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Airbnb’s Burglary Disaster and 5 Ways To Fix It

2011 July 29
Hindenburg disaster

Could this be Airbnb's Hindenburg moment? Courtesy of nlhs.com

Wow. Shortly after I wrote my review of Airbnb and my summary of Airbnb alternatives, a burglary on Airbnb resulted in a PR crisis of epic proportions.

A woman in San Francisco, using Airbnb, had her apartment trashed, valuables stolen, and life turned-upside over the course of a week. The incident actually occurred nearly a month ago but didn’t get attention until it was posted on TechCrunch.

So far, Airbnb’s response has been tepid, at best, and even contradictory to what the woman has experienced. All this has resulted in a media maelstrom for Airbnb, including coverage by mainstream media.

Not only has this incident scarred a woman’s life, it raises a serious issue for Airbnb, especially following their latest round of funding valuing them around $1B. The risk of burglary and theft, which was previously almost an after-thought has surfaced itself in the worst possible way imaginable and must be addressed going forward.

Some have compared this incident to the Hindenburg accident (and the ensuing end of the airship era) and it may well become that if Airbnb does not act fast. Here are five changes that Airbnb should implement to address this issue.

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1. De-anonymize the process.

I have personally never used Airbnb’s service (hosting or renting) but judging from the woman’s post, theres seems to be a huge information gap between owner and guest. While the guest can see all the information of the property as well as the person renting the place, the owner gets the contact information of the guest only after the reservation has been confirmed. Compare this to a free service like Craigslist and you find that it’s strikingly lacking. On Craigslist, you usually send an email, followed by a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Then you choose if they stay or not.

Airbnb is also lacking when compared to CouchSurfing, another free service. CouchSurfing lets users verify themselves by putting a real identity and location behind each username. They accomplish this by a credit card donation and sending a postcard to the users home address.

Unlike Craigslist and Couchsurfing, owners on Airbnb really has no idea who is going to be in their home. I believe there are two solutions: (1) implement a verification process similar to CouchSurfing and (2) giving owners a option that lets them “authorize” the reservation.

The first solution is simple enough. The second solution would be where owners have an option to authorize all reservations. Some people may be comfortable with things the way they are now. But others may want this extra layer of security. Only after the owner has contacted the guest and has gotten comfort will Airbnb confirm the reservation.

Response time may be slower but guests will be allowed to see which owners have this “authorization” feature. If the owner doesn’t respond within a certain time limit, Airbnb can take down the listing or nullify the proposed stay.

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2. Give owners insurance or the option for insurance.

I’m not an expert on insurance but I know renters insurance isn’t expensive, even in San Francisco. I’m assuming it would be cheaper for a company like Airbnb because of the sheer volume and bargaining power they have. Either Airbnb could provide it free for owners or at least allow owners to opt into insurance.

It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison but companies like Getaround and Relayrides (both peer-to-peer car lending services) have insurance policies covering accidents, losses or other damages up to $1 million. If they can do it for cars, why not for apartments and homes?

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3. Contract a crisis management agency or PR firm. 

Judging on how this situation has been handled so far, Airbnb needs a crisis management agency, or at least a good PR firm. From the delayed responses, the differing stories between Airbnb and the woman, and even Airbnb’s CEO taking time to post comments on TechCrunch, it’s safe to say they haven’t handled the situation well so far.

They should have at least gotten the blogger on their “side” and given her support, either emotionally or financially. Instead, she has felt alienated and ignored which resulted in a harsh follow-up post. A good crisis management agency or PR firm would’ve been able to handle the softer sides of this story while Airbnb could focus on tracking down the person and making internal changes.

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4. Hire a “crack” customer support team. 

Airbnb needs to form a “crack” customer support team specifically trained in these types of situations. They would be equivalent to calling into tech support and getting them to transfer you to higher-level support. These wouldn’t be handling credit card issues, general questions or similar inquiries. Instead, they would be focused on issues involving robberies, injuries or (and I hope it never happens) worse. A 22 year old, fresh out of college, ”AirCrew” or “AirCadet” probably isn’t the best person to go to for these types of situations.

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5. Develop internal processes for situations like this. 

Related to forming an internal team, Airbnb needs to implement internal processes. Airbnb seems to be in the dark regarding the criminal investigation process and keeping the owner in the loop. The official response was that they had found a suspect; the blogger said otherwise. There needs to be a clear, defined process in which all parties (Airbnb, authorities, owner) are on the same page and have the same information. In a case where someone’s life is turned upside down, often times clarity and information is the best source of healing and recovery.

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I still believe in Airbnb but this incident has certainly put some uneasiness in my mind. So far, public missteps have put a stain on Airbnb’s otherwise impeccable reputation.

But I have no doubt that Airbnb is a good company and is trying to do everything within its power to help this woman out. By making the service safer and more trustworthy, Airbnb can alleviate many fears and can make things right and turn this fiasco around.

Company’s cannot control what happens to them but they can control how they react. Often times the reaction is what makes or breaks a company. The saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” comes to mind.

Let’s see how just how tough Airbnb is.

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