Picture your first white Christmas. If you have ever had the chance as a child, to experience a December 25 in the mountains, it is likely that you still remember. Close your eyes and listen to the sweet sound of the crackling fireplace, smell the scent of fir at the window, admire the mountainous landscape, feel the heat of the hot chocolate and pancakes barely out of the pan. That is the experience we had planned to have with our three-year-old daughter this year. So we booked a beautiful cottage on Airbnb for a week in the Alps, close to the beautiful resort of Megève, Flumet. Among all the deals available in the area, one seemed ideal to us: a « Prestige » cottage a five minutes’ drive from the slopes and, according to the photos provided, in the heart of nature. The perfect place to make this child’s dream a reality.
On arrival, at night, we check out the inside of the cottage which was quite nice, although upstairs, the temperature is a bit colder. My parents-in-law are spending the week with us and politely choose to take the upstairs. Our daughter and we are downstairs. The night goes by.
The first day, at dawn, the parade of cars and trucks wakes us. The cottage is right next to a departmental road. On the other side of the road, I note dumbfounded that we are between a storage area and the adjoining wood dump. We prepare ourselves to spend a week between the noisy passage of delivery vehicles that arrive and depart from Megève and fallow land where tools, debris and tarps pose as landscape. This is the opposite of the idyllic setting Airbnb described the announcement.
We try to ignore this and spend our day exploring the region: mulled wine in the village, the ice rink, and shopping to prepare for the Christmas party. In the evening, we return. To our surprise, we realize from our very first bath, the hot water tank is empty and we are doomed to a cold shower in four-degree weather. It is at that moment that I decide to contact the Airbnb customer service for the first time to ask them what recourse we have in dealing with the problems we are having. A few minutes waiting on the phone and my answer is clear: « Airbnb does not take into account any issues with the area around the property, and concerning the boiler, we contact the owner who has until tomorrow morning to fix the problem. » Annoyed by this answer, I decided to contact our host directly first, who tells me he’s unable to solve the problem right now and invites me to be accept the situation or leave his cottage the next morning! I then called a few social networking contacts to brainstorm some ideas. Luckily, one of my friends knows the manager of Airbnb Europe and offers to introduce us. The latter responds with a message a few minutes later, assuring me that someone would be in contact soon to find a solution. It does not take long, and I am aware of this luck that a vast majority of users of the platform don’t have. A young woman from Airbnb California’s « user experience » service calls me on my cell phone to reassure us and promise that she would deal with the problem first thing tomorrow morning. We go to bed.
Second day, the woman I spoke to last night calls us back and offers to transfer us to another cottage that has yet to be located on condition of paying the first two nights. I accept, making sure to specify that we cannot risk abandoning this cottage without a definite alternative because being stuck in the mountains, homeless, with a young child is unthinkable. Obviously, she assures us that a solution will certainly be found by Airbnb. Second day of vacation, we still have not skied or really had time to take care of mountain activities because we have been stuck on the Airbnb issue. Here we are again, off to spend a few hours in the village until an alternative solution is provided by our kindly user support assistant. The hours pass; it is 5pm; the night begins to fall and our concern grows. That’s when I get a text. Finally, a new host offers us a very comfortable cottage a short drive away and gives us an appointment at an address that we’ll receive once we book it and pay. Armed with my mobile phone, I conclude the transaction, pay the entire stay in this new cabin, and off we go. The most important thing is to finally start the holiday we’ve been dreaming of. A short detour to buy a new Christmas tree, and we arrive at 6pm, as specified for our meeting.
It’s dark and cold. A woman greets us stating that she is in charge of opening the house, the owner being absent (and unreachable) because he’s « currently vacationing on a boat in Jamaica. » The cottage is cold but beautifully decorated. We keep our jackets on; it’s 7 degrees inside. We light the fire and boiler and spend time decorating the new Christmas tree until the temperature rises. Two hours pass, the thermometer does not move, still 7 degrees throughout the cottage. The boiler appears on but nothing works. I open the kitchen oven, plug in all electric heaters, and attempt to contact our host, anyone on the phone. I send a new email to the customer service. No answer. I call the French Airbnb user service. Thirty minutes pass before getting the first assistant. It is 8:30. Our daughter, wrapped in her ski jacket since 2:30, is in front of a sad tree, in a cold house, with a musty smell. The chimney is barely drawing. The dream is turning into a nightmare.
72 hours have passed. Of course, this is when I get a bit unhinged. We are experiencing the worst Christmas of our lives. I immediately ask to cancel and refund all of my last reservation. At this late hour, a hotel is my only way out regardless of the price. Can you imagine the cost of two rooms at the last minute during Christmas week near Megève? And what does Airbnb customer service have to say?
- « If we cancel this reservation at your request, we cannot reimburse you, sir! »
- « I beg your pardon? You cannot reimburse me for renting a mountain cabin in which we have only just arrived and where it is 7 degrees without working heating? With a young child inside? »
- « Please understand, sir, it’s quite a sum! »
- Me, on the verge of a nervous breakdown: « It’s my money, you *******, that you have collected in advance of your ***** service that you don’t want to reimburse! »
- Airbnb: « We need a proof that it is 7 degrees in the cottage to consider a refund, sir. »
I swallow my rage. It’s necessary to mention I spent 30 minutes to wait to talk to someone. Of course, I do not feel very proud of complying and become aware of how I let myself be treated. I send an email of a photo of the thermometer frozen at 7°C for three hours to the assistant who finally agreed to the refund. For the second time since our arrival, we pack our bags and take down the Christmas tree. We leave once more in search of two rooms for the night and a hot meal for our daughter. Luckily we find a place to stay: a hotel available at prices one third of the stay for one night. It doesn’t matter. Our little girl has dinner, stays up a bit, and we head to bed, exhausted.
Fourth day of « vacation, » it is time to get back on the saddle and face the music, our vacation has been cut short and we must resign ourselves to return to Paris.
It’s December 24, three days have passed, and I have not received any news from Airbnb; nor from my nice Californian customer service agent, or the sympathetic Airbnb Europe manager, despite expressing to him the conclusion of our stay. We spent in three days of stress the entire budget of our weeklong vacation, the first ski lessons our daughter were canceled and Airbnb has « ruined » our Christmas!
So obviously, there are more serious issues in life. And this story is only one particular case. We are pretty lucky compared to the innumerable and constantly growing problems of the users of this platform. I was not only a fan of Airbnb ever since its first days in France, but also a recruiter. I very often find myself mentioning the Airbnb model during public speaking on the disruption in the era of mass digitization, as was the case a month ago at the 2015 Newtourism Conference.
We know the mechanics and the business model of Airbnb. The platform assumes, unlike the traditional players in the hotel industry, that it does not need to acquire accommodations or rent them, or even to call in qualified personnel to ensure a warm welcome, service or to take responsibility for the services it sells. It relies heavily on technology, the web, and cell phones to facilitate matching up clients (hosts and guests). It continuously captures data to improve its portfolio. In doing so, it drastically minimizes investment costs and expenses in order to profit by leveraging assets that do not belong to it and helps to use by drawing off some of the value it happens to capitalize. This is a mechanism that is called the power of the crowd, which is to say labor isn’t hired or taxed. In short, Airbnb has indeed found a formula that works wonders, up to a point…
This story allowed me to become aware of a facet of the Airbnb model that had escaped me. It is probably one of the main flaws of the service that the traditional competitors have an incentive to exploit massively. The main weakness of Airbnb is that, contrary to the claims of their recent advertising campaign touting hospitality and responsibility, it cannot make good on both these promises to their customers.
The responsibility carried by a professional in regard to customers cannot be compared to that of an amateur. In this case, everyone can claim to be an hotelier. It is a standardized business with a sense of service and hospitality. It is a responsibility that an amateur cannot assume. A third party has to do it for him. And that is precisely what Airbnb does not do. Airbnb could take, for example, responsibility for checking each of the products made available on its platform and stop believing the bad experiences of their customers can be used to rate their stock. Airbnb could take the responsibility of managing the reception of their customers rather than delegating it to unskilled amateurs. They could develop an ecosystem of professionals in charge of the reception and departure of visitors in a rental. Finally, Airbnb could propose an ecosystem of qualified local services provided by professionals to meet the usual needs of a customer in a hotel: room service, laundry, concierge service… Today, at best, they establish partnerships without really taking responsibility for the service, and at worst, they are tempted to replicate their model by offering, for example recently, « travel experiences » designed and organized by their hosts, always amateurs…
In contrast, the traditional hoteliers have expertise and a labor force. It is a force contrary to appearances. Their job, when they do it well, allow them, in turn, to disrupt Airbnb in the scope of its own promises: to welcome, accompany, take responsibility for the service they offer their customers. The delay that hoteliers have accumulated in the race to digitize handicap them when compared to the apparent power of the Airbnb user experience. Catching up is an
obviously essential prerequisite. However, once empowered with tools equivalent to those of the most advanced online platforms, the playing field will be level. Imagine, once equal in terms of the digital experience, will the major hotel chains decide to compete with Airbnb in its own model? Imagine that in addition to their own rooms, they offer, like Airbnb, apartments or houses to rent close to their hotels from time to time, but by additionally providing a quality service that is expected of a professional (reception, concierge, breakfast, room service, laundry, daily cleaning of rooms, entertainment and professional experiences)… I imagine that this type of project has been evaluated by the strategic heads of hotel chains.
I will draw just one lesson from this story. Airbnb is not really transforming the hospitality market. The platform comes closer to competing with particularly bad hotels or temporary rental providers of apartments and houses. To imagine the opposite is to take a risk, as we have done this week, living a nightmare. Technology, big data, and online communication tools are absolutely necessary today to respond to the challenge of mass tourism, but they will never replace the warmth and hospitality of a human that greets you and takes care of your welfare because he know what it is to practice his profession.