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We have always had guests in our home. We have a music studio in a beautiful large Victorian that bands from around the country and world come to work and stay while recording an album. So when local artist friends introduced us to Airbnb a few years ago, raving about the extra money they were making, we eyed it warily. We already knew what it was like hosting guests. In the ensuing years, as taxes and utilities took a leap skywards, we decided along with many others to try to bring in some extra income by putting our space (and ourselves) to work using the Airbnb platform. While we have appreciated the opportunity to generate money using resources available to us, after three years we are feeling the burn from the unrealistic expectations from both guests and Airbnb.
Our first year meant lots of investing: new beds, curtains, linens, pillows, designer cushions, glasses, coffee cups, larger percolator, and on, until it meant most of the first year we were earning back what we had spent. It was nerve wracking. Would people like it here? Was it close enough to the places people would want to see? What would they think of our home? Had we cleaned and scrubbed enough?
It was demanding. Many Airbnb guests expected a hotel experience, and all the hospitality of a southern beauty queen. There were some enjoyable times. We loved seeing the friendly guests who took to hanging out on our front porch for a few days, lapping up the neighborhood vibe, reading books, and sitting with their well behaved little dog. It showed us how we could be enjoying our home instead of racing around trying to get everything done - if only we could! Sometimes we thought we had done everything possible to make a guest comfortable, yet when they found something to nitpick we would feel dismayed at how demanding people could be. Such things as 'there was a slight click from the ceiling fan' - one that try as we may, we couldn't hear. Many seemed oblivious to all the work that went into hosting, which is great for them, as a holiday should be relaxing, but it could feel thankless for us. Even though money changed hands there is always a feeling that when someone is a guest in your home, there should be the small but vital reward of appreciation that money alone can't convey. Not so with Airbnb, where some people felt that because they were paying, they didn't need to express gratitude as we jumped through the hoops to meet the increasing expectations. We felt that Airbnb's review system even prompted guests to try to find things wrong with their stay by asking them to make suggestions for improvements. These suggestions, would often be disheartening for a host spent from having done all they could to create a wonderful stay, and left with a mess to clean up. It felt like nothing would ever be good enough for everyone.
We responded to suggestions, began providing breakfasts at extra cost to ourselves while the room rates stayed the same to match those similar in the area. Some things although clearly written in the description (and again in messages) couldn't be changed, such as location or walking distances, so these remarks in reviews felt petty. We had turned our home into a commodity for people to make banal remarks over. Of course, most were overwhelmingly positive (we have 93% five star reviews as Superhosts). It was good encouragement to keep the house spotless and 'display ready', great if we one day decided to sell, but quite a lot of pressure also, with nowhere near enough in the budget for cleaning help. Money went into doing things around the home that had long needed attending to, which was good, but the small percentage of little points suggesting they had expected something better still stung more than all the praises could possibly soothe. They suggested something we began to feel permeating the entire organization. A lack of appreciation for the hosts.
By the next year, between some good people and times, negative experiences were increasing. Guests lied to us about themselves and the nature of their stay, broke things and hid them, stole valuable heirlooms (that wasn't discovered in the 48 hrs specified that hosts have to locate damaged or missing items amongst our other antiques). Guests made indiscriminate noise while other guests and ourselves were trying to sleep, others caused a leak into our plaster and lathe walls creating massive damage, and others promised house trained pets that were anything but. We had to deal with so many of these and other situations (hard for people not inclined to confrontations), to the point we began to feel apprehensive about each next arrival. Hotel staff have training on how to manage difficult guests - and if we learnt one thing is sure, there are always difficult guests. As much as we tightened the hatches, only taking verified guests, and even only reviewed guests, we realized something wasn't working.
Worst of all was the cover up that airbnb did of the guests that tried to blackmail us. Airbnb management stepped in (after we were initially encouraged to leave a detailed review) and removed all traces of it, allowing the guilty party to go on booking with none-the-wiser hosts. Their excuse for refusing to allow the review was nonsensical: at first because it was a case still under investigation, but afterward with the case closed, and the blackmailers stopped from pulling off their scam, they wouldn't talk, refusing to post our review. It broke our hearts and more importantly trust as we realized they cared more about managing public perception and didn't want these kind of incidents on record than they cared about protecting their hosts.
Nonetheless, we felt uncomfortable giving honest reviews, too. We didn't want a retaliatory remark on our page, or anyone to know that bad things had happened here, nor did we want potential guests to think of us as too judgmental. We also wanted to forget as quickly as possible. We had the role of charming host to uphold, and feared turning away business, so we managed to find something positive to say about almost everyone, but in so doing failed to warn other hosts about guests that were incapable of showing genuine respect. No wonder those guests with good reviews weren't always so good after all. The guest with no reviews? They might have used Airbnb many times, and the hosts just couldn't bring themselves to review the experience. After all, that was how we handled things.
When damages occurred, we were made to take photos, and try to 'talk it out' with the guests. Waiting through the process (72 hrs before airbnb would step in and make a final decision if an agreement hadn't been struck), became painful little islands of time. It felt like a cruelty as long term, trusted 'SuperHosts' with a track record of good service to have to confront guests who had already abused your hospitality and home, and try to cajole, guilt, or reason them into paying for what they'd done. We were at the mercy of an unknown face working at a massive corporation when that would turn into accusations of lies and an opportunity for more abuse. Even when it worked out in our favor, the whole process was off putting enough that at times we chose to eat the cost ourselves, rather than have to 'duke it out' and beg. I was told by one guest 'You shouldn't have such nice things'. And I felt guilty that I did. But I couldn't guest proof the entire home and redesign it with target or Walmart ware. Admittedly Airbnb did cover us in the cases we opened that the guest wouldn't, but we felt there had to be a better way. In a hotel you get the credit card and don't have to prove a case to someone that wasn't there for what went down. There are many things in our home that Airbnb will not cover, such as our art, Persian rugs and antiques. It felt like only a matter of time. Airbnb had set itself up as the power, while we were the ones on the front lines, doing all the dirty work.
Maybe we were burning out? This really wasn't the fun it was made out to be. We couldn't relax and make the friendships Airbnb famously promotes (although we did meet some nice people), because those 'friends' were going to rate and review our performance thoroughly at the end, and we soon realized it was difficult determining which people were really genuine. By now we recognized that we had been selling far more than just a room for the night. It was our friendship, hospitality, and a look into our private home life, a chance to live as as we do, right in our home with us. In effect, we had made our lives into commodities.
Airbnb, and the articles and rhetoric they use, is pushing hosts to provide exemplary service at a low cost to tempt guests away from hotels. This puts an extraordinary strain on hosts, expecting more and more yet eating further into the bottom line. Hotels get everything from beds, coffee, to sheets and everything that you see at very low bulk commercial pricing. Expecting us to provide more than a hotel does, yet stay in business is a big ask, while doing all the work on your own, and paying retail prices. Articles suggesting fresh cut flowers, welcome baskets with goodies, transport to and from the station and airport, chocolates on pillows, home made cakes for birthdays and anniversaries are setting a standard that is creating a new brand of spoiled travelers as Airbnb's compete for business with cheaper rooms and more offers. Even the most expensive five star hotels don't provide all of these things because they wouldn't stay in business, yet we are advised to do them all, while getting those ever present messages reminding us to drop our price for more bookings.
We were burning out on the ever growing expectation. The takings while looking great on the airbnb 'dashboard', aren't quite so exciting after the increased utilities, extras such as breakfast, tax time comes around and other expenditures are considered. Then there's all that work. The non stop cleaning, laundry and bed making can get exhausting after a while, and we are only 'part-timers'.
Can our experience really be this negative, when so many claim to be enjoying it? I don't deny that some people may be better cut out for the job than us. But I do believe it's a slow burn. From talking to other hosts in person and online, I am convinced we're not alone, and those that have been at it for the longer time periods have similar tales to tell. I think that now Airbnb has hit the mainstream, the expectations only increase with the unrealistic advertising, pushing an experience like out of a movie, unrealistic for both guests and hosts. Although the extra income is addictive, the extra stress is not. I believe there is a reason the hotel industry started out exactly this way hundreds of years ago and moved towards a regulated industry with trained staff and properly maintained buildings, maid service, furniture that isn't easily damaged, hardy carpets, linens, and coffee at a tenth of the price. Now I am beginning to wonder why there is such a fascination with going backwards. Or is that the Airbnb host burn out talking?
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