Skift Take

Airbnb at times has seemed to lean more toward the rights of guests than hosts while smaller rival Vrbo has done the opposite, tilting toward hosts at some junctures to the disadvantage of guests. Although a host land grab recruitment slugfest is under way, it makes sense to try to carve out a middle ground.

Series: Dennis' Online Travel Briefing

Dennis' Online Travel Briefing

Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Executive Editor and online travel rockstar Dennis Schaal will bring readers exclusive reporting and insight into the business of online travel and digital booking, and how this sector has an impact across the travel industry.

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Airbnb at the end of next month will install a new policy for handling guest complaints and refund requests upon discovery of a problem — and up to 72 hours thereafter — at the property, once again showing the challenges and perils for any online player trying to balance the conflicting needs of two vital constituents, guests and hosts.

Under this update to Airbnb’s guest refund policy for bookings made starting April 29, guests will get 72 hours — up from the current 24 — upon discovery of a “travel issue” to contact Airbnb and request a partial or full refund. These sorts of issues might include the host failing to provide the passcode to the lockbox, the owner having an undisclosed person or pet present during the stay, unsanitary or unsafe conditions at the property, or the swimming pool being above-ground when the listing described it as a private in-ground pool, for example.

“Where a guest demonstrates that timely reporting of a Travel Issue was not feasible, we may allow for late reporting of the Travel Issue under this Policy,” Airbnb stated in its UK help center, meaning in some cases guest might have longer than 72 hours to complain.

Hosts can contact Airbnb to dispute the complaint, but the elongated complaint window has some Airbnb hosts feeling irate, and warning that this gives more ammunition to guests who might be scammers willing to submit staged photos or fake videos as evidence, and who are looking for full or partial refunds and free weekends.

Airbnb views the new policy as multifaceted in helping hosts and guests sort out problems.

“The decision to update our rebooking and refund policy to allow guests up to 72 hours from discovery to report travel issues is part of our ongoing work to deliver great support to our community of hosts and guests,” an Airbnb spokesperson said. “For guests, this will provide greater flexibility to report any issues that arise during their stay. For hosts and guests, we hope a longer reporting window will provide more time for the host to work with guests to address any issues before we get involved. Similar to how we extended the window in which hosts can submit reimbursements requests, we believe these updates help build trust.”

Hosts expressed a variety of opinions in the Airbnb community forum about the new policy; many opposed it or were skeptical.

“We’re also appalled at the new policy,” wrote a host who identified herself as Connie168. “I can just hear the guests getting out of paying based on some unfounded complaint or made-up issue. We had a guest write a bad review on one of the properties we oversee because there wasn’t cable TV. Now, the listing clearly states there are only streaming services but this guy was seriously ticked.  Now, will Airbnb automatically give him his money back?  Or the guest who doesn’t read the instructions and complains the apartment is cool and you have to tell him to turn on the thermostat?  How does Airbnb adjust for guest stupidity and/or laziness?”  

But another host, Paul1255 in London, supported the policy update.

“Indeed this seems like a sensible move to minimise potential problems,” he wrote.

The issue highlights the dilemma for all sorts of businesses — and not just Airbnb — trying to balance the clashing needs of customers or guests, and hosts or suppliers.

Airbnb alienated some hosts at the beginning of the pandemic when it provided cancellation refunds to many guests, and left hosts in many cases empty-handed. The company vowed to make amends to hosts, and to focus its efforts on helping individual hosts, although it would hardly ignore the needs of big property management companies who dominate bookings at times.

If some hosts got disgusted and abandoned Airbnb — or signed up with other platforms such as Vrbo to broaden their distribution — Airbnb’s growth seems to be a counterargument to that narrative. Although many destinations such as China were still shut for cross-border travel because of Covid, Airbnb reported that its active listings, spurred by marketing campaigns, increased 6 percent year-over-year to more than 6 million in 2021.

The company has said that the state of the global economy — meaning people looking to make ends meet or to make their monthly mortgage payments — will be a significant host recruitment tool in the years ahead as the company tries to find ample properties to accommodate guests in popular destinations.

But making policies friendlier to guests will almost inevitably spur host anger, and the converse is also true. It’s the challenge of operating a marketplace where your customers are both hosts and guests.

There’s the adage that businesses forget their customers at their own peril. In Airbnb’s case, when your customers are both hosts and guests, that becomes an extremely complicated tap dance.

Airbnb rival Vrbo seems to tilt that balance toward hosts, just as it did during the early stages of the pandemic when it gave hosts wide discretion in refund policies.

A Vrbo spokesperson said: “Upon check-in, guests have 12 hours to report issues for coverage under the Book with Confidence Guarantee.”

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Note: The story was updated to include a variety of Airbnb host opinions about the refund policy update.

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