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Lessons Learned - And Then Some

Published by Carolyn in the blog Carolyn's blog.

“I’ve learned so many things from guests. I’m loving it.”

“Airbnb, you made the month of June a precious one….”

--Host comments from Airbnb groups

Airbnb hosts love to talk about how much they’ve learned from guests and what magical experiences they’ve had. I never understood this. Of course, like all of us, I’ve had wonderful interactions with guests. I’ve enjoyed finding out about other cultures and people’s hobbies and occupations. But have I really learned anything profound? Has any guest ever made my life “precious?”

Maybe I think I don’t need to learn anything. After all, I’ve been around for five decades. I speak three languages, I’ve traveled, and I’ve had friends and colleagues from many places, with different viewpoints and lifestyles. Really, what can I learn from travelers who stay at my Airbnb for a few nights? When I hear hosts rave about how Airbnb enriches their lives, I may agree, but inside I’m thinking in practical, even cynical terms. Sure, I love hosting, and I enjoy my guests, but I mainly view Airbnb as a job. It’s a terrific job, but I do it to help pay my mortgage.

Some hosts speak with religious zeal about hosting. The word “blessed,” or some form of it, appears a lot in Airbnb groups:

“We’re blessed – four years of hosting and meeting amazing people from all over the world!”​

“It’s been a very exciting experience hosting. Host blessings to all!”​

“Thanks Airbnb for teaching me many things … Such a wonderful experience. We so love what we do and I pray to God that it will continue and for other hosts to have the joy we are experiencing. God bless every one!”​

I guess I should thank that last host for praying for me, but isn’t she going a bit overboard?

Was I too smug, thinking I couldn’t benefit more from interactions with guests? Was I missing something?

It only occurred to me recently: yes, I was missing something. I hadn’t ever considered how very personal the host and guest exchange is. The whole reason we’re interacting at all is very intimate. It’s not about meeting amazing people. We can join an online chat room and meet a stranger we like. The lessons of hosting go beyond just, say, discovering that stranger from Lithuania who also loves Frank Sinatra. What really makes hosting unique is that we provide a basic human need: shelter. If we look past the handmade soaps and homemade muffins, what do hosts do? We give people a roof over their heads, a bed, and a bathroom. I enjoy the extras as much as any traveler, but what’s most on my mind when I reach a destination? I get to wash my face and lie down.

What does it mean to provide a stranger with this elemental need? We all love that feeling when a guest enters our place and immediately says, “Oh, this is great!” The guest is responding to the basics. A comfortable bed, clean towels, perhaps a place to cook. Providing someone with a place to sleep means we’re helping them along on their journey. It’s a tiny contribution. However, think about the little things we all do to ensure that those basic needs are covered. We tiptoe when we know our guest may still be sleeping. We worry whether we’ve left enough coffee. And, as a host, I realized once that I had forgotten to stock extra toilet paper. I panicked in that moment, more than I had at any time in my Airbnb experiences. You know the feeling, and you also know that I ran right out and replenished that TP. I think about the essentials more than I think about a smooth check-in or even a great review. The bed needs to be comfortable, the supplies stocked.

Everything comes down to the most personal of needs: a place to stay.

As I thought about this essential fact, I got a text from my guest, who arrived ten minutes ago. My first thought: “Oh, no, she’s going to say that the wi fi is down.” It wasn’t that at all. She wrote: “Thank you so much for the fresh fruit and water bottles! So kind of you!”

In this note, she called me “kind,” but the real kindness came from my guest, who took the time to thank me for what is just my ordinary procedure. The K word. Kind. Where else had I just seen that?

I looked back at the quote from the Airbnb host who’s out there praying for me. There’s more to what she says:

“Just remember an act of kindness is a ripple that can make the world a better place.”

The Airbnb host who wrote this is Tess, a Superhost in San Antonio, Texas. Her statement is the sort of gushy remark I would normally pass right over. But I think she is on to something. She seems to know that offering a place to sleep brings out the kindness in us all. That is why some of these hosts talk the way they do, about blessings and miracles and precious moments. It’s the satisfaction of providing a place to stay, and knowing that maybe you’ve helped someone as they flow along in life.

Lead with kindness. That’s the first step. Carry kindness, and pass it on, like the flu. No, that’s not right – I can’t come up with the correct phrase! I would never be any good at writing sentimental greeting cards. I just know that adding the extra dose of kindness makes our small contribution so much bigger. When you answer a basic need in someone, you’re caring for them in a unique way. For good hosts, this brings out the kindness, the sentiment. People are sleeping under our roofs, and we’re like caretakers. We have a simple responsibility – to provide shelter. Yet we go beyond, adding that bit of kindness that smooths out the travel experience.

When guests arrive, I often find myself saying things I hadn’t necessarily planned to say: “So, you made it!” “Did you find the place okay?” “Can I help you with your bags?” It’s a nice touch, and it comes automatically, before my prepared statements about the wi fi password and the luggage rack. It’s an immediate kindness as we answer our guests’ immediate needs. We want to make sure they feel welcome and comfortable in a strange new place.

This lesson on kindness – didn’t I know that already? Don’t most of us realize the value of treating each other kindly, no matter where we meet? Of course we do. The problem is that it’s so easy to forget to practice kindness. The other day, I walked into a store as an elderly woman was leaving. Of course, I held the door for her. Anyone would do this; it is instinctive. Yet, I’m glad I recognized that instinct. And, it helped to realize that I can consciously add an additional bit of kindness to my guest interaction. If I instinctively say “So, you made it!” I can consciously add, “I’m so glad you’re here!” Maybe that makes their arrival a tiny bit smoother. We’re all flowing through life, on our little journeys, and a dose of kindness keeps us from stumbling too often.

So, I may not have guests who change my life, but I can be part of that flow: offering an extra bit of kindness, along with a roof over someone’s head, on another step in the journey.

Carolyn is a teacher & host.
c. 2015 by author
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