When Omar Fonseca got the call that Airbnb wanted to meet with him in Havana this winter, he could hardly believe it.
"Are you sure? Airbnb?" he excitedly asked the client who had called to tell him the news.
For the past five years, Fonseca had been building a business in Cuba that was not unlike Airbnb. In a country where most residents are not allowed to have private Internet access, his company connects casas particulares, the name for houses that rent rooms to travelers, with the Internet. He posts the homes on websites, communicates with foreign travelers via email, and then communicates their reservation requests to house owners by telephone. "I try to study the market all the time," he says. "I try to read all the time. So I knew Airbnb."
Airbnb’s team had just learned about Fonseca, and they were at least as excited to meet him as he was to meet them. At the time, they were working out how an Internet company that facilitated credit card transactions could launch in a country where most people don’t have Internet access and do business entirely in cash—a task they initially thought might require phone support to relay bookings or some type of SMS-based app. Existing travel agencies like Fonseca's changed the calculus entirely.
Cuba, unlike most places where Airbnb operates, already has a licensed industry that revolves around private homes renting out rooms to travelers. Most of these houses find clients by word of mouth, and referral fees are so common that there’s a business license for people who do nothing but refer tourists to casas particulares. Fonseca charged those same referral fees, but he found his tourist clients online and through relationships with foreign travel agencies instead of on the street. He had started by booking reservations for 10 houses owned by friends, using an Internet connection available to him through his work as a human resources professional. But by literally going door to door as he visits new areas in Cuba, he has built a portfolio of more than 900 houses, each of which pays him a fee if he finds them people who book reservations. "For us, it’s very important that our owners know our team personally," Fonseca says. "We see that it generates a real trust relationship."
Instead of building this trust firsthand, Airbnb could find people like Fonseca; they were already helping casas particulares communicate online with potential clients. By launch, Airbnb had found eight of them. "It wasn’t about doing something new," says Jordi Torres Mallol, Airbnb’s general manager for Latin America. "It was about plugging into something existing."
Once paired up with Airbnb, Fonseca gathered his two partners and five employees in a private house in Trinidad, and they started making calls. Casas particulares are accustomed to being paid on the spot in cash, and some were suspicious of a system that required them to wait. But Fonseca had worked with many of these houses for years. They trusted him. "I’d call and say that the most important travel agency in the world is coming to Cuba," he says.
Of the 1,000 rooms that Airbnb had on its website at launch, about 100 of them were from Fonseca’s team and partners. By the time he met me in a Havana café last week, he had put about 200 of his more than 900 listings on the site. Gregarious and enthusiastic, he couldn’t have been happier about the result. The first month on Airbnb, he booked six reservations on Airbnb. The second, he booked 17 reservations. The third, he made 29 reservations. He already has 50 tentative reservations booked for July.
Airbnb does not pay him, but every house he books through the Airbnb website pays him a commission for the lead, just as they would if he posted the property on his own website. He delivers payments to clients in person, in cash.
Companies like Fonseca’s are not the only way that Cubans are using Airbnb. One Airbnb host I met in Havana, for instance, has an Italian neighbor who, as a foreigner, is allowed to have an Internet connection in his home. She helps him pay the bill, and he lets her use the Internet. Another woman’s house is managed on Airbnb by a son who lives in Brussels. Some professionals in Cuba have access to the Internet at work, and they, too, can manage their own Airbnb listings without a third-party intermediary to correspond with clients. If they don’t have bank accounts, Airbnb delivers cash to them through a remittance company based in Miami.
But even with these workarounds, businesses like Fonseca’s represent an important part of Airbnb’s portfolio. Torres Mallol says that between 70% and 80% of the 1,200 listings that Airbnb has added in Cuba since launch have come from these managers. If you scroll through the listings, you'll notice profiles of people like Michael, one of the two employees at Fonseca’s team entirely dedicated to Airbnb listings. His profile page lists 230 properties.
People like Michael do more than just relay information to hosts. If Airbnb users aren’t able to book their first choice for the night, he will send them an email with links to other properties. If something goes wrong with the credit card transaction, his company pays the house owner while waiting for the issue to be resolved.
For now, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Hosting partners like Fonseca have helped Airbnb to launch and scale quickly in Cuba by bringing their portfolios to the site and clearing the hurdles of Internet access and payments. Airbnb gives Fonseca new demand from the U.S. on which he is happy to capitalize. But what happens to this relationship when Cuba comes online?
Some hosts will, no doubt, manage their listings directly on Airbnb and save the cost of paying another third party for referrals. But Fonseca also manages listings across multiple sites, answers TripAdvisor questions, and works with travel listings. He's hopeful the Internet won't put him out of business, citing the hassle factor and required expertise. "If everybody read the laws," he says, "then nobody would need a lawyer."