I’ve always been a proponent for the little guy and a backer of local businesses when I travel. To me, it is one of the true purposes behind experiencing new destinations and cultures.
My support of local business has always been evident in my travel writing, with the exception of paid reviews and/or business arrangements I’ve made with larger accommodation providers. I’ll review almost anything for money and perks.
But my heart truly lies with the locals. Especially those locals in developing countries who are trying to create better lives for themselves, while providing unique travel experiences for foreigners.
If I’m staying at and reviewing an accommodation in a foreign country, a lot of leeway is given on my end. I try to keep an open mind and accept that living standards are not analogous across the board. The world is a big place and we can’t expect everywhere to be what we’re used to.
However, if we can bring this back to the western world for a minute, my allegiance doesn’t always favor locals because we’re pretty much all the same. Living standards are fairly uniform inside of North America
Hence, my expectations as a traveler and reviewer are fairly straight forward, and a little more unforgiving on my own continent.
If and when I travel within North America, I always choose one particular hotel brand first, because I work for the brand and get employee rates. I’d be an idiot not to use it.
However, there was one occasion last year, when I couldn’t use my own brand. Employee rates are based on occupancy so if the hotel is 75% full, there’s no deal for employees.
In this instance, I was traveling to Vancouver, which is ranked the most expensive city in all of Canada. This wasn’t vacation travel, it was obligation travel — I had to go, and I had to keep it as economical as possible.
There were no hotel employee rates available during my travel dates so I decided to check out AirBnB for the first time ever. I’d heard wonderful things about great deals and unique accommodations available, so why not give it a shot?
AirBnB didn’t let me down. I had many options to choose from, all within a budget that was agreeable with my wallet. I was shocked at the selection available for what I was looking for.
I wanted a private suite, not one of those shared space deals inside someone else’s living quarters. I wanted the freedom to come and go, or have family over without disrupting anyone.
I found it, for a mere $56.00 per night, which is unheard of compared to hotel prices in Vancouver. It seemed too good to be true so I diligently read all the reviews first. The property rated a full 5-stars and had raving reviews so I took a chance and booked it. At $56.00 per night, if the photos made it look a little better than it was, so be it.
A few weeks later I arrived and checked in. The accommodation was exactly as presented in online photos, even a little better than I’d expected, which was a nice surprise.
The only two things wrong with this particular rental were issues that couldn’t be shown in photos.
#1. The overwhelming smell of something that resembled a wet pet, like a dog fresh out of a dirty river swim.
#2. It was cold as ice inside, which was strange because it was a top floor suite inside an A-frame house. Heat is supposed to rise, right?
I noticed space heaters strategically placed in a few corners of the suite. This indicated that the owners knew about the heat problem. I figured I’d only be there for three nights so I could deal with the space heater issue. I cranked them all up to reach a comfortable temperature and left them running full blast for the duration.
But the smell was something I could barely deal with. It was like walking into a dank, musty wall each time I opened the door to the property. Without the option of an alternate place to stay, I would have to ride it out and deal with it.
Aside from those two issues though, the suite was perfect. It had its own separate entrance with a digital key code, a full kitchen, washer/dryer, and amazingly comfortable (and plush) bedding and linens.
The owners even paid attention to the little details— a full spread of complimentary coffees and teas in the kitchen, with soaps, shampoos, and a hairdryer in the bathroom. These are the things I look for and highlight when writing an official property review.
It was obvious they did their best to pay attention to guest needs and accommodate them. The owners lived in the rest of the house below the suite and I didn’t have any reason to contact them throughout my stay.
My biggest question was, how did this property achieve a full 5-star rating with that god awful smell present? And not a single past guest had mentioned the space heater aspect. Surely I couldn’t be the only person who experienced these things and thought it to be odd.
Here’s where the conundrum of being too nice comes into play. Since the owners clearly went out of their way to provide all the comforts and conveniences a traveler would want, how could I leave them a negative review based on smell?
It’s in my nature to side with travelers over property owners when writing official reviews, firstly because I’m a traveler. Secondly, because I never want to lead my readers astray.
If this was a Hilton or a Marriott I wouldn’t have thought twice about writing a public review mentioning a repugnant smell and a heating problem. In fact, I like making noise when it’s a subpar stay in a branded hotel. They’re in the business of accommodating and they should make sure it’s right.
But I felt a real ethical dilemma on how to review this AirBnB owner.
They operated one single suite as their side hustle, and rightfully so. It was Vancouver. Everyone there needs extra money, so who was I to inhibit their livelihood by leaving a negative review?
But I just couldn’t accept that I was the only guest who’d ever experienced these issues. Why had nobody mentioned them?
Having only been a one-time user of AirBnB, I have no idea if there are ways for property owners to buck the review system. Do they have control over which reviews get published?
If so, the system is flawed but if not, there’s no way this particular property could have achieved and maintained their 5-star, Super Host ranking.
With these questions in mind, I did a little research and found an enlightening article on Forbes.com, written by an AirBnB host. Writer Seth Porges offers the following perspective of a host:
“As hosts, we find ourselves sussing out and picking guests almost entirely based on how we predict their final review will stand. Everything from the potential guest’s profile photo, to their initial message, to the reviews they’ve left for past stays is looked at to try to determine how many stars we think they’ll give at the end of their stay. If a guest has left a trail of poor reviews for other hosts, we’re likely to pass on their patronage. It’s simply too risky.”
Having read the entire article, it became clear that while AirBnB hosts can’t manipulate the actual reviews, they do have control over who stays at their property.
Property owners on AirBnB are spending as much time judging us travelers, as we spend looking for and assessing their accommodations. They can even remove the “Instant Book” feature on their listing as a means to control who they think might give them a negative review.
This presented a whole new outlook on the AirBnB experience. While I’m not a regular user of the system, one day I could be.
As a traveler who has actual expectations, this is a difficult position to be in. Why shouldn’t we, as paying guests, expect our travel needs to be met? It’s my money and a bad accommodation experience could make or break an entire excursion.
At the end of it all, I publicly rated my AirBnB stay based on the fact that it would have been perfect if not for the issues of smell and heat. I gave them a decent review, suppressing the truth about my actual experience. But I did send the owners a private message indicating my displeasure with the smell and the heating issue.
I never got a response, not even a thank you for the great public review. So I guess they got what they wanted out of someone who was just too nice to tell it like it is in a public forum. I thought I was doing them a favor by keeping my feelings private. Some acknowledgment would have been nice.