I love AirBnB. Please don’t let the title above convince you otherwise. Actually, to better express my sentiments, I should probably say that I love the AirBnB concept. The simple business genius of it aside, it’s done so much genuine good: prompting and enabling, for ordinary people on a vast scale, experiences and livelihoods that would otherwise not have been possible. When it works, which is most of the time I’m sure, it works a treat. I’d venture though that it’s in adversity that core truths are revealed, be it about a person, or an organisation. If my story is anything to go by – and on one hand I’d concede that it’s just one story, whilst on the other I’d question, as should you, whether it’s an aberration or an indication – the treat it seems can easily sour into a trick. If you’re a prospective AirBnB user then stay with me as I tell my story. Forewarned is forearmed.
The story begins rather well. I booked an apartment in Rio de Janeiro – for three of us. The host levies a surcharge of US$25 per person per night, for occupancy by more than two guests. Fair enough. The third person subsequently withdrew from the trip. We advised the host of this late change shortly before arriving. The trip then unfolded relatively pleasingly. The accommodation was pleasant, if not ideal. Specifically there were two points which bothered us:
Firstly this apartment was located immediately adjacent to a play school for young children, resulting in constant, excessive noise from just after 07h00. There was no reference whatsoever made to this in the listing, which I felt was a somewhat disingenuous omission – especially for a holiday let: who wouldn’t relish a little lie-in during their break? This information would have been a material consideration for us and for most others I’m sure.
Secondly, the host offers access to “his driver”, free of any commission, for transits from the airport, elaborated as follows: “I urge you to take advantage of this generous offer. It is in your interest to avoid added costs and stress…”. Our conclusion, reasonable I think if admittedly lazy, was that this was a competitive rate, so we took him up on it. On returning to the airport via Uber, and after subsequent research, we learnt that we could have done the trip for 25% of the cost. Whilst Uber and a driver with a placard are different types of services, we felt, given the scale of the difference, that most people would want to know about it, rather than succumbing to the same assumptions that we did.
These are the “perils” of this format, and this is what the review system is there for. We mentioned both points in an otherwise and overall positive review. The host reviewed us (we use my wife’s account) as follows: “Marni is a charming and experienced (URL HIDDEN) to host anytime!”. Keep his review in mind as we continue with the story, particularly the fact that AirBnB redacted it.
On seeing our review the host went postal – a reaction, an attack really, that ranged haphazardly over a lengthy international telephone call, and then a series of emails, to eventually stalking us on Facebook, slinging mud and spewing lies. The details aren’t relevant or important – this isn’t a story about unpleasant and vindictive people; they’re unfortunately just a part of life. The gist of it, what you need to know, is that he wanted the review removed, which on principle we refused to do.
A month or so later I arbitrarily checked on the review. It was gone. We got in touch with AirBnB, to be told that our review had violated their content policy: “Reviews are the backbone of Airbnb’s community. In order to maintain this structure, we have guidelines in place that ensure that all reviews are fair, honest, and relevant to your travel and experiences. The content of your review did not comply with these guidelines. It is therefore our responsibility to hide it from view. Your Host contacted us regarding this”. Now let’s skip past a series of aggravating emails disputing this outcome, and being repeatedly stonewalled with non-explanations, to the end of this particular chapter. After tweeting our discontent – it’s a little frightening that it takes public exposure to beg some common courtesy from a place where you’re spending your money – we were put in touch with “Jenny” at the head-office, who was slightly more forthcoming: the reason our review had been deleted she said was that it had violated another policy that precluded reviews from mentioning company names (ours mentioned Uber). A recent policy change also meant that reviews could no longer be edited under any circumstances, thereby neatly taking the option off the table for me to make a quick change to remove this offending mention.
But this explanation does not add up:
- The review in fact was not deleted because of this Uber mention. This was only brought up much later, after our tweets, once Jenny got involved. As quoted above we were clearly told that, motivated by the host, it was deemed by AirBnB to be unfair, dishonest and or irrelevant. When we had queried how AirBnB could come to this conclusion without speaking to both parties (us as well as the host), and what it was about the review that did not meet these standards, we were told repeatedly, by two different people, without any further clarification, that the decision was final. Medieval style justice, as dispensed to the peasantry.
- The Uber mention at this stage (a stage which lasted weeks) had not yet been identified, or had not yet occurred to them (otherwise they would have referenced it). There would be no reason not to, as it later proved an easy out (the only out). Yet in its absence despite having no valid substantiation for deleting the review, despite the process by which they went about it being flawed, and despite having both these points emphasized to its staff, AirBnB doggedly stuck to its position. One has to wonder why. Gross incompetence? It seems less than likely with multiple parties involved. The logic we were presenting was compelling and not difficult to grasp. It seemed rather that the decision was predetermined.
- Eventually, in the Uber mention, AirBnB found a rationale that could stick, at least in terms of the letter of their policies. But even this doesn’t make sense. Why would an organisation that (in its own words) considers reviews to be the “backbone” of its community choose to delete one in its entirety, when a basic redaction would have brought it back in line? It should, one would think, be bending over backwards to encourage and enable a preponderance of reviews. Our host’s review was redacted (ostensibly for some sort of a policy violation), but it seems that we could not be afforded the same treatment. This question, like most of our other questions (such impertinence!), also went unanswered.
I requested a refund of the surcharge. My understanding of this surcharge was that it was there to compensate for the incrementally heavier use of the facilities and utilities, and for any additional items provided, by way of toilet paper, soap and so forth. There was no third person and we’d given a day’s notice, enough for the host to avoid any attendant costs (i.e. withhold said extra items). But I was open to another explanation. I conceded from the start that if there was good reason for the charge I would withdraw the request immediately. As became a feature of my dealings with both the host and AirBnB these types of questions would not be answered. I was again relentlessly stonewalled, and quoted policies that did not make sense. I still have no idea how or why the surcharge is justified. I paid US$25 for eight nights, US$200. I may as well have been mugged in the backstreets of Rio, with the police stopping just short of cheering for the muggers.
The host responded that his policy (the AirBnB “Strict” cancellation policy) required cancellation (I guess notice in this case) seven full days in advance, which had not happened. When I pointed out that the policy did not specify that it applied to the surcharge he changed tack to find something that would stick (a feature of this story), insisting now that another AirBnB policy required me to “make a claim” to AirBnB within 24 hours of check-in. I was lost by all the policy talk – I am after all, like most, just a casual AirBnB user – and I’d learnt enough about this guy at this stage to be disabused of any faith that he’d be fair or reasonable so I pursued the matter further by requesting AirBnB intervention via their “Resolution Centre”. When AirBnB denied the claim (the fourth different staff member I dealt with regarding this stay), it was on the grounds that I had not made an “alteration request” on check-in.
Now imagine for a moment that you’ve booked into a regular hotel on a similar basis. On check-in you advise the staff of the change. They say nothing. On check-out you are charged nonetheless. You protest. You didn’t fill out the alteration form they tell you. You didn’t tell me about this alteration form, you say. Tough shit they say (effectively), it’s our policy. It’s quite simply an inconceivable situation. It would never happen with any ethical establishment.
Yet, with AirBnB, it has and it does. I was charged for something that I advised upfront I wouldn’t use, that I then didn’t use, and that didn’t cost anyone anything. And I was charged for it because I didn’t follow a process that wasn’t flagged to me, of which I wasn’t aware, and of which I’d suggest any awareness on my part could not be reasonably expected. Why didn’t the host bring the alteration request to my attention when I advised him of the change in plans? Surely this is where the responsibility belongs? In this fiefdom of the fine print though, it seems that the law lords have deaf ears.
I acknowledged from the start that this is just one story. It doesn’t prove anything beyond this single case of appalling service. But it certainly musters justifiable supposition. We transact with AirBnB, as we do with most apparently reputable companies, in good faith – in the belief that the company, if not the individual host, will treat us fairly and with respect. That it certainly didn’t happen in this instance; that I’m out of pocket for no good reason, and that other guests will likely be misled when booking this apartment, is disconcerting. But more worrying – for all of us – is that this might be the tip of a very large iceberg. In the absence of sensible answers, for which multiple invitations have been proffered and rejected, we are left to our inferences. The matter could be ascribed to a series of unfortunate mistakes, or to some truculent staff, or to something equally isolated; it could though feasibly also point to something more sinister, such as a systematic bias towards hosts, who effectively represent the income-generating assets of the business, or indeed a systematic bias to whatever happens to best serve the company’s interests in any particular given case. But what do I know? I just have my one little story. Let’s then consider this to be just another review – a little bit of karmic balance for all those reviews that may have been deleted and those surcharges that may have been withheld, and a little cud to chew on as you’re deciding where (and how) to stay on your next holiday.
During August I submitted this article to a few media outlets for publication. These outlets in turn approached AirBnB for comment. Shortly thereafter we received an email from AirBnB (18/08/07) confirming that a (another) investigation had taken place, and concluding as follows: “we can confirm that there was no violation on the review and we can reinstate the review”. I can verify that this has been done and that the review is back up on the site.
The same email went on to say: “Another part we want to address from your letter is the fact that it’s fully up to the host to refund you for the extra charges. The person surcharge is not included in the cancellation policy and if the host refuses to refund through the resolution centre, it’s up to him. I hope you understand our policy in this matter”.
I rejected this explanation – for the reasons I propounded in the article.
We then received another email later the same day, informing us that “a refund of R2436 ZAR” had been issued to our credit card, but that it would take 15 days to reflect. No further explanation was given. I take it in good faith that this is the surcharge and that it will be made good shortly.
An article by Georgina Crouth taking up the matter was published on 28/08 in The Argus, The Star, The Pretoria News, and the Daily News. The Daily News version is shown below. Small correction: the Uber was about 25% of the cost of the host’s taxi, not 25% cheaper.