Airbnb and the Comfort of Strangers

July 31st, 2011

“Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
— Cesare Pavese, quoted in The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The moral of my Airbnb saga is simple: this company is still using training wheels while it’s being funded like a mature adult.Airbnb is incompetent in running its business of accommodating travelers. Until it learns how to operate its core business, it’s not helpful to toss $100 million its way. Surely this is the sign of the bubble – good money chasing bad business.

Called me old-fashioned, but I believe in truth in advertising, in delivering on your promises, that kind of thing. Call me a stickler, but I tend to take promises seriously and call out the failures when I see them. I can be a real pain about my principles, but I also live by them with my customers.

At the same time when I get good service, I go out of my way to highlight it. Particularly in the travel business where good service seems increasingly rare.

I can track my Airbnb experiences through my Gmail account. I’ve still got all of the emails. I won’t reprint them all, but I’ve got them.

Airbnb started off brilliantly for me. A friend brought the company to my attention this past May. I found Alexis Madrigal’s November 2010 Atlantic post. Sounded good to me. (I see now it was founded in 2008…news to me.)

I soon booked a “cottage” in San Francisco for a three-night stay in mid-May. Everything worked beautifully. The booking was smooth. I established direct contact with the host via Airbnb’s site. The payment was processed. I received automated reminders and a map before my stay. By early June I was enthusiastically recommending Airbnb to friends, and I made a second booking for a room in a San Francisco apartment for a six-night stay in the third week of June. This is where my happy experiences with Airbnb came to an end.

June 12: I was trying to book a room in New York from June 14-16. New York is a challenging city for accommodation at the best of times. Airbnb compounded my stress by offering places that weren’t available. “Why are there so many false listings?” I wrote to Airbnb customer service. Receipt of my email was acknowledged. Nothing more.

June 12: “Sorry Thad: Everything is rented out for those days. Marie.” “Marie S” had three properties showing available in New York, but apparently they weren’t.

June 12: I found a property available for my visit, however a note with the listing said “I am subletting my duplex apt. located in Time Square is available starting August for your NY vacation.” I asked Airbnb: “Should I proceed with the booking for next week in case she meant June 14-16 when she wrote ‘August’?” My email received the same auto-acknowledgement. I tried the online support system. “Sorry, no agents are available. You may submit a ticket below.” I do so. I ask:

“I’m searching for New York June 14-16. I’m WASTING time that I can ill afford because your system allows for so many not-available listings. ‘Marie’ shows several properties available. They sound great. I wrote yesterday. She responded today. NOTHING available. So why are they listed? Just now I reached one titled ‘a Great 1 Bedroom – April 26-May 6’ — why does that show as available?? I have had one great stay, but this is too much trouble.”

June 13: “David D” responds that his mid-town apartment is available, but each time I try to book it online at Airbnb the price fluctuates between about $150 and over $200. I write and ask David D if the price is the lower or the higher of the two and he responds “hi, i havent changed the price, it is $175 per night not including cleaning fee.” This certainly ain’t cheap – there are hotels rooms for less. But it sounds like a nice place and the location is good. Now the price shows about $200 when I go to book it and I imagine the hassle of trying to get the refund to the lower price after the fact.

June 14-16: I stay in a hotel in New York for $125/night.

June 19: Arrive in San Francisco late on a Sunday night from the East Coast. There’s a message in my email when I get off the plane. “Hello Thad, please call me when you arrive, I will tell where is the key. I left you a message on the phone. Thanks, Andrey.” I try to phone Andrey, but there’s only voicemail. I email. No response.

June 19: A week late, I receive two email replies to my June 12 messages: The first from “Rebecca J” includes “…We urge our hosts to keep their calendars up to date and respond to inquiries, and that’s really all we can do — urge. If hosts repeatedly don’t answer guest inquiries, or have consistent problems with keeping their calendar up-to-date, we will take further action against that. My number one recommendation for you would be to only contact hosts with high response rates and positive guest reviews, as this indicates that they are very active on Airbnb. The more that our guests gravitate towards those people, the safer and stronger (and less time-wasting) our community becomes.”

The second, from “David D” says “Thanks so much for writing in and I must apologize for the delay in response time as we’re currently experiencing a big upsurge in bookings, new hosts and guests! Our Aircrew will be back up to speed shortly…”

June 19: 11:41 pm. I can’t reach Andrey. I send this email:

“xxx Streetname, San Francisco, CA 94xxx [no apartment number] …is the only address I’ve got.

“I guess I’ll just grab a cab in that direction and keep phoning you and then stand outside for awhile.

“My cellphone is xxx-xxx-xxxx. I just re-charged it here at the airport so I’m can speak to you.

Thanks, Thad”

June 20: While in the cab to Andrey’s place I check my home voicemail in case he’s left a message there. Yep, and he’s left a different phone number than the one I’d been calling. I phone the new number and reach Andrey as I arrive at the modern gated apartment building. It turns out that he’s not in San Francisco. He doesn’t tell me where he is, but says that it will take him 45 minutes to reach me with the key. It’s past 3:30 a.m. my time and I’m exhausted and upset. It’s very chilly outside. I tell Andrey to forget it and I go check into a hotel.

June 20: I’m in my hotel room, checking my email and see a link to a story on TechCrunch with the headline “Airbnb Has Arrived — Raising Mega-Round at a $1 Billion+ Valuation.” At 1:18 am I send the link to my colleagues in New York noting only “Hmm…” I email TechCrunch with details of my misadventure. I never hear back from them.

Later that day my complaints are escalated…I report to a friend:

“…I just had a great phone chat with Kimberly at Airbnb. She’s the ‘mother’ off the support team; at 49 the oldest employee of the company. We shared war stories and got along just great and she’s working on finding me the perfect place in SF starting tomorrow.”

June 21: I don’t think that ‘mother’ could be charged with child abuse, although it ended very badly for us. “Kimberly. Please don’t let me down: 30 minutes till check-out time at my hotel: should I extend another night here?” But that wasn’t even the low point.

That afternoon she’d found a really nice place for me and even offered to pick up the tab. She wrote: “I also hope this gives you some renewed faith and perhaps even optimism in Airbnb.”

It looked like paradise.

Briefly it did.

But the place was a bust. I know Kimberly tried. I know I tried to be patient. The details are available. By end of day June 21 I knew that Airbnb and I weren’t going to be working together ever again. My last note:

Well Kimberly,

I’m closing my case file here: as Strother Martin says in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Whose failure? Both, I assume: we’ll never really know.

As they say on the field of battle: Let us part as friends.

Best regards, Thad

Talk to any hotelier and you learn how challenging it is to provide comfort to strangers. It takes experience and it takes expertise. I don’t think Airbnb has yet mastered the business.


For my Future of Publishing readers: I posted this on my blog because the story is topical well beyond publishing. You can read about the scandale here and here.

There’s lots of back and forth these days about whether we’ve entered Internet Bubble 2.0. I was around for the first bubble. While I know that there’s more cash-generating value in the big-name companies being funded now than there was last time around, that don’t mean it ain’t a bubble. You don’t have to be Warren Buffett to question the $1.3 billion valuation for Airbnb or $10 million being handed to companies with zero revenue. Bubbles burst, as this one will. And retrenchment will inevitably follow.

Publishing ventures aren’t glamour players this time around. While the popping of the bubble will slow things down a little for publishers, the die is already cast. But remember: ecommerce is still commerce. Epublishing is still publishing.

August 1, 2011: Airbnb published a comprehensive response today.

August 6, 2011: A week later. It’s interesting to see that all of the business press continues to focus on Airbnb’s suppliers rather than its customers. Last Sunday’s Techcrunch headline “Another Airbnb Victim…” would by default seem to reference a customer. But, no, it’s describing someone who offered a property for rent through Airbnb. There will always be greater supply than demand. But how does Airbnb handle its paying customers? I don’t see this question posed.

June 10, 2012: An article in the San Francisco ChronicleShort-term rentals disrupting SF housing market.

November 30, 2012: I thought that Airbnb had learned how to manage negative press and insure the livelihoods of the hosts of the accommodations it markets, but apparently not. In the New York Times today, A Warning for Hosts of Airbnb Travelers.

February 10, 2015: An article in the New York Times, describing alternatives to Airbnb: Giving Airbnb a Run for Its Money. (It certainly did not dampen Airbnb’s fortunes: they now have a million rentals available through their site!)

February 1, 2017. More than 5 years have passed since I wrote this blog entry. Airbnb has certainly grown up. Good for them. I use the service frequently, mostly successfully. Many of my friends do also. I also book hotel rooms, generally for business trips, and other times because I want the services a hotel can provide. For Airbnb there remains controversy over short-term rentals and their impact on a city’s rental stock. But it’s success is an inspiration: Vancouver company launches Airbnb-like service for dogs.