Perfect Strangers: How Airbnb is building trust between hosts and guests

By Nick Shapiro, Global Head of Trust & Risk Management

“Trust me.”

It’s a phrase that often elicits exactly the opposite reaction.

That’s because the moment you assert your honesty, it’s human nature to start immediately looking for proof. Trust isn’t something you can summon up with a few simple words — it is something you have to earn.

Right now, if I asked you to unlock your phone and hand it to a stranger, I doubt you would. In fact, I sincerely hope you would not. In a TED Talk, our co-founder Joe Gebbia once asked a room full of people to do exactly that, to unlock their phones and hand them to perfect strangers. That tiny sense of panic people feel when handing their phone off is exactly how Airbnb hosts feel the first time they open their home — except people don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, and your toilet.

However, Joe then asked the crowd, “What if that stranger had introduced themselves first, with their name, where they’re from, and the name of their kids or their dog?” He said, “Imagine if they had 150 reviews from other people saying, ‘They’re great at holding unlocked phones!’” Suddenly, people felt much better about the idea of letting a stranger hold onto their unlocked phone — because that person isn’t really a stranger anymore.

Earning this Olympic-sized trust is no simple task. On top of that, society is currently in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of trust, as people’s trust in big business, government, the media, and even nonprofits and charities is plummeting.

But, at Airbnb, we are seeing people building trust more and more. On any given night, 1 million people are staying in homes on Airbnb in 65,000 cities all over the world. We have grown to more than 3 million listings in 191 countries—more than the top three hotel chains combined.

So, how are we building trust between people who have never met, at a time when people seem to be trusting less? It takes more than just a simple introduction online. We approach trust as a “hierarchy of needs.” We believe, in order for you to trust each other, we must accomplish three things.

First, safety is fundamental. Without being safe, people will not be able to trust each other. However, just ensuring people are safe isn’t enough. Next, we need to overcome the stranger danger bias that’s been ingrained in us since we were kids. And third, we need our community to know that — no matter what — we have a dedicated team standing by to help resolve any issue that might arise, from a home not being what you expected to a guest who broke something.

  • Safety: We use the latest in technology and machine learning to assess the risk of each and every reservation before anything is confirmed. Globally, we conduct watchlist checks, and in the US we run background checks on every host and guest. We lead home safety workshops, give out free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and provide online safety cards with important emergency information. We safeguard all Airbnb accounts using multi-factor authentication, requiring additional verification whenever a user logs in from a new device. We ensure your money is protected and that your funds are always guaranteed when you use our secure online platform. Plus, we do not release payment to a host until the guest is safely checked in, and you should never be asked to wire money or pay another user directly. If you are, we advise you to report this behavior to us.


  • Connection: Each and every person on Airbnb has a detailed profile page with helpful information about themselves and their home. Hosts can also require that guests provide a government ID, such as a passport or driver’s license, before booking their listing, and then the host in turn must do so as well. Our secure messaging tool lets hosts and guests easily get to know each other before requesting or approving a reservation. Plus, guests and hosts publicly review each other after each stay, so future hosts and guests can see those reviews and take them into consideration before making any decisions.


  • Support: In the event that something happens, our customer service and trust and safety teams are on call 24/7 and in 11 different languages. We offer rebooking assistance, refunds, reimbursements, our Million Dollar Host Guarantee, and insurance programs, all to help make things right. While we can’t eliminate all the risk in hosting or traveling, nor can we guarantee safety, we strive to ensure that every host and guest has the best possible experience on Airbnb.

Of our more than 30 million stays in 2016, significant property damage (claims reimbursed under our Host Guarantee program for over $1,000) was reported in only 0.009% of stays. At that rate, you could host a new reservation every single day for over 27 years without expecting to file a significant property damage claim under our Host Guarantee.

Even so, we’re constantly working to improve our platform, our policies, and our protections, because one incident is still one too many.

Many people are just starting to see the value of a trusted community on Airbnb and all of the access it can unlock.

Tens of millions of travelers have been able to experience the world not as tourists, but as locals. Hundreds of thousands of hosts, especially seniors and those in the middle class, have helped make ends meet, welcomed travelers into their homes and, in doing so, have helped their communities by supporting local businesses and encouraging cultural exchange.

All of this is possible because of the trust we are helping people put in each other. Trust is the fundamental currency of the sharing economy, and it’s at the heart of everything we do at Airbnb.

But, don’t just “trust me” on this — instead, I hope you’ll go experience it for yourself.

Nick Shapiro is the Global Head of Trust and Risk Management at Airbnb. He was previously the CIA’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to former CIA Director John Brennan. Shapiro has served on the National Security Council staff and was a White House spokesman for President Obama. Follow him @nick_shapiro.