Gianpiero Cognoli Field reporter

Sharing the Way from Aix to Zagreb: Episode 1

Seven countries in Seven Days: From Aix to Milan Future of insurance
Dec 8, 2015

A three-part report on a week-long trip across seven countries with BlaBlaCar and other sharing platforms, to see how trust and insurance affect the sharing economy.

At Place de la Rotonde, 19-year-old university student Manon pulls up in her light-grey city car and gives me a big smile.
We’re strangers, but I know I can trust her.

The smile helps, but I already know a lot about Manon from her five-star profile on BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing platform on the road since 2006.

Part of the trust economy (“sharing”, “collaborative” and “on-demand” are so passé, n’est-ce pas?) BlaBlaCar is in good company alongside other star players like Airbnb and Uber. They all have one thing in common: they rely on innovative insurance to build trust and keep users both safe and happy, disrupting traditional travel (and travel businesses) along the way.

Though insurance is only one slice of the trust economy pie, it’s an important enabler that is quickly gaining ground with brands in their ongoing quest to boost community trust, awareness and attractiveness.

In fact, thanks to an innovative partnership between BlaBlaCar and AXA, my ride to Marseille featured free coverage that would get me there even in case we had car trouble (we didn’t).

Another example: Airbnb’s Host Guarantee offers limited coverage up to $1mln (just this year they upgraded US customers to an advanced plan called Host Protection Insurance) and other sharing and P2P (peer-topeer) companies are gearing up to make sure users are covered more than ever before. Car-sharing service Zipcar owns and insures its own cars, while ride services Uber and Lyft offer extra coverage for drivers and passengers.

Insurance immediately makes travel brands more attractive and trustworthy. For example, part of Uber’s spectacular growth in Canada is underwritten by the fact the company provides better coverage for its UberX passengers than the very taxi service it’s disrupting. A fact Uber is all too happy to celebrate, right on its website.

So, back to Aix. There I was, at the feet of a beautiful fountain from the 1800s, with a trustworthy ride to Marseille, extra insurance and a new friend. I was 100% confident I’d get from Aix to Zagreb in seven days using as many sharing services I could, all to know more about how insurance and the trust economy fit together.

It was going to be soooo effortless.

Yeah. Right.

In the end I barely made it, though I managed to cram in an extra country by air (and check out another innovative disruptor, airline of the future Poppi).

I learned trusting people is easy if you open your mind and open an app. And that creating insurance to fit the trust economy won’t be easy, but it will help us share more than we ever imagined possible.

Day 1: FRANCE / AIX-EN-PROVENCE (Airbnb, BlaBlaCar)

The sharing economy is here to stay, and is about to explode. Currently worth over $15bn, it’s set to grow to $335bn by 2025. And though less than 25% of consumers around the world have used sharing services, over 60% of us are ready and willing to share in the future.

Just ask Manon. She joined BlaBlaCar a few months ago and already plans to use it for most of her bi-weekly trips to Marseille to help pay for car expenses (insurance, gas, taxes, etc.)

But it’s not just about the money. She loves the company for the half-hour drive and gets to meet cool people from all over. And she’s not alone. When asked why the sharing economy appeals to them, a great number of people around the world list “Meeting new people”, “Reducing carbon footprint”, “Supporting others” and “Feeling useful” as key reasons, in addition to saving money.

Sharing isn’t just for millennials like Manon either. Over 50% of people starting out and over 70% of people already sharing are over the age of 34 (your correspondent is a long-time Airbnb/Uber user and he’s, ahem, slightly over 34). Sharing seems to span generational and gender boundaries, and is attractive to lawyers and teachers, doctors and artists.

Like Margaux, a photographer and visual artist who Airbnbs (hey, if it’s a verb for The New Yorker, it’s a verb for me) her apartment in central Aix. I was welcomed with a warm “Bonsoir!” as she quickly showed me around and breezed out, leaving me standing in the middle of her flat surrounded by a highly personal and eclectic collection of 50s movie posters, weathered postcards, extra-large Christmas lights and a hammock.

I marveled at the fact that this person, who didn’t know me at all, turned over their home and most trusted possessions to me simply because of a few words written about me on a website. Which made me have an:

Aha Moment (#1): There are things insurance can’t cover.

A lost love letter, a ripped up poster, a broken lava lamp you bought when you were twelve. All things that, no matter what, if a guest breaks them in your home or in your car, no amount of money will be enough to purchase an adequate substitute. So the trust economy isn’t just about opening up to new services, it’s about opening up our lives to others.

Day 2: ITALY - MILAN (BlaBlaCar, Gnammo)

The next morning I was supposed to be happily on my way to Italy via another BlaBlaCar ride. At the scheduled appointment time I was at the bus station where me and my ride, Naïmé, had agreed to meet. She was nowhere to be seen. Plus, my cell reception picked that moment to disappear and I found myself in communications limbo.

I couldn’t reach Naïmé so I didn’t know if she’d cancelled at the last moment (easy to do with digitally-enabled sharing services) or had had car trouble or something. I’d be covered to my next destination in France if there’d been a breakdown but what if my ride had been cancelled by the driver because they changed their mind and went to the beach instead?

I didn’t know it yet but I was to lose roaming many times in these seven days (tiny Switzerland has over thirty road tunnels… thirty!) - a small thing when you’re texting, browsing or booking a summer vacation, but a small personal hell if you need somewhere indoors to sleep. Or a shared ride in the morning.

Aha Moment #2: Trust requires (tele)communication.

Trust was so connected to communication I began noticing my opinion of someone on Airbnb or BlaBlaCar wasn’t just determined by their profile or how many stars they had; I quickly started building my own personal “trust profile” of them, simply from small nuances of their communication.

For example, if they answered my questions quickly and didn’t leave any loose ends, or if they responded to a booking inquiry immediately, I tended to see them as friendly. The opposite became true as well.

Luckily that wasn’t Naïmé. Once my connection came back I saw she’d sent a message at 9:01 asking where I was: she and her partner were waiting for me on the other side of the bus station. Phew.

Airbnb deals with this head-on. Hosts must respond within 24 hours to inquiries, or risk their listing being demoted on the search engine. Also, SuperHost status is revoked for hosts who cancelled on guests in the preceding three months. Hosts are protected as well, as they can set strict cancellation policies protecting them from gratuitously mindchanging guests.

Insurance companies seem to be a bit behind the curve. There is currently no coverage offered to hosts, drivers, buyers, sellers or guests for something like “lost cell reception” or “inattentive communication” (OK, fine, for good reason). However, I’m 100% sure that if I’d been covered for booking cancellations due to poor communication, I’d be 100% more eager and serene about booking more things via more platforms.

On to Milan, where I’d signed up to a Sushi meal-share. Created by sous-chef Federico Bonaconza on Italian meal-sharing platform, Gnammo (loosely translated as “Yum-let’s-go”), this was to be my first meal-share ever. I had no idea what to expect.

Unfortunately I can’t talk about the actual dinner, as half of the guests (I swear I had no idea when I signed up) work for a direct competitor of the company whose site you’re reading this on. But I can tell you the sushi was first-rate.

Federico took care to state many times over that the ingredients were all fresh, and of the highest quality, as he’d gotten them directly from one of Milan’s most renowned suppliers. However, we were eating raw fish, and this made me have (you guessed it).

Aha Moment #3: Safety isn’t just for the road.

A quick way for meal-sharing sites to increase trust (and complement local regulations) at both the local and community level would be to offer a kind of “experience insurance” in the case something goes wrong, including some kind of supplemental health insurance. True, no one likes to think about what happens when a share goes wrong, but it can happen. And often the issue at hand is out of control of both guest and host.

Who knows how many other sharing services could benefit from a kind of “experience” coverage. Definitely something to think about.