Sonder: a hotel alternative that plays by the rules

Sonder founder Francis Davidson.
Sonder founder Francis Davidson.

MONTREAL — It’s a familiar story. Five years ago, Francis Davidson started to earn some extra money by renting out his student apartment to Montreal tourists during the summer. That morphed into a billion-dollar business called Sonder with 8,500 spaces in more than 20 countries. But unlike other short-term rental organizations, Sonder does believe in charging and paying tax.

Like Airbnb, Sonder operates a platform for renting homes for short-term stays. But, unlike Airbnb, Sonder takes possession of leases and maintains the properties on its marketplace, including furnishing them, according to Sonder’s website.  Sonder charges guests the standard hotel taxes based on local laws and regulations, and there is a cleaning fee to cover the cost of cleaning after guests check out.

“We lease units from developers or hotel owners and operate them to our high standards,” said Sonder director of communications Mason Harrison in an interview. “Our services and price points are really incredible.”

Sonder caters to both long-term and short-term guests, and their units occupy hotels, townhouses and apartments. 

A Sonder apartment in the Hotel de Ville area of Montreal.
A Sonder apartment in the Hotel de Ville area of Montreal.

“We’ve re-thought the back of the house of hotel operations. The rooms are cleaned and there’s a text-based concierge. If the guest needs a blender, then we can provide it. We’ve put the lobby on their phone — cleaning, etc., is all on the app. When they enter a building, they are given a code. If they want late checkout, they can choose it using a dropdown menu, and they will receive a notification once it is confirmed. It’s like carrying around an entire hotel lobby on the app.

“The guest can select the services they want — they’re not automatically forced to pay for daily cleaning, but can schedule cleaning on demand. It’s a great value for guests — suitable for group travel, or for guests recovering from surgery.”

Sonder is located in more than 20 cities, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “We don’t currently have live properties in Toronto or Vancouver yet,” though they are working on it, Harrison said.  Sonder has over 1,000 employees, with 130 in Canada.

“We lease 100 per cent of our properties. It’s great for developers and can help accelerate their projects. When we operate in hotels, every city has different requirements. In every market, we comply with local laws,” he said.

“With Sonder, you’re never staying in someone else’s apartment.” Sonder does, however, list on Airbnb and Booking.com, but no one else can list space on Sonder.com.

“There’s a temptation to compare us to Airbnb, but we are much more akin to Marriott,” Harrison said. “We pay all of our taxes, and get all of the licenses required of hotels. We’re a branded provider; Sonder offers predictability and high level of service in a larger, apartment style format.

A Sonder apartment in The Louisiana, in North Park, San Diego.
A Sonder apartment in The Louisiana, in North Park, San Diego.

“It’s suitable for everyone; so many demographics are ignored [by other providers]. We’re good for families, groups of friends, people recovering from surgery, and people who want to stay longer than four days. We’re good for businesses and other types of travel.

“Families don’t want to eat out every night, and want to explore a new city outside of the four walls.”

Advantages for suppliers and for communities are that Sonder really helps diversify the lodging opportunities, and offers a more flexible model. For developers of affordable units, who need a more stable portion of the building, Sonder provides one rent payment to the developer, offering more stability.  They can also make use of underused vacant office space, or renovated historic buildings.

In Vancouver, where there’s a plummeting supply of hotel rooms, they are looking at providing long-term stay residences in a mixed-use hotel.

“This is a year of rapid expansion for us,” said Harrison. “We’re expanding all over the place. We will have some really exciting news shortly.”