The only thing worse than having your accommodation plans fall through on you while travelling is getting either robbed, sick, or attacked. A few months ago, I experienced three out of those four things in the space of about two weeks.
On top of having my wallet and phone stolen, all three of my Airbnb bookings fell through at the last minute, starting on the afternoon I was meant to move in, the other two cancellations came within 24 hours of the respective move-in dates.
The combination of a series of unfortunate events and cancelled reservations resulted in my having to cut short my stay in San Francisco. On top of having no money and no phone, having nowhere to go really was the killer.
By pure serendipity and chance not two weeks after my despondent return to Sydney, I was given a second chance to conquer Silicon Valley, and a number of other cities along the way, *waves, from Chicago*, and Airbnb’s gift of $500 in free credit as an apology helped pay for a significant leg of this trip.
They also responded within an hour or two of my having contacted them about the incident and helped me get my refund back after the transaction got held in limbo. So I see how hard the company is trying to keep its users happy.
But through all this I couldn’t help but think, geez it must be hard to run a company that relies on the good behaviour of your users.
Airbnb nightmares are the adult equivalent of camp-side horror stories: everybody has one, or knows someone who does.
San Francisco designer Christine Ricks told Techly that two years ago she booked an Airbnb in Sydney and when she arrived, the place had a major roach infestation, an extra roommate (who incidentally had been double-booked through Grindr) and a host with an alcohol problem that led him to scream German songs at all hours of the day and night.
“He also kicked the door in when he got angry,” she said.
“He also didn’t mention in the listing that the brothel next door rented some of the apartments for clients.
“The building itself was also an issue. There was a busted switch with live wires in the hallway that his boyfriend told me was from a brothel client getting angry and punching it out.”
The designer said she lasted for about three weeks in the place before she buckled, left, and asked that Airbnb not charge her for the remainder of her stay.
“Airbnb was relatively responsive,” she said. “But they were cautious not to make any guarantees until they’d reviewed the stuff I sent them.
“They did also talk to the host, who did not want me to leave. He was convinced that Airbnb would side with him.”
Hosts don’t seem to have a particularly easy time of it either.
An Airbnb host who declined to be named has had tenants trash her place, move her furniture, and even had her front door propped open for three days because the occupant failed to close it.
Andreas (not his real name), told Techly that one of his tenants booked herself into a hotel after stayed at his listing for three nights because she arrived home one night and found she couldn’t figure out how to get the key in the lock to turn.
Turns out there was an extra half-turn (which Andreas had communicated in writing over Airbnb a few nights prior), which she either forgot about or didn’t try. In any case, the tenant left the next day to fly back home, without any of her belongings, which had been locked inside the house.
Andreas ended up refunding her for the full cost of the trip (he cut her a cheque for the three nights she had stayed there and mailed it to her, because Airbnb wanted to charge her for the days she had stayed). He also paid for her hotel room, and to have her luggage posted back to her, and even insured it to the tune of $800.
(Techly sighted Andreas’ account and customer communications to verify the accuracy of all his claims.)
(Nalin and your smug Sanskrit quotes.)
That’s a lot of effort to avoid a bad review.
The host, who worked for many years in a five-star hotel told Techly that he feels like he is being forced to train Airbnb’s customers on its behalf, because customer stupidity, laziness and bad web design is losing him money.
“My calendar requests are getting clogged up with random enquiries because people aren’t reading the description,” he said.
Andreas has a second property which has a five-night minimum stay over peak periods, and a three-night minimum for quieter weeks. He says that he loses up to five days of business every time someone makes an inquiry about a four-night stay or a two-night stay (or anything outside of his very clearly marked parameters).
Over the months of June and July, Andreas declined 24 requests across two properties, averaging six declines per property, per month.
“There needs to be more parameters for hosts,” he said. “I realise it can get complicated, but I feel like my standards for what I want to do for my guests are higher than what Airbnb is offering.
“And it sucks you have to deal with amateurs when you’re running the f**king hotel.”
Andreas said Airbnb was hurting the long-term quality and value of its service by driving down listings of hosts who decline more bids, while giving preference to hosts who have enabled ‘Instant Booking’ in their search results.
“It wants the hosts most likely to get a booking to be first because it wants people to use the service,” Andreas said. “But it also wants to speed up the transaction cycle and Instant Booking is the way to do that.”
But Instant Bookings create a scenario where hosts and tenants don’t meet, so there is no quality control, which creates the potential for ‘sweat-shop sub-leasing’.
“Maybe Instant Booking listings are the best property to be searching out, and I know I want to do everything I can to help my ranking, whether that’s reviews or accepting reservations,” Andreas said. “But if I’m declining people who aren’t fitting the parameters of the listing, it hurts my ranking.”
While Andreas said he is attracting more tenants to his properties than ever before, he is wary that once the service becomes regulated – and judging from the number of lawsuits the company is fighting right now, it seems inevitable – the value of the service is going to taper off, both for hosts and for tenants. Which means Airbnb has a small window in which to get its controls right.
“There’s decent value right now but after the cities start wanting their cut and Airbnb wants more for their cut, and once the regulations start happening, the value is going to taper off,” he said.
“These really early years are when you can make good money using their service.”
But for every host like Andreas, who wants to ensure his tenants get the best enjoyment out of the area and the property, there are hosts like the loud alcoholic German hosting Christine.
Airbnb really is facing an impasse when it comes to striking the balance between cost, value and control, both over the quality of its listings, but also the quality of its hosts and tenants.
Beyond the automatic post in the reviews section that discloses when stays have been cancelled, there do not seem to be any in-built incentives or disincentives to stop people like Karen from cancelling on me not one hour before I was meant to move in, because she forgot she had a friend coming over (I’m not even kidding).
I’m genuinely interested in what Airbnb is doing to combat these problems, but when Techly attempted to reach out to the company for an interview and response, I was told in no uncertain terms that unless this piece was being published in The Guardian – which I write for occasionally – I would not be getting an interview.