Cau­tion­ary tale

Un­set­tling in­ter­ac­tion with host sours Airbnb book­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Journal Pioneer - - DESTINATIONS - BY PAULINE FROMMER Pauline Frommer is the Ed­i­to­rial Di­rec­tor for the Frommer Travel Guides and From­mers.com. She co-hosts the ra­dio pro­gram The Travel Show with her fa­ther, Arthur Frommer and is the au­thor of the best-sell­ing Frommer’s EasyGuide to New

I’m now one of those peo­ple — a trav­eller with an Airbnb hor­ror story. And it didn’t hap­pen be­cause I’m a care­less id­iot. It hap­pened be­cause I’m (a bit) lazy.

I was head­ing to Chicago for work, and to save a great deal of money — an un­re­lated con­ven­tion had sent ho­tel prices through the roof — I de­cided to book a room in the apart­ment of a friendly look­ing lady who has cats. OK, the real rea­son was the cats — yes, I’m that kind of mid­dle-aged wo­man. I should have scanned the re­views more care­fully, but I saw pho­tos of a lit­tle black fur­ball with sparkling green eyes and clicked “book.”

The cats were cute. The lady who owned them... not so much. In fact, she seemed to be in the mid­dle of some sort of ma­jor chem­i­cal ben­der. Ques­tions about the Wi-Fi pass­word in­duced gales of laugh­ter, un­bid­den

hugs and in­co­her­ent phrases about how “aces” she was, but with­out the nec­es­sary verbs in any of her sen­tences. As she spi­raled deeper into in­co­her­ent hi­lar­ity, her boyfriend, watch­ing TV at a vol­ume that would em­bar­rass a jet en­gine, word­lessly glared at me. He was also quite high, but it was an an­gry high that sent a spike of fear into me.

When I was able to ex­cuse my­self, I ducked into my room, bar­ri­caded the door with my suit­case and started read­ing the other re­views for “Stephanie.” Bizarrely, about twothirds were pos­i­tive. But there also were ones re­count­ing ex­pe­ri­ences sim­i­lar to mine.

I won­dered if I could still sleep there. And then I won­dered why I wasn’t just get­ting out of there.

I quickly booked an­other Airbnb — my own en­tire apart­ment this time. When Stephanie and her swain left, I crept out, ter­ri­fied that the boyfriend might get ag­gres­sive if he saw

me hit­ting the road.

I’m still go­ing back and forth with Airbnb on whether the com­pany will re­fund my money on the stay with Stephanie. But its re­sponse, which was to ask me why I hadn’t ne­go­ti­ated with her be­fore I left, makes me won­der just how sus­tain­able its busi­ness model is.

There have been at­tacks on Airbnb guests, and one ap­par­ent mur­der in Mel­bourne. What will be the tip­ping point be­fore Airbnb has to start polic­ing its hosts more ro­bustly? When will a re­view, or sev­eral re­views, al­leg­ing bad be­hav­iour by a host pro­voke some kind of real re­sponse from the com­pany?

I ask this with a touch of sad­ness be­cause I’m sure the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple rent­ing rooms in their homes are just fine.

Over the years, I’ve had lovely ex­pe­ri­ences shar­ing the homes of Airbnb hosts. There was Vic­to­ria, the de­light­ful and lo­qua­cious bal­let teacher who I stayed with in Chicago five

years ago. Efrain, the ul­ti­mate gen­tle­man — he put vases of fresh flowers in the Mi­ami room I was rent­ing from him ev­ery af­ter­noon. And Althea, a quirky Seat­tle artist whose apart­ment was filled with her sculp­tures and paint­ings; to this day, it is one of the most vis­ually dynamic places I’ve ever stayed at.

But in look­ing for their pro­files on­line, I spot­ted a trend: none of these kindly hosts is still work­ing with Airbnb. Their last re­views are from years ago. I’m not im­ply­ing that Airbnb is los­ing hosts. In fact, its site is only grow­ing year to year; ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, the com­pany had 46,000 hosts world­wide in 2017. But a grow­ing per­cent­age of hosts make a com­plete liv­ing as hos­pi­tal­ity work­ers now, some manag­ing many apart­ments at a time. And Airbnb is en­cour­ag­ing hosts to pro­fes­sion­al­ize, even giv­ing some the ac­co­lade of be­ing a “su­per host.”

And this means that the types of peo­ple I orig­i­nally met us­ing the ser­vice — folks who had other full-time jobs but who liked the idea of meet­ing trav­ellers and mak­ing a bit ex­tra on the side — may be drop­ping in the Airbnb ranks.

Which is a shame, be­cause they were the most en­gag­ing hosts: peo­ple who aren’t just there for the trav­eller, but have other lives that they could dis­cuss, and thus serve as a bridge to the lo­cal com­mu­nity. And peo­ple who weren’t host­ing out of des­per­a­tion, as Stephanie clearly was. Dis­abled by her ad­dic­tion, she was cram­ming as many guests as pos­si­ble into her apart­ment to stay afloat. That’s not good for Stephanie, her guests or Airbnb.

KAUFF­MAN/FLICKR

Chicago is a wel­com­ing place, un­less you get the wrong Airbnb host.

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