How the Airbnb effect is redefining Dubai SMEs

ChefXchange and Abercrombie & Kent are making the most of Dubai's sharing economy boom

It was 2007 in the US. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all time high of over 14,000, and multinationals were reaping the rewards. Apple introduced its iPhone – Steve Jobs called its novel new touch controls “revolutionary and magical” – and British soccer superstar David Beckham signed a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy that reportedly paid him $50m.

Elsewhere, in a basement flat in San Francisco, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky couldn’t make rent. The two design school graduates were living in one of the most expensive cities in America, and suffering the consequences. But the arrival of a massive design conference in the city sparked the beginnings of an idea that would ultimately prove one of the forefathers of the ‘Peer-to-Peer economy’.

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Airbnb paved the way when it came to providing unique accommodation – such as this decommissioned yellow taxi cab in New York, which offers views of the Empire State BuildingImage: Richard Drew

The idea of a P2P economy, whereby assets not in use are lent out to another party for a fee, is not a new idea. The humble B&B proved vital during the Great Depression in 1930s America – travellers could rest cheaply at homes along the highway and hosts could make an easy $2 for providing a spare room and a cooked breakfast.

Now, with global boundaries blurred by the internet, the ‘sharing economy’ has multiplied in size as consumers the world over start to redefine their desires. Whether consciously or not, Gebbia and Chesky tapped into this trend when they rented out air mattresses in a San Francisco loft and created a start-up called Airbnb.

Recently valued at $25.5bn, their room-rental service showed that tourists did not want to be confined to what David Mattin at TrendWatching called: “dreary McHotels and the same three guidebooks that everyone has read”. Instead, travellers sought out yurts alongside grazing yaks in Mongolia; converted shipping containers in the Netherlands; a house among the treetops in Wales.

Geoffrey Kent Abercrombie and Kent luxury travel company Abu Dhabi
Geoffrey Kent, CEO of Abercrombie & Kent in Abu Dhabi

“The definition of luxury is changing,” agrees Geoffrey Kent, Founder and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury travel company who recently opened a boutique in Abu Dhabi and is known for its African safaris.

“It has become much more flexible with an emphasis on experiences and personalised service, rather than the mere physical trappings of luxury.”

Though A&K Travel is a direct-to-customer business, Kent describes seeing a shift in customer demand beyond anonymous comfort. He talks of receiving feedback from guests that, more often than not, speaks intimately of experiencing another perspective on life, rather than the look of the lodging or thread count of the sheets.

“Rather than the design… [clients] tell me about the extraordinary connection they made with their guide, how they went to the village where he grew up. Or meeting the Rangers protecting the rhino in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, just upstream from Victoria Falls. People come to Africa to see the wildlife, but they leave with a new understanding of how life is lived in another part of the world.”

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Karl Naim and Mark Washington had a light-bulb moment at a UAE dinner party

This hunt for an authentic experience extends beyond travel. For Karl Naim, it was a light-bulb moment while enjoying a meal at a dinner party in the UAE two years ago – why not connect chefs with foodies so people could enjoy the finest of cuisines in the comfort of their own home?

“[Co-founder Mark Washington] and I were both Airbnb hosts, and were wondering how to replicate that model in the food industry,” he said.

“I’m an amateur cook and would always have problems cooking for people at home: I’d either under or overbuy groceries, spend all my time in the kitchen rather than with my guests, and have to clean up the whole kitchen after they left.”

The result was ChefXchange, a website that allows foodies to ‘rent-a-chef’ for the night. After specifying their cuisine and picking out an expert or amateur online, all the host needs to do is entertain the guests, while the onus of preparing, cooking and cleaning lies solely with the chef.

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ChefXchange replicates the Airbnb model in the food industry

The pair set up shop in Dubai, where the relative ease of starting a business, coupled with a high GDP per capita and cultural preference for eating out, meant that the idea was quick to flourish.

For Naim, the end-game of the P2P economy is a satisfying shared experience – a concept he hopes his business exemplifies.

“ChefXchange is all about experiences and more precisely, culinary experiences. People meeting over food and sharing an intimate moment has happened for centuries. We just want to bring that moment back.”