While it’s fun to think of travel as an all-inclusive activity, the harsh reality is that not everyone experiences the benefits of travel equally. It’s not uncommon for marginalized communities, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ to face discrimination on their journeys.
For instance, being questioned about your sexuality and then being barred from booking an accommodation is a surefire way to completely shift one’s notion of travel, at the very least.
Matthieu Jost, CEO and co-founder of Misterb&b, is all too familiar with such forms of discrimination. Already a seasoned entrepreneur, he decided to launch the accommodation booking platform as a safe space for LGBTQ+ travelers and hosts to connect. The main idea is to enable openness and freedom, something that many travelers take for granted.
Joining the Expedia Group Accelerator initiative
While the startup managed to raise $15 million to build Misterb&b, and $8.5 million from Project A and Ventech in 2017, funding hasn’t been easy for the company.
“It has been very, very challenging for us to fundraise since the beginning because we are serving the LGBTQ market,” Matthieu says. “The company was incorporated in France and the VC market was very conservative. Despite our good traction, we didn’t fundraise. We got the chance to be invited to the 500 Startups program – one of the top three accelerators in the world. We decided to go to San Francisco, where everything shifted.
“In the [United States], they’re 10 years ahead of us in Europe regarding communities. We fundraised our first institutional money and then we continued our VC road from that point.”
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The platform has seen robust growth over the years, boasting over a million private rooms, apartments, and LGBTQ+-friendly hotels as well as ways to connect with local guides. Matthieu himself has been featured on CNN, Forbes, USA Today, New York Business Journal, and Logo.
Today, Misterb&b is one of twelve finalists in the Expedia Group Accelerator initiative. Launched last September, the program is designed to encourage innovation by supporting startups and SMBs. The current program is geared towards empowering companies that are working to increase access for underserved travelers.
“I would say [accessibility] isn’t easy, currently, for the LGBTQ+ community – to be able to travel and feel welcome everywhere in the world. Just recently, on a mainstream short-term rental platform, a gay couple was rejected by the host because they were gay. So, it still happens today, even in the U.S.,” Matthieu says.
“Some people don’t understand the value of a platform like MisterB&B, saying it’s too focused on communities, but no, we’re still facing those issues. By joining the Expedia Accelerator program, is to really foster its mission by welcoming the LGBTQ community.”
Leveraging tech for safety and security
Safety is a primary concern on a platform like Misterb&b. Matthieu emphasizes that it’s important to ensure that whoever’s listed on the platform is authentic and welcoming, and not just looking to benefit off the community.
According to Matthieu, “When you sign up on MisterB&B, there’s an enlisting process and it’s obvious that you’re signing up as a host on a LGBTQ+ platform. That allows us to filter people who feel comfortable having LGBTQ+ travelers staying at their place.
“In the rare case when someone leaves a bad review, we take immediate action with a manual review by our trust and safety team. And if there’s a real issue, we take down the listing immediately.
“For hotels, if someone wants to identify as LGBTQ-friendly on our platform, we have a content team that handles that. We have curated thousands of hotels from around the world, and we look at their marketing towards the community to promote their property – that’s key.”
And then there’s the use of artificial intelligence, which Matthieu says helps the team spot suspicious behavior on the platform.
“The technology is looking at what this user is doing on the platform – what’s their IP address, what’s the first and second thing they’re doing, depending on the workflow of their activities on the platform. And we can identify if this is someone that is trying to scam our users.”
Safety and security are housed on a complicated spectrum, especially in the context of Misterb&b and LGBTQ+ conversations. While some destinations are more tolerant and welcoming toward all sexual identities, ironically, Misterb&b may be needed more in destinations that aren’t.
“It’s a very complex situation – we do a lot of back-and-forth internally before making a decision,” says Mattieu.
“There’s the safety of our hosts. If a host is publishing a listing on MisterB&B in a homophobic country, they could run into some problems. But for us, giving the opportunity to all hosts in these countries to connect with other LGBTQ+ members from all over the world is something very important, because we can help them live normal lives in their own countries. We need to offer them the right to connect with other LGBTQ+ members.
“We’ve put in place some measures like hiding their [profile] photos, you’ll need to log in to view those photos, or they can choose not to publish their photos to avoid issues.”
On the flipside, Matthieu confirms that Misterb&b is most robust in the U.S., which makes up 40% of their business today, followed by France and Europe as their largest markets. The reasoning is simple – these are more open markets where it’s easier to find hosts, compared with countries where it’s much harder to be “out.”
Getting the word out
Working in a niche space has its benefits too. For example, organic marketing seems to be a powerful tool for Matthieu’s startup, although the team does employ strategic marketing tactics to spread brand awareness.
“The first medium in the gay community is word of mouth. We’ve seen in the past that it works very well. We are leveraging that with a referral program – all of our hosts and guests can refer anyone in their community and earn travel credits,” adds Matthieu.
“Then, we are leveraging SEO and organic traffic. We have developed a lot of content, blogs, and city guides all over the world to attract [those looking for] gay travel [options]. That’s part of the strategy. Then, there’s mainstream marketing channels like paid social and Google search to promote our offering to the community.”
As a community-centric platform, Misterb&b isn’t all about business. The startup is active within LGBTQ+ NGO circles, channeling a portion of their proceeds and operational resources to causes that are close to the heart, through an initiative called Mister For Good. Most recently, they collaborated with Outright Action International and the Red Cross to provide shelter and support for LGBTQ+ people in need in Ukraine. This includes providing shelter to several Ukrainian LGBTQ+ refugees, currently hosted in Berlin, Germany, and Lisbon, Portugal.
Challenges and ambitions
Like most of the travel industry, the pandemic brought its own set of challenges to Misterb&b, mostly in the form of “paperwork.”
As Matthieu elaborates, “The biggest challenge right now is regulation and compliance across the world. Especially after COVID, all the states and municipalities are looking to increase their revenue, so they’re increasing taxes and also adding a lot of taxes. Because of our size, it’s really challenging to be able to comply with all cities. We’ve really increased our legal department team to be able to work on that, and we are now compliant in more than 200,000 cities across the world.”
As we were wrapping up the interview, Matthieu said something to really ponder.
When asked about the ultimate goal for Misterb&b and ambitions for the future, he almost immediately responded with the knowledge that, in an ideal world, there would be no need for his startup to even exist.
“The ultimate goal, I would say, is that maybe Misterb&b doesn’t have to exist anymore. But I think the ultimate goal is really being the main place for all LGBTQ peoples to connect around travel. We recently launched a social travel network. We’re seeing that safety is one of the key points our community is looking for, but secondly, it’s also the connection because the community is much more lonely than the mainstream population – a lot of studies have proven that.
“The idea is to offer a tool for our community to connect while they’re at home or when traveling, being able to chat and meet with LGBTQ+ visitors in their own cities. This has been a big success in the last few months.
“In the future, we want to sell any offer that caters to the LGBTQ community, like gay cruises. But hosting and connecting would be the main pillars of Misterb&b in the coming years.”
*This article was originally published by WebinTravel.