Unsettling interaction with host sours Airbnb booking experience
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.
Chicago is a welcoming place, unless you get the wrong Airbnb host.