Airbnb’s Elephant in the Room

A quirky website by the name of Airbnb surfaced on the web back in 2008, one that promised a new kind of travel accommodation. One that hinged on Trust, both for the host and the guest, offering a completely new breed of travel experience. Unique digs, local’s only knowledge, and the ability to leave hotels behind.

I look back fondly on my first trip using the platform. It was 2011 and I decided to share a posh downtown Minneapolis apartment with an older couple. The location was prime, and I’d only be there one night. Yes, it was admittedly a bit awkward, but worth the savings when compared to a hotel in the same area.

For me it came down to a local experience. I walked to the river and explored the city’s offerings via bike share. It represented a new way technology would allow users to travel moving forward.

Since then, I’ve commonly used Airbnb for longer stays. Typically 4 to 7 days, and quite often after heavy research on the property, amenities, and value for the final cost. I’ve accrued almost 15 stays over the last few years, and even though I’ve felt a little “meh” about a couple spots, I always knew what I was getting into (read: budget properties).

It wasn’t until a recent week-long family vacation where I realized bleak side of the service. One that relies on starry-eyed property reviews from guests unwilling to be honest, hedging the bets far in favor of the hosts it protects.

That said, we’ve all heard about the crazy partying, squatting, and generally negative issues associated with hosting a property on Airbnb, which is admittedly a huge drawback (and risk) for hosts.

The company has since started flying high a flag that not only protects hosts from abysmal guests but also offers a million dollar guarantee backing their claims after horror stories went public.

So—hosts are covered, and Airbnb is making sure of it.

But what about its guests?

My brother moved out to California a few years ago, and as a way to rekindle our family’s lost tradition of the summer vacation we decided to bring the band back together for a week. This time, with girlfriends and a little more travel experience to boot. Everyone was excited to get together!

The stage was set: one week, redwood forests, wine, cycling, family around a kitchen table, laughs, relaxing mornings, long evenings. Airfare was purchased; the rental car reserved. We just needed a place to stay.

I pulled together a wish list of properties last winter that could accommodate the big ticket items: 6 adults, plenty of space, fast internet, and a stellar location.

Staying away from anything low quality and questionable, the options weren’t cheap. This was a family vacation after all, and I knew my parents’ threshold would be different than mine. We needed a comfortable home for a week.

Each property had vibrant photos, thanks to Airbnb’s investment in free photography, and promised an amazing stay near anything we might want to explore. Honestly, they all looked “bright” and “fresh” and “clean” and ultimately felt pretty equal.

We decided on a large house off a vineyard road outside Santa Rosa, California. I was in touch with the host to ask a few questions (internet speed, location details) and quickly realized this seemed like the spot for the trip.

A main concern for me was a fast internet connection, one that could sustain remote working for those of us that needed to split work time with party time during the week.

But, the host was quick to respond about a blazing fast speed test, and the reviews were nothing but sterling. We booked, and the investment was made.

Let’s fast forward to the evening prior to our departure.

It was late afternoon and I realized I hadn’t received check-in instructions. We were less than 24 hours out so I emailed the host through Airbnb, but didn’t receive a reply. I emailed again.

And then again directly to Airbnb that evening.

I never heard back from Airbnb, but I finally received a message from the host saying it was probably in my spam folder. That they had sent it before. I thought Airbnb may have given them a nudge.

Weird, I thought. I’m a web developer after all, typically knowing how to use a Gmail account. I searched for this so called lost email in spam turned up nothing. It hadn’t been sent.

Oh well, clerical oversight perhaps… onward.

The next day we reached the homestretch and couldn’t wait to lay down our tired limbs after a day of travel. The rest of the family wasn’t far behind, and we were ready to settle in. An amazing house, new locations to explore, and beauty all around.

We cracked open the door to the home and it was… musty. Very warm and musty. It felt un-lived in for quite some time. We noticed leaves on the furniture. The bright skylights were caked in months of dust and dirt, quite different from the edited, inviting photoshoot on the website.

We took a few more steps through the home and started noticing oddities that didn’t line up with the listing. The “brand new bamboo floors” looked old, scuffed all over. The bathroom fixtures—the sink and tub faucets—were literally unattached to the surface they rose above. The windows were dirty and adorned with cobwebs in the corners.

There was a single shower for us all, conveniently worded just right in the listing to make it sound like a pair of complete bathrooms. But no, just one.

Kitchenware was cracked and chipped. Knives wouldn’t cut through a vegetable. The plastic cutting board was molded and stained terribly. The wine closet revealed more cobwebs and the stemware was dusty. Things were looking a bit disappointing.

Did I just miss a call from my brother? Not sure—no cell phone service. That wasn’t mentioned in the listing, either.

The couch bed was broken, with a note from “management” it would eventually be replaced. An aero bed for two adults was left to sleep on. A queen? No. Full? Nope.

It was one of those bigger-than-a-twin but not-quite-a-full beds.

I started snapping photos of these smaller but compounding issues and hopped on the wifi to contact the host, and Airbnb. It’s then that I noticed it: the internet. Speeds at one-third of what were assured prior to booking the stay.

It looked like company video calls and that presentation I needed to conduct would be a challenge.

Without going into immense detail from that moment on, I contacted the host first about the internet speed and bed situation, followed by Airbnb about our overall dissatisfaction with the property.

The host brushed off my internet and bedding concerns, saying:

Wi-fi speeds can vary wildly depending on … distance to the router, radio interference, the channel, … etc.

Suddenly they couldn’t back anything up with the internet speed test. Interesting. With regards to the sleeping arrangements, simply put:

The property comfortably sleeps a max of 6 with 1 full, 1 queen and 1 aerobed.

Again with the wording, we weren’t quite lining up. A couple kids on that aerobed would be great, sure thing. But two adults? Not a chance. For a week? It was almost comical.

I took my experience directly to the Airbnb team, complete with photos, and opened a case with them explaining the lackluster and misaligned property listing.

The live chat service was immediately apologetic and even empathetic after reviewing my notes and pictures:

Wow, so sorry to hear that Chris; such a disappointment! We will be sure to get this resolved for you immediately. Please look for our team to be in touch.

I was hopeful. And I wasn’t expecting a refund or even a new property—just a little bit of courtesy in the form of a replacement bed. Maybe a few hundred bucks back to ease the pain. Something to show the host’s good faith and willingness to make it right.

A day later, I was assigned a case manager, and she told me I’d hear from her by the end of the day. I didn’t, and by the end of the second day of waiting, she responded somewhat coldly. She asked questions such as:

It appears that your host reached out about the Internet speed prior to your reservation. When you got to the listing and noticed the slower connection, did you ask the host to fix the issue?

Yes, I did. In fact, I was the one who reached out about the internet. This was my first indication that she hadn’t actually read through the correspondence. Later in the email, she then asked:

With the issues of upkeep on the listing, the pictures you have submitted did not indicate to me issues of concern. Were there any dishes that were not cracked or chipped?

Wait a minute, was she saying I should expect a handful of broken dishes in addition to these other upkeep concerns? This wasn’t a cheap property. It’d be different if I was complaining about a chipped plate in a $60/night apartment, but this was another league entirely. Wine country, vacation rental, thousands of dollars. Were we out of line to expect more?

I was surprised at the response and noted that in my reply, diligently penning thoughts to her questions. A day later, her response was very terse, and read like a line from an emotionless, anti-escalation HR book:

I am sorry that you are disappointed. If you have additional documentation to support your claims of mold and broken furniture, I would like to see it.

She then told me to open a case directly with the host, that they could provide a partial refund. I laughed at that idea on the inside, knowing exactly where it would lead.

With no other option, I opened a case, shared every note and image I took, and as expected, was promptly denied the one-fourth partial refund I had requested. No response or word from the host, only the denial.

It was apparent there was no mediator, and Airbnb put themselves in a position that cared very little for what they called “wear and tear” issues despite their impact in the quality of a stay.

In her final statement, the case manager noted:

Because our community relies on reviews to make their plans, I recommend taking some time to compose a review that best describes the experience you had at this listing. [Name] will be in touch one she hears from your host.

I responded twice more over the later part of the week and ultimately never heard anything back from the Airbnb team.

They had me leave it up to the review system, then stopped responding.

After returning home I took a few days to gather my thoughts. I was both saddened that my push to use this service left my family disappointed in the vacation home, but also frustrated at the customer service from Airbnb. We all felt taken advantage of after investing so much in the trip.

I wrote and edited a property review for days, agonizing over too-much or too-little detail to make it fair and honest. I posted a lengthy review, unlike most all reviews on Airbnb, and let it roll.

My review started off very complimentary of the property, highlighting our favorite parts of the stay, and transitioned into the negative topics very plainly, without emotion. There was no aggression; only honesty.

Then I received a review of my own. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it would be like this. Among other scathing comments, absolutely skewed towards the absurd, the host said:

After Chris’ departure, we received a request via Airbnb for a refund for slow internet and cleaning issues that contained pictures of a scuffed floor, the end of a shower curtain rod, and a couple of other insignificant items that wouldn’t have impacted his stay.

The house was cleaned by an independent contractor and inspected by one of our staff prior to his arrival.

If the issues Chris deemed were so serious, it’s perplexing why he wouldn’t contact us to receive assistance, but rather wait until he checked out to file a dispute demanding a refund.

In addition to the above quotes, the host also pasted in private communications from our chats within the Airbnb system, pulling lines out of context and flat out lying about what or how things were said.

Furthermore, the host was also guilty of not reading my concerns as noted by the “shower curtain rod” comment, which was actually two photos of faucets unattached to countertops.

They brushed over the details knowing I had no recourse.

In an instant, my multi-year positive rating as a guest plummeted, and my faith in the system fell with it. What does it matter if I have a verified ID linked to my account if I was just trashed by a bitter host?

Trust is the key to our community, Airbnb says.

Honest reviews are great, and absolutely necessary in my opinion, but without anonymity everyone is opened up to a pissing match.

I’m disappointed in people and systems in this case.

In a property management company who was never willing to lend a hand. One that chose silence during our week long stay—while an open case sat in their Airbnb account—only to post defensive and passive-aggressive responses to my very legitimate observations after we left.

In Airbnb. A company that puffs up with service and support claims, in this trust verification talk, but that at the same time ultimately has no requirement in their own terms to provide assurances to guests dealing with a bad host.

Airbnb represents a new kind of freedom for travelers, and with that step forward comes responsibility for both sides of the coin.

Without backing the ideals and morals behind its own product—welcoming rather than discouraging honesty within the community—Airbnb will simply become another successful web service riddled with disillusioned users.

As for me, I’ll be asking questions thrice and always wonder what I’ll be walking into next. Fingers crossed.


Update, August 2015: Shortly after posting this entry, I came across an article on MarketWatch that was published just hours later. It touched on Airbnb’s position and performance within the hospitality industry. Gross revenues are noted in the billions, and industry takeover is becoming significant for the company.

It continues to beg the question: for a service with such low overhead and an increasingly expanding user base, how will the company take care of its customers in the long run?

Will Airbnb continue to hang their hat on the broker/connector role, or will they be forced to become more proactive as a customer service unit in order to lessen the pushback they receive with the Trust campaign, namely in the face of negative experiences? It’s a challenging question; one that I’m very curious to see play out.


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This article has 1 comment

  1. Accurate to many stays we’ve had as well!

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