A fishy tale 

One of the signs that the sharing economy is A Real Thing is that one can write about it every single week and have a fresh angle every time. That is to serve as a warning that yes, we’re going to be discussing it this week.

Regular viewers will recall that last week we wanted hotels to take over the party mantle from Airbnb. This week there is less party and more a hankering for a bit of regulation, some standards, just a little something so that everyone knows where they stand.

It all began after this correspondent returned from a stay at a charming property listed on one of the sharing platforms. OK, it was VRBO, but previous dealings with the other behemoth have not exactly illustrated a difference between the two. 

Multiple members of our party were contacted by the host, demanding to know what we’d done with their trout. The property was, you see, a former watermill and there were trout living in the river. We’d been shown how they went into a frenzy when you threw their food on the water and who doesn’t enjoy a spot of raw nature on a summer break?

It turned out that the trout hadn’t been seen since we left and the host suspected that they’d come with us, either as new pets or a past lunch. We had no answers to her questions. One of our party already had goldfish and no need for extra pets and the rest of us find trout too bony to bother with, despite the handily-adjacent barbecue. 

We assumed this was an end to it until the post-stay review, when the host handed out one-stars across the board (other than communication, oddly). This was galling because we’d spent the morning of our departure cleaning like maniacs, from stove top to inside the fridge, with vacuums run and all beds stripped and bedclothes piled next to the washing machine. Despite having forked out a hefty cleaning fee. 

This brings us to point one; what IS required of the guest? There is no guidance on how you are meant to leave a property. When you’re paying in the hundreds for cleaning, you’d hope it was ‘however you want to leave it’ but past experience taught us that this led to bad reviews from the host. We took plenty of photos of our cleaning as evidence. 

Upon asking how we’d come by this review, the host admitted that they were upset about the fish and that we’d clearly made off with them. In normal circumstances the comments of a loon would be laughed off, but the magic of the sharing economy is its peer-to-peer nature. You rely on reviews that have been left when considering your purchase. The wisdom of the crowds. We were unlikely to be able to use the platform again if a host read about how unclean and generally reprehensible we were. 

The review on our side had, of course, been charming. We hadn’t even bothered to mention that, less than a week prior to our stay we were told we’d have to pay an extra €100 for…towels. 

The host was warned in no uncertain terms that we weren’t open to slanderous claims being made about our good character. They responded that they couldn’t change the review even if they wanted to.

Enter VRBO. Their response? “We cannot delete or edit the negative reviews that the host was given to you. The only things that you can do is to negotiate to the host and you may leave also feedback on their properties to depend yourself what’s the true happening on your stay.”

We chose to remove our review of the property, with the host still chuntering on about how lucky we were not to be charged for the fish.

Enter Twitter. And no one ever wants to do this, but tales of fish did indeed draw VRBO out and they tweeted that they were “sincerely sorry to hear about your experience. Can you please send us a DM with your account email address and booking ID? We’d like to make sure this is investigated thoroughly”.

Happy to. Although it took 24 hours and another chase for them to respond to the DM (performative Twitter you say? Surely no) and then, despite the offer of all the exchanges – some of which had not taken place on their platform – and all the photos, the response was: “reviews are reflections of each particular individual’s experiences from the stay. We are not able to mediate disputes in regard to reviews as they are federally regulated and must remain on the site unless the submitter requests removal. We appreciate your understanding in this matter”.

So not really the thorough investigation advertised.  And that was the last we heard. 

So no more using VRBO. But in the world of the sharing platforms, the guest is no loss. The loss of a host, who brings in income all year round, not just for two weeks a year, is much worse for the sharing economy players, who must build their portfolios one painful property at a time. 

The echoes of poor behaviour on the part of some in the hotel sector are plain to see. The real customer for many of the big brands is the investor, not the guest, who is but a fleeting concern. The sharing economy must be all grown up now, because the mood is very much the same. 

What did it take to change things in hotels? Have they? It’s hard to say. What has happened since the start of the pandemic is that shifts towards greater use of technology have been demanded by the guest and have been adopted in the name of safety. So shorter – or no – queues at checkin. The lack of available team members has meant more digitisation, bringing hotels into line with much of the rest of retail. Good for the guest and for the owner. 

So currently, hopes and dreams are aligned. The sharing economy is booming at the moment so has no incentive to learn anything. We have no urge to wish it ill, but arrogance is not an endearing trait. Dare we say it, but future stays may well find one looking for the reassurance of the brands. And real, verifiable reassurance, not from a not-so-wise crowd. 

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