Why Airbnb Needs Some Serious Renovations

I began traveling over 30 years ago and I consider myself a seasoned traveler. My wife and I have been using Airbnb since 2012.  During a five-week trip to Europe in June 2018, five out of the six places we stayed were Airbnb apartments, which we carefully chose.  While our past Airbnb experiences have been mostly positive, we learned during this trip that the travel platform has some very serious issues.

Let’s start with what Airbnb calls hosts.  The conventional definition of a host is: “A person who receives or entertains other people as guests.” Airbnb has taken that definition and completely convoluted its meaning.

The potential guest may assume that their “host” is the person listed on Airbnb as the host but that could be a completely wrong assumption.  The “host” on Airbnb is often just a ghost.

According to Airbnb, the host is simply the person who has sent their identifying documents to Airbnb as the human responsible for a particular listing.  The Airbnb host is also meant to be the person who has posted their photo next to their name. One assumes that this photo is an accurate visual representation of the host.

Let’s just call the person paying for the Airbnb rental the “guest”.

Let’s call the person who writes back and forth to the guest the “communicator”.

Let’s call the person who meets the guest, takes them to the rental, and shows them the ropes the “greeter”.

Now let’s see how this all plays out in the real world.

When a guest is interested in making a booking, they often first send a message to the host asking if they are able to make the booking. The guest assumes that the person or they are corresponding with is the named host.

That would also be a wrong assumption. Often the person writing to the guest is a completely different person who has an unknown relationship to the named host or to the rental.

Once a listing is booked, there are various back and forth messages with the “host” about what time the guest will arrive and exactly where they will meet to check into the rental.  The guest assumes that they are going to be met by the person who has been writing to them to be shown the apartment and to ask any questions. Wrong again.

Often when the guest arrives at the meeting place, the greeter is a completely different person that the named host or the communicator.

All of this would be fine if the guest actually was informed in advance who exactly was the host, who exactly was the communicator and who exactly was going to be their greeter. Sadly the guest is often left in the dark.

Why does this happen?  The easy answer is that the Airbnb host allows it to happen. This Airbnb host is free to assign a “communicator” to deal with the guests and this communicator is free to sign their messages in the host’s name even if they are a different person. The host is also free to assign the task of greeter to another third party without letting the guest know in advance. In reality the host is free to have no role whatsoever in the management of the listing or interacting with the guest. The host does however always have one important role: the host is the one collecting the rent.

Let me give you an example: our recent trip to Europe in June 2018.  Some names and cities have been changed to shield the guilty but everything is as it happened.

We booked an apartment in Rome, Italy for seven nights.  Let’s call the host “Sophia”. There was a photo of Sophia on the listing next to a young girl. The photo was very low resolution but you could make out a kind smile. The photo did make me sympathetic to the host.

Before we arrived at the apartment, there were quite a few back and forth messages from the host signed by Sophia. However, we later found out none of these messages had actually written by Sophia.  We were told to arrive at an office no later than 6:00 PM.

When we arrived at the office, Sophia was nowhere to be found. The person in charge of the office passed us onto another person who spoke just enough English to show us the apartment which was a short distance away. When I asked about our host Sophia I was told that she worked at a shop elsewhere in the city and if I wanted to meet her I could find her in the shop.

I later found out that our “host” Sophia had absolutely nothing to do with the guests. Sophia was not actually the “communicator” although all of our messages had been signed by her and she certainly was not our “greeter”. During our seven-night stay, Sophia never reached out, texted or made a cameo appearance. Pretty photo, and the host was named but she was not involved in any manner in the listing – a ghost.

Another version of the ghost host phenomenon happened at an Airbnb on Lake Como. The named host of this apartment was a holiday rental company so at least we knew up front that the person we were corresponding with was an employee of the rental company. The communicator named Chris was very helpful and gave us lots of help in figuring out how best get to the tiny village from the city of Como.

On the day of our arrival we were in contact numerous times. In fact 45 minutes before we arrived at their office Chris wrote that he was looking forward to seeing us soon. We arrived at the office exactly on time but Chris was nowhere to be found. A young German girl was our greeter at the office. We asked what happened to Chris. She said he was too busy to meet us even though less than an hour before he was looking forward to meeting us.

The young German girl did her check in procedure and then something happened that had never happened before. The girl handed us the keys, pointed down the road, said to look for a green house and just to let ourselves inside. Never before in our long history with Airbnb had we not been brought in person to the rental and been allowed to ask questions about the unit.

Of course we found the apartment but we felt that our greeter experience had reached an all-time low. Chris, the communicator, continued to answer any questions we had by email but never showed his face. Chris was a ghost communicator.

Now lets talk about Superhosts. Airbnb defines a Superhost as follows:

“Superhosts are highly rated and reliable, going above and beyond to create an exceptional stay for every guest.”

Unless you have dug deep into the terms and conditions of the Airbnb website, you would have thought that someone who had earned the badge of “Superhost” would in fact be a super host.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It turns out that a host can become a Superhost simply by maintaining a minimum star rating and a minimum number of successful rentals per year. The Superhost designation is completely computer generated; there are no humans involved.  There is no requirement that a Superhost submit a clear photo taken within a reasonably recent time frame. The photo may or not be a real photo of Superhost at all.

There is no requirement that a Superhost write a reasonable description of the rental and submit reasonably accurate photos. There is no requirement that a Superhost is a warm or welcoming person. There is no requirement that a Superhost provide detailed instructions on how best to arrive at the rental from various starting points such as airport, train, taxi or on foot. There is no requirement that a Superhost provide information to the guest about the appliances or features of the apartment. There is no requirement that the Superhost provide additional recommendations about nearby sights, restaurants or local transport.

The Superhost might be the owner of the unit, might be the agent of the owner, might be the communicator, or might be the greeter. The Superhost might be all of the above, some of the above or none of the above. There is no requirement that the Superhost disclose who they are or their role. Like the basic host, the Superhost is the person who has submitted their identifying documents and may or may not be the person who is pictured in the photo.  There is no way to know if they are active in management the rental or if they are simply a ghost host.

Let’s consider another real life example

We had woken up at 5:00 AM in Lisbon, Portugal and had traveled over nine hours to get to Rome. We arrived at the office about 5:00 PM utterly exhausted. The simple politeness of a host to a guest should have dictated some words of welcome or interest such as “welcome to Rome,” or “how was your trip?” or “did you have any problem finding our office?”

Instead, our reception was more like arriving at immigration at the airport: no smiles, no welcome and no kindness. We were asked for our passports, and then told we had to pay 21 euros in cash for a tourist tax. This additional tax was not disclosed in the listing so we felt put off from the get go.

As I previous recounted, the person with whom we had been communicating through Airbnb was named Sophia and she was rated as a Superhost.

Each and each and every message we had written before we arrived through Airbnb messaging had been signed by “Sophia.”  When I asked where she was, the communicator, Luigi, told us that Sophia was his wife and worked at another shop.

An assistant of Luigi took us to the apartment as she spoke a small amount of English.  She was not able to answer any questions about the apartment such as how to use the washing machine or where to dispose of the garbage and there were no written instructions or any kind or suggestions about anything in the apartment or the town.

Other Superhosts have extensive written manuals written in English to orient you to the city and explain how appliances work. This apartment had nothing. The one and only written word in the apartment was how to turn on the power at the switchboard downstairs if all of the electricity went dead.

When our greeter showed us the apartment, I checked to see if the internet worked as I have a web based business and this was a key feature of any place we rented. The internet was completed dead. During the following hours various people came and went trying to figure out what was wrong. After several hours they were able to get the wifi to work but it was a hassle to deal with after an exhausting day of travel.

We were staying for seven nights and noticed there was only half a roll of toilet paper.  We sent a Whatsapp message to Luigi about this and commented that the listing said that toilet paper was included. Luigi initially told us to buy our own but when told this was not acceptable he reluctantly brought us a few extra rolls.

As we settled in to our new home we discovered one of the front door keys did not work, there was no way to boil water except in a pot, there were no wine glasses and the fry pan was not usable.  My wife makes tea several times a day, I cook eggs for breakfast and both my wife and I think it’s more romantic to drink Prosecco from a wine glass.

The next morning I spent over an hour in the office with Luigi. We had to write back and forth using Google translate on his computer to communicate. Luigi finally agreed to provide a working key, an electric kettle, wine glasses and a new fry pan but said in no uncertain terms that we were “difficult” and he clearly was angry with our requests.

Luigi provided the items we asked for but his unfriendly attitude and sheer lack of any warmth or kindness put a real damper on our stay. We had never experienced a Superhost who was so unwelcoming. What we requested was listed in the apartment’s description or what we have experienced in most all of the other Airbnbs in which we have stayed. In our many interactions during that week, the named Superhost Sophia never showed her smiling face.

Now let’s consider negative reviews.  If you have a bad experience with a host you may want to let future guests know about it and leave an honest review about your experience. I did exactly that for our experience with the ghost host Sophia and her communicator husband Luigi. I actually wrote a very long review and was hopeful that it would be published.

However, when it was finally published, I found out that the maximum word count for an Airbnb review is 500 words. This does appear if you dig in the terms and conditions of the website but on the page where you write the review Airbnb neglects to add the simple subtext that reviews are a maximum of 500 words. By the time you find this out it is too late as reviews cannot be edited after 48 hours. Thanks Airbnb, for letting me know this upfront when I needed to know.

If you have a bad experience with a host then your host might leave you a negative review as well. That is as it should be. If you are being honest and transparent then both parties should be able to express how they feel and what they experienced. However, a couple of weeks after my negative review of Sophia was published and Sophia’s negative review of me was published, I received this email from Airbnb:

“You received an unfavorable review after one of your stays. We know that sometimes things happen, but we want both the guests and hosts that make up our global community feel respected, welcome, and safe anytime they’re using Airbnb. Guests who receive multiple negative reviews may not be able to book a future stay on Airbnb.”

There are many reasons that a host might leave a bad review for a guest, e.g. the guest left the rental messy, disturbed the neighbors or behaved badly. However, there are other reasons that a host can leave a bad review for a guest, like the guest was “difficult” and asked for such unreasonable things as toilet paper, keys that opened the door, working internet and basic kitchen implements.

The fact that any negative review from a host means that the guest may “not be able to book a future stay on Airbnb” simply means that Airbnb values positive reviews and punishes negative reviews no matter what the backstory might be. Airbnb makes their position quite clear: if you have a bad experience and your host leaves you a negative review you may be kicked off our platform.

We had a problem with another rental in Milan. It was the last four nights of our trip and we rented a relatively luxurious apartment. Our Superhosts were owners, communicators and greeters all in one and were indeed great at hospitality; they were what Superhosts were supposed to be.

Unfortunately, the AC did not work at all and it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) in Milan every day during our stay. The hosts did everything they could to fix the AC but nothing worked. The strange thing was that the host persisted in blaming us for the fact that the AC was dead because I admitted that I had checked the filter. The fact that a burglar had stood on the outdoor unit trying to break into the apartment before we arrived and that the host had shown this to us on our arrival walk through did not seem to matter.

When we got home I had a long conversation with customer service about what was an appropriate amount to ask for a refund. The amount I suggested was confirmed as reasonable by Airbnb customer service and only then did I put through the request. Later I got an email from the Airbnb Resolutions Center saying that they had spoken to the host and rejected my request.

There was no email address or phone number to reply to this resolutions specialist. There was no way to contact them through Airbnb messaging or the website. The Resolution specialist was another ghost.

Airbnb recommends that all communication between a guest and host be done through the website or app so that everything that happens can be viewed later. That is as it should be. Furthermore, when you have any issue with Airbnb customer service you can call or view that conversation through the messaging. However, when it comes to refunds, all of a sudden the conversation is one way. The takeaway is clear: all communication should be through Airbnb unless it involves Airbnb Resolutions.

I am well aware that Airbnb is a platform on the web and that it is difficult to police thousands of listings around the world. However I am also aware that Airbnb has made zillions of dollars creating a platform for ordinary people to enter the hospitality market. The problem of course is that some of these ordinary people do not have a clue about the hospitality part.

Airbnb has recognized this itself and started a new division called Airbnb Plus. The Airbnb Plus rentals have actually had a real live person verify the details about both the rental and the host. Human to human interaction. How novel. This new Airbnb Plus idea is great but unfortunately only covers a limited number of big cities.

So what can Airbnb do to make its platform more transparent for its many guests? Here is my checklist.

1. Get rid of the meaningless term “host” and replace it with these more meaningful terms

a. New term: Owner / Agent

If the owner is “Joe” and he is involved in the rental say so up front.

If the owner has designated an agent or rental company to act in their behalf then name them up front.

b. New term: Communicator. The person who is communicating with you about the rental. Let the guest know the real name of the Communicator and let the guest know what their relationship is to the Owner / Agent or if they are the Owner / Agent

c. New term: Greeter. The person who greets you at the rental when you arrive, takes you to the rental, shows you around and answers any questions the guest may have. Let the guest know who their greeter will be before they arrive and let the guest know what the relationship is between the Greeter and the Owner / Agent and the Communicator.

2. Photos 

Currently the photo listed next to the “host” may or may not actually be the host, may or may not have been taken in the last ten years and may or may not be clear. I suggest that Airbnb update their photo policy and require all photos be a reasonably high resolution and request that the photo submitted to be no more than two years old.

Each Owner / Agent should submit a photo or logo.

Each Communicator should submit a clear photo.

Each Greeter should have a photo.

3.  Stop using the term “Superhost” 

Let’s be honest Airbnb.  It is absurd to claim that all Superhosts are “highly rated and reliable, going above and beyond to create an exceptional stay for every guest.” You can’t every verify what role if any the Superhost plays. You certainly can’t verify that a Superhost creates an exceptional stay. There is absolutely no way to know that unless an objective third party person has vetted the host. Stop pretending that a computer algorithm can measure the quality of an interpersonal experience.

Just let the reviews speak for themselves and continue to get more Airbnb Plus rentals verified by real humans as that is the only honest way to verify what is or is not going on at a rental.

4. Make reviews fair

a. Below the box where the guest writes their reviews let them know up front that they may write a maximum of 500 words.

b. Don’t tell guests that they will be kicked off the platform if the host leaves them a negative review.  If you want a fair dialog then both sides of the transaction should be free to express their opinion without being bullied by the platform to leave positive reviews or else get kicked out.

5. Be transparent With disputes

If you expect guests and rental operators to use your platform exclusively to communicate about a rental then have the same standard for your own resolutions department. All communication with an Airbnb Resolution specialist should be trackable on the Airbnb platform and resolution specialists should be contacted directly by both the guest and the rental operator.

I believe the home sharing economy that Airbnb helped to create is a good thing. I have personally been an Airbnb customer for many years and in the past most of my experiences were positive. Airbnb is still relatively new and like many new enterprises it needs to become more transparent and honest with its users.

We as internet consumers have come to expect that other internet giants like Facebook and Google become more transparent and honest about the data they collect and how it is used. It is time that Airbnb joins the fold and starts being more honest with the millions of people around the world that entrust them as an enabler of travel.

So Airbnb I have now left you a very long negative review. Here is my question for you: is anyone listening?

PS: I am well aware of the upcoming Airbnb IPO.  As with Uber and Lyft, I imagine the Airbnb IPO may become an Initial Public Bust.