Ethics in Hosting -- transparency about neighborhood issues Sept 21, 2015 2:32:45 GMT
Post by High Priestess on Sept 21, 2015 2:32:45 GMT
Ethics in Hosting
I recently hosted a young, female student from China who booked a two week stay in a Richmond Airbnb during dates that my place wasn't available. The listing does not indicate that it's located in a high crime area, and the host did not disclose to my guest that she may not be safe walking alone from the BART station at night, even though they knew my guest was a young, single female and planned to make that walk nightly. I didn't know where else she was staying, or I would have warned her, of course.
On her first night at the Richmond Airbnb, she was terrified walking home, and she also didn't feel safe staying in the house. So she requested to cancel and get a refund, so she could stay someplace safe. The host refused to refund her money. This left my guest in the position of choosing her money (nearly $1,000) or her safety. She chose her safety and lost nearly $1000. The host left a punitive, negative review, saying the guest wanted to scam her out of a one-night booking (since she has a 2-night minimum), rather than the guest's real reason: her safety. Of course, the guest will post a response, but the damage is there and the money is unrecoverable.
The listing is located in a high crime area, near the El Cerrito del Norte BART station, which has the 3rd highest number of violent crimes of any BART station in the Bay Area. A student was shot to death last year at the high school, which is located 3 blocks away. The crime map shows a high number of assaults in the area. On a moral/ethical level, I think hosts should disclose any safety issues a guest may confront, if not in their listing, then in private messages ... especially if the traveler is a young female (but not only then). I feel this host took advantage of my guest and profited through deception.
This kind of behavior tarnishes the Airbnb hosting community and erodes our support among travelers. I'm personally offended that a guest was exploited in this way, since I view Airbnb as an alternative to the corporate greed model of doing business. It's supposed to be about sharing with others, not about exploiting others. Since my guest's command of English and of the Airbnb system isn't very strong, she hasn't succeeded in getting any help from Airbnb. Any advice? I'd like to hear other host's take on this (and not just from the group leaders, please). Shouldn't we discuss ethics and etiquette, and work together to create an Airbnb culture that discourages this kind of behavior?
Many thanks for any thoughts you can offer.
Wow. That's really crappy Amy. Shame on the Richmond host too. I will say that practically speaking, the guest should NOT have walked home and instead should have paid a few extra bucks for a Lyft/Uber/Taxi! Then she could have continued to stay at the house and been more justified in requesting a smaller refund (perhaps in the amount to cover the rideshares?). But this is all in the past now so not too helpful I know. Going forward you should definitely report this host to Airbnb...even if your guest already did (since you say she struggles with the language) to ensure that the listing gets updated with important safety information. Tell your guest to continue to pursue a refund too. Sometimes it takes months, but it's worth the fight. And be SURE that the guest talks about lack of SAFETY in her review too. So sorry to hear this happened
Yes, using a taxi or Uber would have been a good option, but she didn't realize how unsafe she would feel until she was already walking in the neighborhood. Then, she didn't feel safe at the house, either. I haven't been to the location, but I read the listing, and I located it on the map, and used street view, and also looked it up on the crime maps. The crime maps show it as having the second highest crime rate in Richmond, and there were numerous news stories about crime in the area. Anyway, I'm not interested in getting into a battle with another host, so I've helped my guest connect with Airbnb to get further help.
That sounds very difficult for the young guest. I hope she is able to get some resolution through Airbnb by requesting a full refund. Maybe you can help her do a resolution request? This isn't hard to do on Airbnb -- and she could do it in writing rather than have to do it verbally.
As someone who wasn't in on the situation and thus does not know much about what was or wasn't communicated, I don't feel I can comment on the host's ethics or lack thereof. In general, I think it is best for all hosts to realistically describe their house and neighborhood, to try to be as accurate as possible so that guests can make the best choice. However, though it is not helpful, I dont necessarily feel it would be unethical or deceptive to be inaccurate, or to fail to comment on safety issues. I consider "area safety" to be a difficult topic to discuss, as "safety" has both subjective and objective aspects. I would not want to claim, for instance, that I lived in a "very safe" area, even if I thought it was very safe, just because you never know what can happen in any place, and there isn't anyplace that is totally safe. For instance, we often think of the Berkeley and Oakland hills as a particularly safe residential area, but a man was killed in the Berkeley hills by a schizophrenic person a couple years ago, and last year a man hiking in Huckleberry park was murdered, apparently in an attempted robbery. Criminals do not respect boundaries of the areas we deem "safe."
I think that this particular guest felt unsafe even in the house where she was paying to stay, is the most important thing, in this story, and because of that she has a good chance of getting refunded, if she is willing to elaborate on that with AIrbnb.
Thank you both for your feedback.
It's tricky criticizing how other hosts operate their Airbnbs, but I do think it's important for users of a new business model to discuss its ethics and gradually develop some degree of consensus or leadership around what kind of culture we want to support and encourage amongst ourselves.
Given that we live in a society where business ethics is usually an oxymoron, it's even more important that companies in the sharing economy -- which is supposed to be more human and humane -- take strong leadership in the area of ethics. Airbnb is built on the model of humans offering homes to other humans, not on a corporate model that equates travelers with dollars and nothing more.
While it is true that one's feeling of safety can be subjective, it is not entirely so. Crime statistics and crime maps are available online, and searchable by address, for example; but very few people know about them or how to search them, especially people from other countries and young people. And there is a strong marketing of the "people" aspect of Airbnb, which generates a high level of trust for one's host. I can't imagine a young, inexperienced traveler thinking that they had better check the crime statistics for a listing that was described as safe on Airbnb, because maybe the host is hiding something.
Very few people with an ounce of integrity would argue against the appropriateness of giving precautions to a young, single female when the neighborhood she plans to call home for two weeks has the second highest crime rate in its city, and the BART station she plans to walk home from has the third highest number of violent crimes of any BART station in the Bay Area. Yet, this, and similar things are happening in the hosting community. I've personally heard some hosts rationalize other forms of deception for the sake of marketing and gaining bookings that I think are unconscionable.
Regardless of how my guest's case turns out, I think it's important topic of discussion for hosts, locally as well as nationally and internationally. I think Airbnb should develop guidelines for how to communicate the neighborhood safety, security, and risk issues, especially in urban areas, where crime can vary block-to-block. It should be addressed in one's listing in a way that is accurate but also leaves room for the appropriate degree of subjectivity or relativity on this question. I also think Airbnb needs optional map overlays (by checkbox) showing crime rates and other issues of import to travelers (such as power outage frequency and water quality hazards). In the pursuit of more bookings, hosts just can't be trusted to self-report these factors.
In the meantime, I think we should put ourselves in the guests' shoes, and always maintain the same degree of transparency, openness, and honesty about our listings that we hope to find when we are traveling. I suggest hosts experiment with wording so that issues like this are disclosed without making it sound like your Airbnb is any worse than those around you.
For instance, in my Airbnb, I make it clear that student noise can be a problem in locations near campus, including mine (and that I provide free earplugs!). On the listing of an Airbnb I host in West Berkeley, I disclose that the apartment is located in an eclectic working class, family neighborhood, with some run down houses on the street, but that the owners have lived there for 30 years with no problems. I also report the moisture/mildew problems with the apartment and the fact that it's next door to a home for disabled adults who shout sometimes. I reiterate these points when people inquire, both because I want guests to be satisfied, and because I know I'll have fewer management issues if I'm transparent. The apartment is almost always booked. My attitude is, if I can't get bookings while communicating the real issues of concern, I shouldn't be hosting there. And the fact is, there is a market out there for every kind of location, and plenty of people are willing to stay in edge areas to save money, especially folks who are used to urban areas, older, more experienced with travel in all kinds of places, and streetwise.
Getting a booking through deception or by withholding important information is wrong. Refusing to refund someone's money when they realize they've been deceived and find the situation untenable is theft, in my book.
I have been a marketing consultant and advertising copywriter through my company, Idealist Marketing, for the past 10 years. My clients have included PBS, Ralph Nader, and Green America. I'm not alone in coaching small businesses and nonprofits alike to practice authentic marketing. Mainstream marketing has infused our psyche's with the notion that we have to put a shiny veneer on everything in order to make those mega-profits. But those principles were developed for the mass marketing of widgets by mega corporations in exclusive service to profits. Ethics aside, it's just not smart business practice to adopt the marketing approach of a completely different kind of business for our kind of business.
The business we are in limits our customer base: we can't possibly sell a billion widgets and make $10B dollars. So there's no point dumbing down or generalizing our advertising to try to achieve mass appeal. The business we are in is about our humanity, our uniqueness, and our role in a social revolution. So our listings are going to be seen by plenty of people who are up for an adventure, willing to be flexible, and open to new environs. Indeed, that place in Richmond could appeal to enough politically conscious hipsters that it wouldn't need to trick an innocent like the young, Chinese student into a booking. The business we are in depends on reviews: no matter how nice you are, someone, someday is going to call you on false advertising, and once they do, others will echo it.
For all of these reasons, and more, forget everything you've internalized about good corporate marketing-speak: authentic marketing is the way to go with our listings.
I definitely agree that guests should not be "tricked" into booking a place, and also that an area such as you describe, should not be described as a "safe neighborhood" in the listing. I dont' know if it was --- I didn't see the listing and how it was presented. However, at the same time, guests can be irrational about crime and safety issues, and I have heard more about that, than I have of guests being intentionally misled. For instance, I have heard of stories where guests dismissed an entire city as "unsafe", or cancelled their reservation when they saw people of a certain race in the neighborhood and decided that it was therefore "unsafe."
I dont' think we will see Airbnb offering crime statistics overlays on its maps. I think encouraging ethical behavior in hosts is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but this is something that I see as difficult to require. Safety issues in neighborhoods and how to communicate about them is actually an issue I have seen arise quite a bit on the forums -- not this forum, but the worldwide forums. So my impression is that hosts are working on it. The better, more conscientious hosts are working on this, in any case.
My neighbor had that happen. Someone left after 1 day because of mixed races in the neighborhood and said it was a safety issue.
Yes, I agree, Deborah: I've seen situations where people made the racist assumption that a mixed race neighborhood wasn't safe (unconscious or conscious), or the classist assumption that a poor neighborhood wasn't safe. My guest walked past People's Park en route to campus, and frequented Telegraph Ave, and didn't feel unsafe, so I'm pretty sure her fear wasn't racist or classist. There's also the issue that certain crimes are omitted from crime stats (e.g. while collar corporate crime), which paints a classist and racist picture of crime, but these aren't relevant to our guests' safety in a specific neighborhood. In terms of safety, violent crime rates are an issue, as are burglaries and robberies. The crime stats maps indicate several different categories of crime, including assault, robbery, burglary, rape, murder, identity theft, and a few others. I agree with you: I doubt Airbnb will provide such maps in their searches. But what Airbnb will or won't do is partly influenced by what hosts call upon them to do. And my point is partly that we hosts need to take leadership in encouraging good behavior by other hosts and good policies and tools by Airbnb.
It's a tough call. I understand that situation is extreme but people ask me all the time if my neighborhood is safe. I bought a home here and love it. I walk at night all the time (north oakland/emeryville border). But just because I feel safe doesn't mean someone else will. I hope she left them a detailed review.
Yes, I just think it's best to give people the choice. Sometimes a traveler's profile or messages indicate a likelihood that they're high end travelers, very young & inexperienced, or would otherwise be potentially disconcerted by the neighborhood of the Airbnb I manage in West Berkeley. In that case, I thank them for their inquiry, answer any questions they had, and incorporate a short paragraph something like this: "Our place is a humble abode, not luxury or upscale by any means, but fully furnished, comfortable, nicely decorated, and well equipped. As one of the older neighborhoods in West Berkeley, it is culturally diverse, inhabited by mostly working class families, and includes some old homes in need of repair on our block. If you like eclectic, urban neighborhoods, with lots of ethnic restaurants and conveniences within walking distance, and you're not looking for something pristine or upscale, this is a great place to stay. The owners have lived here for 30 years, know their neighbors, and have never had any security or safety issues."
I like that
If they reject the place on that basis, then my disclosure filtered out the guests who would likely be uncomfortable there, with stressful outcomes for all concerned. This way is better for them and for me. If they were uncomfortable, and I hadn't given them these details, then I would either face a negative review, or complaints that couldn't be solved, or a cancelation. By letting people opt out, even if their reasons are unconsciously racist or classist, then the place is available for folks who would have no problem with it and who would therefore be better and happier guests. I've had plenty of people reply to my disclaimer with statements like "Great! I want to see the REAL Berkeley," or "No problem; we stay in diverse urban centers all the time," or "Yes, I know the neighborhood, and it's closest to where I need to be," or some such. These kinds of responses (and the frequency of them) has proven to me that being up front about the downsides isn't going to hurt my bookings, but it will help my stress levels, my reviews, and my guests' trust in Airbnb hosts). It's called "expectation management," in a therapy context. In a business/marketing context, it's the principle "under promise and over deliver." My guests are routinely surprised how much nicer my places are than they expected (because I avoid overselling and I'm frank about the downsides).
I totally agree that we should be strongly encouraging hosts to be honest, transparent, forthcoming, and accurate in their descriptions not only of their own home but also their neighborhood. I think there is an art to describing one's neighborhood accurately without saying things that can become hooks for people;s reactivity or irrational fears to catch on.