, was far better than being a tourist.

Collaborative consumption, sharing economy: Both terms mean that we’re doing something together. To get to the heart of the matter, it means that at the core of the trip, there are relationships that are forming. Connections between guests and hosts and maybe as importantly, connections between guests and areas not cased in the usual shell of tourism.

So why is there an assumption that only Airbnb-type services make up the sharing economy?  After all, the host is getting paid for their accommodations just like the typical vacation rental owner. It’s obvious to me that the term “sharing” means something different in this context. It means sharing the connection that one has with one’s surroundings. It means letting your guest be a local along with you.

So how do vacation rental owners become a part of this sharing economy? I think it’s simple, really. It doesn’t matter on what site you host your property. What matters is that you create a connection with your guest and share some authenticity with them. If you can’t personally make them breakfast (and maybe they prefer it that way), you can tell them personally where you eat and why you like it. I’ve stayed in some vacation rental places where I felt like a guest from the very beginning because the owner connected with me, but in others, unfortunately, I’ve felt like a “renter.”
I am building Guestavo.com to help any vacation owner (avo) become part of the “sharing” economy.  We’ve added tools so that hosts can note personal suggestions on top of Foursquare venues, creating a personalized local itinerary for the guest. Our goal is to help hosts foster that same sense of localism that I experienced in Puerto Rico. The site contains lots of expected features, like creating reservations and delivering property agreements, but we are keeping it focused on fostering a strong connection between hosts and guests, on highlighting off-the-beaten-path experiences and sharing with the guest personal insight and advice for a unique and optimal stay.