A few months ago my company rented a place on Airbnb for four nights during a business trip to San Francisco. The Dreamforce conference happened to be going on so even the mediocre hotels were north of $300 a night.
All was well in our two-bedroom, $400 a night condo until it came time to leave. The host sent me a lengthy list of “checkout duties”: strip the sheets, put the towels in the laundry, wash the dishes, put the keys in some special envelope, and on and on.
Of course, this is the definition of a first world problem, but I did take issue with it. I’m usually a very polite guest when I stay in someone’s home, but this was too much for me. Why?
Because I wasn’t a guest in someone’s home! I was a paying customer. To make matters worse in this case, I was paying a $130 cleaning fee too!
And even though I fundamentally disagreed with the host’s policy I still did a reasonable and respectful amount of cleanup—I wasn’t looking to piss anyone off. Yet after I left, I received an angry phone call from the host saying, “This is not a hotel, you have to clean up after yourself.” It is not a hotel in name only Miss, in name only.
Neurotic host aide, this relatively common problem I’ve seen across sharing sites like Airbnb. So it needs to be said: if someone is paying to stay in your house, they’re a customer.
That means the woman whose place I rented for a month in New York probably should have emptied out her dirty laundry basket (to say nothing of the mouse I found!). It means the place I rented in New Orleans during a wedding should have been ready when I rented it—no one should have to wait for an hour for the dude to come give you the keys. And as long as the place in SF wasn’t trashed rockstar-style, the basic cleaning duties are not the guest’s responsibility.
For all the recent controversy about Airbnb, the service is not the problem here. It’s the people. When you sell your services or hospitality on a website, you need to have some semblance of professionalism. Guests are not your friends crashing on your couch, they’re busy people giving you their hard earned money.
But this reality has not yet set in for those participating in the sharing economy, Airbnb or otherwise. It’s 2014 and the grace period for the newness and special-ness of these platforms has worn off. Now, they are just markets—markets for labor, for accommodation, for services.
We have things, we offer them and when that offer is accepted, normal business transaction rules set in. Not casual favor trading between friends. Maybe we can become friends but first it starts with good services. (Bud, the guy who helped me hang up my taxidermied bear, comes over from time to time. I even let him store his ladder in the garage.)
The platforms and providers themselves, realize this. I’m a big fan of Dogvacay, that allows you to board your dog with dog owners (or dog lovers) in the area. The host picks their daily/nightly rate and you schedule a meet and greet before it happens. Dogvacay has excellent customer service, which as I wrote about in my last book, includes calling new users and walking them through the service after signing up. It’s not their fault that I had to cajole and pester the people I was paying $40 a day to watch our dog and animals to actually do the stuff they were supposed to do.
I loved Task Rabbit in theory, but after experiences with the fence painter who ended up spraying paint all over the side of my house or the IKEA furniture builder who actually didn’t know how to build the furniture, I found myself yearning for a pro.
It calls to mind that old saying: if you think professionals are expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.
When Airbnb cost $50 a night, it was like a fun little secret. There was goodwill and karma involved. But now it costs about the same as a hotel. If you want to charge rates similar to a hotel, or similar to a kennel, you have to act accordingly. That means like a professional. There’s a million dollar insurance policy in place here for a reason—it’s a serious business.
It doesn’t matter how cool the technological advancements are or however easy the platform is. At the end of the day, when you accept money for a service, you have an obligation to follow some basic rules.
I think if we were honest about it, there’s a reason this common sense is so stubbornly not common. Things are bad out there, and people–myself included–turn to these services for extra money (or to save money). And that can be hard to admit sometimes.
The Duke law school grad who is fetching groceries or the overextended Boomers who use the guest bedroom to cover the mortgage–that’s not where anyone expected to be. But that’s not shameful. There’s no reason to turn up a nose at earning money. What’s harder to justify is pretending this is all some lark, and that’s why a job is done poorly.
When I rent my own house on Airbnb, I try think of it the same way I do with the rest of my work. I get the place professionally cleaned before the guest comes and I try to be as hospitable as I can (the last guest asked for an air mattress so I bought one). I leave out wine or sometimes even extra books publishers send me for them to take. I put my personal crap away so they can be comfortable. When my fiancée dogsits on Dogvacay, she takes a million photos and treats it like work–work she enjoys, but work.
Because that’s what the people are paying for. And even though we might not need the money to make ends meet like some people, if I’m going to cash the checks, I want to know I did it right.
Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the forthcoming book The Obstacle is the Way.