Can Germany’s holiday sites withstand Airbnb?

30 Oct 2016

First came the news last month that Gloveler.de, the not-so-young Karlsruhe holiday rental start-up, was insolvent. Then, on Oct. 10, 9Flats announced it was acquiring the beleaguered firm Wimdu, saying that together they will be “the biggest European answer to Airbnb.”

That poses the question of whether there is any force around strong enough to withstand the growing presence of Airbnb in Germany.

from 9Flats.de

It seems one of Gloveler’s problems was its inability to scale fast enough to attract investment. Founded in 2009, it had five million users and 70,000 rental objects in 100 countries by 2015, according to the site.

Compare that to the 9Flats-Wimdu inventory of 500,000 properties. A Gloveler spokesperson told Tnooz.com recently that the company’s aim was to grow slowly and steadily. Yet, it never appeared to have made it into the black, although it claimed to be “only a few thousand euros away from profitability”.

In another statement to Allgemeine Hotel und Gastronomie Zeitung, Gloveler said CEO Frank Hofmann was forced to file for preliminary insolvency, after the firm had exhausted its own capital at the beginning of September, and was unable to find new investors quickly.

Courtesy of gloveler GmbH

Courtesy of gloveler GmbH

It could still end well. Bankruptcy administrator Thorsten Konrad said in a news release earlier this month, that several investors have expressed interest in buying Gloveler, which continues to run as usual until further notice.

Nothing brings competitors together like an outside enemy. On the face of it, the consolidation of Wimdu and 9Flats, both founded in 2011, seems logical. The combined firm doubled its listings and expects to oversee a rental market of €100 million ($109 million U.S.) annually, according to an Oct. 10 report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

9Flats CEO Roman Bach (photo) will continue as head of the newly-combined venture.

But, will they withstand the onslaught? Good question. These are not two, fully healthy companies joining forces, after all.

As opposed to Gloveler, Wimdu might have shot up too fast. It launched with €90 million in investment capital from Rocket Internet and Kinnevik AB, a Swedish investment firm.

Roman Bach, CEO of 9Flats (from LinkedIn with thanks)

Roman Bach, CEO of 9Flats (from LinkedIn with thanks)

Within four months, it had 400 employees and 15 offices worldwide. Since then, it has restructured more than once, closed a number of offices, and reduced staff to 250 in various rounds of layoffs.

In August, Wimdu told Manager Magazin that is was undergoing “an extensive restructuring process”. For several years, Rocket tried and failed to find a buyer to offload its investment, according to WirtschaftsWoche. Until the 9Flats offer came along, that is.

Early in October, reports surfaced in the German media that some 9Flats hosts were not getting their money, and that their calls to the company were going unanswered. This lead to speculation that 9Flats, too, might be in financial trouble.

In a response to questions from Deutsche-Startups.de, Bach said the disputes involved only 30 hosts and the company was definitely not insolvent.

The threatening regulatory landscape is another issue troubling smaller holiday rental sites. 9Flats officially relocated to Singapore in April, as result of a new law in Berlin forbidding owners from renting out apartments, or houses for holiday use (only single rooms in homes can be rented out on a short-term basis). The law threatens owners and agencies that organize rentals with heavy fines, and 9Flats stood to lose millions.

Since then, Wimdu has lost a fifth of its Berlin listings, according to a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Other European cities, such as Paris and Barcelona, are considering similar rules.

Of course, this affects Airbnb’s business in Europe, too, but with as much strength and reach as it has globally, it can afford to take revenue hits in some markets while it gains in others.

Still, while Airbnb grabs everyone’s attention with its eye-popping valuation and stream of investors – Germany’s Axel Springer has been a minority shareholder since 2012 – it is not really the giant in the room.

Truth is, the holiday rental market is still very dispersed in Germany. Many Airbnb hosts list their rentals on multiple platforms simultaneously. For instance, Immowelt, Germany’s second-largest real estate site, lists over 300,000 homes, mostly in Europe, through its subsidiary Ferienwohnung.com.

Through its subsidiary @Leisure, Axel Springer is the controlling shareholder of Casamundo.com, another aggregator of vacation rentals. Homeaway grew quickly out of Berlin into 37 countries around the globe.  

And established hotel-booking sites, such as HRS.de and Hotel.de, also operate as platforms for private rentals.

In fact, the space is crowded, and the market splintered. It begs for consolidation, and the 9Flats/Wimdu marriage may well be followed by others.

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Kate Rodriguez

Kate Rodriguez covers the German market for AIM Group. She is a freelance business writer with an extensive background in public policy, business consulting and marketing. Originally from the U.S., Kate is now based in Munich.