The Airbnb Burglary Scandal: Should One Bad Apple Spoil Social Travel?
Yesterday morning I got an email from Airbnb in my inbox. Normally I delete emails from companies, but the first few lines of this one made me want to read on: “Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up.”
For those of you who haven’t yet heard the details, here’s a quick snapshot: The aforementioned EJ wrote a blog post in late June about having returned from a week-long business trip to find her apartment ransacked by what later turned out to be a 19-year-old meth addict, whom she had connected with through Airbnb. As that post began generating more and more buzz, Airbnb moved quickly to assert that it was doing everything it could to help EJ and to aid in the police investigation. EJ countered with another blog post in which she outed Airbnb for not only being slow to respond and not overly helpful, but also for contacting her with a request to pull down her initial post or at least “update the blog with a ‘twist’ of good news so as to ‘complete[s] the story,” and for complaining that her post could negatively impact the company’s image.
Holy shit! Every paranoid fear the whole social travel trend has ever sparked is coming true. And at a time when investors are dumping millions into the space (Air BnB announced $112 million in investments last week, while competitor Wimdu recently locked down $90 million). I knew renting my home out to a stranger, or trusting a stranger to put me up someplace decent sounded like a bad idea. You should never talk to strangers, much less share space with them, right? I bet those investors are kicking themselves.
Or maybe not. Here’s the thing: Air BnB, despite apparently mishandling this situation at the start, is now doing the right thing. They’ve got insurance in place now to cover hosts for up to $50,000 of damage, a policy they are extending to the poor San Francisco host who kicked this whole thing off. The company also launched a safety section on its site with tips, as well as several enhanced safety features, including 24-hour customer service and an in-house security task team charged with looking into reports of suspicious behavior. Unfortunately, most of that is not really going to help EJ, whose ordeal is still ongoing and who is stuck with a crappy situation regardless, but it does nonetheless bode well for current and future users of Airbnb. And here’s another thing: That mostly happened because the AirBnB community raised a ruckus in support of EJ and insisted that the company sort itself out.
That gets at what makes the social travel trend, or the peer-to-peer travel trend, depending on who you talk to, not only generally cool but also likely to stick around: It harnesses the power of communities to mostly positive ends.
This is also a new industry, and by addressing security concerns now, social travel companies will make it easier for the industry to grow. By baking security concerns into its road map at its launch (4 months ago), and providing 24-hour customer service and on-the-ground employees in the countries it serves, Air BnB competitor Wimdu hopes to curb bad behavior before it starts. The site also sends employees to stay at host properties to vet the spaces and the hosts first-hand, and will be rolling out its own insurance policy shortly to ease the concerns of hosts.
And the power of the communities created on these sites is still strong. “EJ seemed to be partially disappointed that the strength of the Air BnB community wasn’t enough to provide security, but the community aspect of social travel does provide a baseline level of checks and balances,” says Wimdu founder Russell Goldman. “If a site works well there’s enough users on the host side and the guest side that people are reviewing and being reviewed by each other, and so you do have some comfort there.”
That coupled with insurance policies and a decent process in place to handle the occasional reservation gone awry seems like enough to satisfy most travelers and would-be hosts. Despite the Airbnb shake-up, the social travel industry continues to grow exponentially larger and more profitable each month (Wimdu already has more than 400 employees, and spaces in over 200 cities). It’s likely to continue growing and by most accounts that’s a good thing. Whether they afford you the opportunity to feel like a local in San Francisco, a gypsy in France, or a millionaire on your own private island in Fiji, these services are offering new, fun travel experiences. They’re tapping into that desire many tourists have to get a local’s viewpoint of the places they visit, and they’re creating a feeling of community on multiple layers (within various geographic locations, as well as online, amongst members). And, like any community, they need policing.
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