Monday, July 20, 2015

Airbnb, Or The Limits of Advertising.

Perhaps you have seen the Airbnb ad at your local cinema where a comely young woman travels the world, staying in wonderful houses, (with pools!) surrounded by lovely people who soon become like family and take her to karaoke bars in Tokyo. Or the one about a baby peering out a window, a blatant rip-off of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, poetic mumbo jumbo included. Their new campaign concept is "Is Mankind?" Well, to judge from my own personal experience renting from Airbnb, the answer is "no".
Airbnb's marketing and advertising make it sound like their business proposition, in which total amateurs supplement their income by becoming innkeepers overnight is about community, sharing and humanity. And perhaps it is, in a few miraculous cases. But there is a chasm from here to Pluto between Airbnb's aspirational imagery and the reality of the business. And I think this sets both hosts and guests up for bitter disappointment. This gulf between the ads and reality reminds me of those cigarette ads from the fifties in which doctors endorsed smoking Lucky Strikes for good health.
It's all about managing expectations. People point out to me that making a buck from strangers by renting them your house is not new. Before Airbnb, people did it through Craigslist and other channels. But because there was no marketing, people were ready to expect ghouls, both as hosts and guests. Nobody expected veritable angels of mercy to descend on a property. After some back and forth to make sure nobody involved was a card-carrying psycho, you hoped for the best and braced for the worst. Airbnb provides a well-organized platform to do the same thing. However, they have also decided to brand themselves as the paragon of human kindness, and this is where expectations are squashed.
Now, I don't know about you, but for the life of me, I will never understand what people like about staying in the houses of strangers. Give me a hotel: clean, well managed, with a good mattress and decent towels, and I'm all set. You say: "oh, but it is generic, it is anonymous". Anonymous makes me horny. I hate bed and breakfasts. I have nothing to say to total strangers early in the morning. I don't want to use someone else's bathroom, much less have to make the bed and wash the dishes. Is this so hard to fathom? Hotels are expensive, I know. But their price includes not having to do all of the above: a fair deal, as far as I'm concerned. 

The first time I rented on Airbnb, I found a very hip-looking house in Mexico City for a trip with friends. We wrote the host telling him that we wanted the house exclusively for ourselves. We were six people. He said yes. When we arrived, the house was not only falling apart, and dirty, but there were other guests staying in what were supposed to be our rooms. We ended up moving to a hotel.
The second time I rented was a three-month lease on behalf of an employee. The employee quit before his contract was over and when I asked the host to cancel the reservation, he completely ignored me. He had over $7000 in his pocket and was indifferent to my pleas to resolve the situation. I involved Airbnb, which ruled that I was responsible, and all I could do was appeal to the host, so I had to pay for the full stay. Then lo and behold, after the guest left, the host tried to shake me down for $1200, claiming damages: three burned pots that needed a vigorous massage with a Brillo pad, and similar pathetic stuff. Airbnb ruled that this was wear and tear covered by the insurance and I was not liable.  I must say that Airbnb was swift and professional in getting involved. That host was a vulture.
I have since erased my profile from Airbnb.  Next time, I'm going to a HOTEL, where they know how to deal with guests because that is what they do for a living. Who needs the aggravation?
My point being: most regular people have no business in the hospitality business. They have no idea what it entails. I bet that many of the hosts for Airbnb could care less about being kind to humanity, and are just happy to make some dough. This gets exponentially complicated by the fact that they are opening their houses to total strangers - people who may be nice, or not; who may have horrid hygiene habits, or not. 
I wonder if this new campaign isn't an attempt to remind people of the better angels of their nature, because Airbnb must be drowning in disputes. They posted their baby video on Facebook, a piece of schmaltz specifically crafted to elicit tears of gratitude for being alive, yet most of the comments are bitter complaints about everything: hosts, guests, the system, the reviews: human pettiness all around. This makes me suspect that Airbnb thinks it can coax people to behave themselves by waxing poetic. I'd prefer something more realistic.
It behooves Airbnb to stop the cute hipstery nonsense. Are you a cheap bastard who won't stay in a hotel? Well then, buyer beware. What you get for that is: amateurs. As for the hosts, it's not enough to put out a clean towel and call it a day. You have to be hospitable, and also not lie about the state of your place and its size. You have to be someone who enjoys making people feel at home. Otherwise, find another way to make a quick buck. Go stand on a corner, or become an Uber driver.