Published: “Strangers, welcome.” by Hospitality News

Published, Writing

I recently had my second editorial piece of the year published in the Fall/Winter 2014 edition of Hospitality News by Georgia State University’s Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration.  

Titled “Strangers, welcome.,” it examines Airbnb, the home-sharing service, by outlining the rights and responsibilities of guests and hosts, as well as comparing it against traditional lodging offerings.

I spend the majority of my working hours drafting content for companies and organizations, as well as my own blog, so the magazine editorial writing process was definitely a departure from my usual writing routine.

My goal is to have four editorial works published in 2014, but, as of today, that number stands at two. My first piece, “Southern Exposure,” was published by Global Yodel. However, after experiencing the amount of work that’s required to pull together an editorial piece, having it accepted by an editor and then anticipate its publishing, I’m more than happy with my results to date.

Below is the original, non-edited version of “Strangers, welcome.”  Click here for the final published version (PDF, page 11).  Enjoy.

Strangers, welcome.

The rights and responsibilities of Airbnb guests.

by Lee Rankin

Travel connects people from different communities and cultures for the purposes of business, celebration, exploration and reasons in-between.  A plethora of online sites and services allow travelers, from the discerning to adventurous, to skillfully curate their experiences with touches of comfort and creativity.  While some prefer the pampering of an upscale hotel suite, many travelers are settling into the homes of local residents, with whom they have no prior relationship, for an intimate view of their unfamiliar surroundings.

Airbnb, a community marketplace for listing and booking unique lodging accommodations, has connected more than 17 million guests with hosts willing to open their doors to visitors looking to satisfy their curiosity for a non-traditional travel experience.  Since launching in 2008, guests have booked stays in homes ranging from conventional, like apartments and cottages, to eccentric, such as sailboats, yurts, treehouses and castles, in over 34,000 cities in 190 countries.  The concept of home-sharing is far from novel, but Airbnb has created an innovative platform for cultivating and commercializing alternative lodging on a global scale.

Airbnb can be viewed as a channel for discovering and booking quirky places to stay, but it is better classified as a disruption to tourism industry norms, similar to how rideshare company Uber is impacting transportation.  Airbnb is proving attractive to travelers who are seeking an experience that differs from what hotels and other lodging companies traditionally offer.  Paul Breslin, Principal of Horwath HTL and Adjunct Professor of Hotel Management at Georgia State University, Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration, notes,

“The team at Airbnb is brilliant and has created a very cool company with a great strategy. The good for the travel industry is they are reaching an entirely new market segment who want to travel, especially millennial travelers looking for a non-traditional experience.  The risks are ensuring safety and enforcing the collection of hotel tax. Traditional hotel companies are taking note of the potential impact on their market share and have begun strategic changes to meet the desires of the new traveler. 

Non-traditional travelers may seek more traditional accommodations as their needs change, but Airbnb is filling their needs today and that is good.  Overall, Airbnb is a win-win for the tourism industry.”

Airbnb’s contributions to the tourism industry are widely documented and lauded.  However, new guests, as well as travelers who are simply curious, should peel back its layers to ensure they fully understand what to expect and, more specifically, their rights as members of the Airbnb community.

Booking accommodations on Airbnb.com resembles reserving a hotel room in regards to narrowing selections based on location and availability – but beyond this – the online experience closer mimics a social media community than a hotel website or online travel agent.  After creating a profile, travelers personalize their search using criteria like Room Type, but instead of Double or Suite, the options provided are Entire Place, Private Room and Shared Room.  So, as indicated, guests can opt for complete privacy or camping out in a common area regularly trafficked by the host and whomever else resides in the home.

Another element of the Airbnb booking experience that travelers should note is the highly-encouraged recommendation to communicate with hosts to ask questions and discuss house rules prior to submitting an official “request to book.”  Keeping in mind that guests are attempting to book privately-owned properties, hosts have full discretion whether to accept or decline reservation requests.  Public ratings and reviews deter hosts from ignoring and declining requests, but guests can better ensure a warm welcome by establishing a level of comfort prior to submitting their inquiry.

Before the formalities of accepting a reservation and processing payment are complete, guests should thoroughly digest the terms which activate as a result of an accepted booking.  Within each listing, the host’s cancellation policy is prominently displayed.  Policies are defined and labeled by Airbnb as Flexible, Moderate and Strict.  Unlike hotel managers who handle issues with the intent of completely satisfying their guests, many times regardless of circumstance, unresolvable disputes between guests and hosts are mediated and independently decided by Airbnb – placing emphasis on impartiality due to both parties’ importance to its home-sharing community.

Trust and respect are important for ensuring non-traditional travel is enjoyable, memorable and safe.  In the role of facilitator, Airbnb has developed a community for enthusiasts who actively participate in and advocate for hyperlocal travel experiences.  As members of this collective, guests should be knowledgeable of where Airbnb draws lines of risk and responsibility for itself and its users.  Hospitality attorney and Georgia State University, Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration Professor Diana S. Barber offers,

“From a legal standpoint, traveling customers and guests need to understand that the services provided by Airbnb are to facilitate reservations and they are not responsible for anything which creates legal liability that may occur before, during or after the stay at the accommodations arranged through Airbnb.  Hotels and other lodging companies take on the duties, either by statute, case law precedent or standards in the industry, of providing a safe environment for guests and remain legally responsible should negligence occur on the part of the lodging company.  Airbnb, similar to other OTC (online travel companies) whose sole purpose is to be the middleman in the transaction, expressly disclaims on their website any responsibility for any and all liability related to any and all listings and accommodations and states that any bookings will be made at the guest’s own risk.”

Though the assumption of risk is ultimately absorbed by travelers, Airbnb takes an active stance in maintaining personal safety and delivering warm hospitality by providing a library of standards and best practices for its users.  Policies and items of note include:

  • Airbnb provides Verified ID, an online and offline information verification service, as a tool to confirm the identities of community members.  However, it is stated that Verified ID is not an endorsement or guarantee of someone’s identity.
  • A Host Guarantee, protection for up to $1,000,000 in property damages, and a Guest Refund Policy are in place, but Airbnb clearly notes that these policies are not insurance.  Insurance, specifically homeowner, renter or traveler coverage plans, is not provided by Airbnb, so travelers and hosts are responsible securing the proper coverage for their personal property.
  • In the case of emergency or threat to personal safety, Airbnb informs community members to contact the local police or emergency services.  With safety responsibilities placed squarely upon travelers, guests must take precautions and understand how to acquire emergency help, if needed.

Traveling has long been considered the best way to encounter intriguing people, savor appetizing delicacies, eavesdrop upon romantic languages and organically absorb unique cultures.  Airbnb provides curious explorers with easy access to locals in communities around the world who openly accept strangers longing to immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments.  Romanticism aside, all exploration comes with risk, so the further travelers step away from traditional methods and means, the greater their opportunities to experience the unknown.  Members of the growing Airbnb community inherently embrace these challenges – and hopefully with their rights and responsibilities in mind.  So to those with recently accepted reservations and inquisitive ambition, safe travels.

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