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After taking a severe hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, firms involved in the sharing economy are exploring new opportunities — looking to offer services that help people avoid in-person contact with others, so lowering the risk of contracting the virus.

Their small workforces and limited equipment and facilities have allowed such companies to exercise flexibility in their efforts to survive, according to industry observers.

Firms that offer space-sharing services have been particularly hard hit by the virus crisis.

U.S. private accommodation marketplace Airbnb Inc. had been popular among foreign tourists wanting to find minpaku private lodging in Japan, and had anticipated high demand during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But the pandemic, which caused the quadrennial sporting event to be postponed to 2021, almost completely wiped out demand from foreign visitors.

Space Market Inc., a service for renting conference rooms and other spaces, saw demand for events and parties plummet. The total value of deals it handled in the April to June quarter, which partially coincided with a government-declared state of emergency over the virus, shrank 70% from the quarterly peak marked in October to December of 2019.

The spread of the virus has prompted property owners to renovate rooms previously used for lodging into offices for teleworking, and make houses away from urban areas available for extended stays.

Airbnb and Space Market have redesigned their websites so customers can easily find places where they can avoid close contact with others. The two firms also have been taking thorough measures to keep rented spaces virus-free.

Thanks to such efforts, Airbnb saw demand from domestic users surge by 78% year on year in the second week of June, an official from the company said.

Rooms offered through SpaceMarket were used more often in September than a year earlier, according to a company official.

Services whereby people share with others their knowledge and skills gained through business and hobbies have rapidly shifted online in line with changes to lifestyle caused by the pandemic.

At StreetAcademy Inc., a Tokyo-based company that matches people offering lessons with those who want to learn, in-person lessons accounted for 95% of total lessons offered and 5% of online lessons in January. After the first wave of COVID-19 hit the country, in April and May, online lessons outnumbered those delivered in-person.

In May, the number of lessons taken through the matching service even topped pre-pandemic levels, a company official noted.

According to Daisuke Shigematsu, co-head of Sharing Economy Association, Japan and president of Space Market, some firms offering services that do not involve in-person contact have enjoyed sharp earnings growth.

Among them are online flea market operator Mercari Inc. and crowdfunding platform operator Makuake Inc..

“Now is an opportunity to digitalize society and drastically change everything that has been hard to change,” he stressed.

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