Campus - 18.05.2020 - 00:00 

Empty student flats – an HSG start-up has the solution

Student flats are often empty in the inter-term breaks. The HSG start-up CampusAir has developed a service which sub-lets such flats through various platforms like Airbnb. An article by student reporter Sascha Duric.

18 May 2020. The spring semester is slowly coming to a close, and the summer holidays are not far off. While some students will serve various internships at home and abroad in this inter-term break, others will enjoy their time travelling or staying with their families. However, their own accommodation in St.Gallen will not be used for several months although the overhead costs still have to be paid. What is a pure waste of resources from an economic point of view was transformed into a business model by the HSG start-up CampusAir.

In this interview, Nicolò Morabito, the founder of CampusAir, explains how the HSG inspired him to set up a company, what legal challenges have to be faced in sub-letting, and how crucial the issues of security and hygiene are in this context.

In the last few years, far more than 100 start-ups have come into being at the HSG, among them some well-known names. Nicolò, what was your inspiration for setting up CampusAir?

I had had the idea for some time of offering a service in St.Gallen which would sub-let flats through various platforms such as Airbnb as an all-inclusive package for students. The actual inspiration to establish CampusAir, however, clearly came from the University of St.Gallen and its diverse services for the support of prospective founders. Here I’m primarily referring to assistance provided within the curriculum and particularly the courses of the Master’s programme in Business Management (MUG) with a focus on entrepreneurship and family business.

To be more specific, CampusAir emerged in the context of the compulsory course entitled “Practical Project Entrepreneurship and Family Business”, in which students take their own ideas to market for two semesters. It was then that our group noticed a problem which is shared by almost all students at the HSG: we all leave St.Gallen constantly, be it at weekends, in the break or in the summer holidays, but we continue to pay our rent. So sub-letting through Airbnb makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately it’s only possible if someone on site makes the necessary transactions both flexibly and reliably. The other service providers in this industry are usually not located in St.Gallen and anyway focus on real estate owners, and if you try to do it yourself, it doesn’t work out or costs a lot of time and nerves. This is why we at CampusAir provide a solution by students for students which does everything from drawing up the ad, looking after the guests to cleaning the flat. When the students return to their accommodation afterwards, everything will be as before apart from the additional payments into their accounts. We continue to be proud of being able to offer something that provides our fellow students with an income without any effort on their part, and in most cases saves them the whole rent.

When it comes to pursuing the right patterns of thought and the general framework approaches in the implementation of an idea, the University of St.Gallen provides you with support in many courses and also outside the lectures. In this way we were able to profit from valuable coaching and also from the HSG network in Dr. Fust’s course I mentioned before, “Practical Project”, as well as from Prof. Dr. Thomas Zellweger’s course on “Entrepreneurship”. Here, the lean start-up approach is not mere theory, but real practice.

What legal challenges are there in connection with sub-letting student flats?

Swiss tenancy law is very tenant-friendly. This also applies to the passage about sub-letting, i.e. Article 262 of the Swiss Code of Obligations, on which our business model is based, for this is a relatively peremptory provision in favour of tenants since although landlords have to give their consent to the sub-lease, they may only refuse to do so for three reasons, and these are not applicable to any students who make use of our services (Art. 262(3), Swiss Code of Obligations). Nor is previous consent a prerequisite for the effective establishment of a sub-letting agreement. Nevertheless, we recommend that our fellow students settle the matter amicably with their landlords in advance, just to maintain a positive landlord/tenant relationship.

How does it work when it comes to handling personal objects in the flat? Are students covered by CampusAir?

Students are completely covered twice over, and much better than with longer and less profitable sub-leases they organise themselves. If students sustain damage to their property such as furniture or personal objects, on the one hand, Airbnb’s host guarantee provides cover of up to a total of CHF 900,000, invariably and with every booking. If, on the other hand, there is damage to third parties’ property, for instance to the landlord’s real estate, students will be covered by Airbnb’s host protection insurance. In comparison with a sub-lease organised by students themselves, this means that debt collection from guests in the case of damage is taken over by Airbnb, and Airbnb also pays for potential damage with immediate effect. It’s simply more agreeable to have an agreement with a liquid partner like Airbnb than with an unknown guest whose financial situation we don’t know anything about. Since students’ security and property and the real estate are our top priority, our services also include preventive measures; for instance, all the guests are checked for their identity and integrity. In addition, we offer students the possibility of being able to have any personal objects they don’t want to leave in their accommodation put into storage. Although all this is neatly covered, we’re still relieved that after more than 600 transacted bookings, we haven’t had to make use of any of these contingencies.

Hygiene is generally an important point in sub-letting. How is the whole cleaning process organised, and do you use your own bedding, for example?

We take hygiene quite as seriously as security to ensure that both the students and the guests feel at ease all round. Since CampusAir offers an all-inclusive service, hygiene and everything to do with it is of course included. Students’ bedding, towels and other household textiles are not used at all. They are put into storage during the sub-lease while our guests use our standardised bedding, duvet covers, sheets, pillows, pillow covers, towels, etc. This is not only appreciated by the students, but our guests also give us top ratings with regard to cleanliness. Furthermore, the entire flat is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before and after every booking. Also, we bear the costs for rubbish bags, toilet paper, kitchen rolls, detergents, dishwasher tabs and everything like that, in case students’ supplies should not be enough. On their return, most students are not only pleased with their additional income, but also with a particularly clean flat.

The University of St.Gallen (HSG) encourages entrepreneurial thinking and supports students on their way to becoming entrepreneurs. Further information can be found at Startup@HSG.

Sascha Duric is conversation course leader for Swiss German, as well as Bosnian, Croat, Montenegrin and Serbian (BKMS) at the Language Center of the University of St.Gallen and is studying for a Master’s degree in Law.

Image: photocase / Eliza

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