Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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A Tale of Two Guys Named Chris ... and Airbnb
August 20, 2015 -- This is a tale of two guys named Chris and why I don't think Airbnb is ready for prime-time business travel.
Looking for lodgings in Minneapolis recently, most of the major chain hotels were running about $200 a night plus taxes. On the other hand, Airbnb was trumpeting a spacious, modern one-bedroom apartment for $150 a night. It was one block from Nicollet Mall, the city's commercial epicenter. Based on the photos and the price, I bit.
It wasn't my first Airbnb experience. A year ago, I rented a house north of Seattle with some friends and it went relatively smoothly. Except that we couldn't open the doorknob safe that hid the front door key. We had to wait for an hour in the rain until the owner appeared and let us in. He thoughtfully knocked the cost of one night's stay off the bill.
But in Minneapolis, I was a business traveler and there are risks when your itinerary depends on other people's schedules that can suddenly change with a phone call or E-mail.
I started the booking process with the requisite note to the owner, introducing myself, explaining what I did for a living and basically assuring her that I wasn't Jack the Ripper or wouldn't back a moving truck up to her front door and loot her belongings. Under Airbnb rules, the landlord has 24 hours to accept or decline you.
I was busy and didn't realize 24 hours had passed until Airbnb E-mailed me to say my request had "expired." Was I rejected or blackballed? Did my letter tick her off or anger some algorithm?
E-mailing the landlord, I asked what went wrong. She apologized immediately, explaining she was on a business trip herself and had just returned home. Yes, she said reassuringly, I was booked. However, when I tried to pay for the apartment in advance, as required, my credit card was rejected.
Frustrated, I zapped another E-mail to the landlord. Her response was swift, sincere and shocking. She was negotiating with two guys named "Chris" and she'd approved me, but had taken his credit card payment instead. Her sign-off: "Sorry about that."
Suddenly stuck without a bed for my head, I scrambled and booked a room at the W Minneapolis through Orbitz.com for $179 a night plus taxes. You know, good, old reliable business travel as usual.
Others also have had better experiences with Airbnb as vacationers than business travelers.
Jan Hogrewe, chief executive of Just Jan's, a specialty-food maker in California, chose Airbnb over "expensive Paris hotels for a three-night stay and had pretty good luck." But Airbnb was less effective in New York, when "our flight was five hours late and the guy had to wait until 1 a.m. to open the doors to his apartment and give us the keys."
Bottom line? Airbnb is "just not convenient for a one- or two-night stay," Hogrewe concludes. In fact, Hogrewe is back to using traditional hotels for short business-travel stays.
San Francisco-based Airbnb is trying to reassure business travelers that its niche in the so-called sharing economy makes sense. The seven-year-old firm is also making a determined pitch to convince corporations to use Airbnb accommodations. Despite repeated requests, however, the company absolutely refused to make any of its executives available to talk about how Airbnb fit into the business-travel landscape.
The firm could be ducking questions because of a recent rush of bad news. The New York Times recounted a frightening tale last week about a 19-year-old locked in an Airbnb-booked apartment by the sexually aggressive host. The paper reported the boy texted his mother during the incident and the mother called Airbnb for help, but employees "would not give her the [apartment's] address and would not call the police." The New York Daily News recently told the story of a 33-year-old man who is now homeless and blackballed by landlords because an Airbnb renter used his apartment for a sex party. The Bay City News Service says a woman was recently arrested for stealing $35,000 in jewelry from an Airbnb host in San Francisco. In fact, a Web site has sprung up to document horror stories about Airbnb's peer-to-peer rental model and Airbnb's reluctance to allow negative reviews of hosts from hell.
At least for the moment, Airbnb doesn't fly for large bookers of business travel. At a "corporate travel innovation day" in Sydney earlier this month, National Australia Bank said its 16,000 employee travelers are not allowed to use Airbnb. "We have negotiated contracts with hotels," said David Crawford, a travel specialist for the bank. "We deliver volumes to get discounts [from hotel chains]. It is [also] a matter of safety and security. We have female travelers alone."
But the door isn't closed to Airbnb in perpetuity, Crawford admitted. "Everything is on the table," he said. "It is not no. It is not yes, yet, either," said the bank official.
While Airbnb wouldn't grant interviews, the company is certainly hungry to crack the business-travel market. An Airbnb press release last month claims 250 companies have signed up for its business-travel-specific product. Airbnb said companies such as Google and the ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day are among its clients.
But business travelers I've talked to remain skeptical.
"We travel a fair amount, but I've never stayed in an Airbnb facility, even for a vacation, because of the unpredictability," said Barry Dornfeld, a principal at management-consulting firm CFAR and co-author of The Moment You Can't Ignore. "It's not because I think it's a bad idea. It's just that we want predictability. Can I go right to work? Is the Internet functioning? And when you travel for business, it's easier to be anonymous in a hotel."
There's little indication that the hotel industry is being hurt by defections to Airbnb. In fact, according to STR, the hotel-research firm, the traditional U.S. lodging industry reached five million guestrooms in June for the first time in history. Profits and occupancy rates are at record levels, too.
"Independent travelers will absolutely use Airbnb and other shared economy lodging as an alternative to traditional hotel chains," San Francisco hotel consultant Rick Swig suggests. "But on corporate mandated travel, the legal, safety, security, local and state statutes [make] the risk too high for companies." That may change, Swig says, if and when Airbnb and the others become "fully licensed, fully compliant, fully controlled."
Meanwhile, a postscript: Even though I didn't score the Minneapolis apartment and was denied an interview with an Airbnb executive, I was beseeched by two E-mails hawking Airbnb "offerings" worldwide within a couple hours on a Saturday.
If only the company's customer service was as pro-active as its marketing and promotional efforts ...
This column is Copyright © 2015 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.