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The blogosphere has been abuzz with the news that an individual renting her apartment through AirBnB was the victim of a heinous property crime.

The strong reaction to the incident isn't just a result of the nature of the damage that was done to someone's apartment, it was a result of the fact that AirBnB is one of the hottest internet startups at the moment. In fact, it's so popular that some startups have opted to describe themselves as "the AirBnB of x."

The timing couldn't have been worse for the fast-rising company, which recently raised a whopping $112m in funding at a billion-dollar valuation. The company is aggressively expanding, and although it is already very popular, it could be on the brink of going 'mainstream.'

Not surprisingly, AirBnB rushed to respond to the incident, noting that a suspect is in custody thanks to its help, and promising additional safeguards. Its response was issued via one of Silicon Valley's most popular tech blogs, TechCrunch, and apparently AirBnB has offered to compensate the member who lost so much.

According to Brian Chesky, AirBnB's CEO, "With a single booking, one person’s malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been – for 2 million nights – a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good."

But is this really a PR crisis caused by a one-off event that the company can move beyond, or is it something bigger?

It just might be the latter. While AirBnB says that it's going to be making "improvements", the reality is that renting out to strangers is simply risky business.

AirBnB's proposition to wannabe landlords -- "your apartment will pay for itself!" -- is just as compelling as it is flawed. The amount of money one can earn renting out his or home looks good on paper, but it can never come close to compensating for the risk. Note that renting out your home to strangers is not just an individual property risk; there is arguably huge potential liability beyond property.

For instance, if you rent out your home in an access-controlled building and the renter then commits a violent act against another resident of the building, you would likely be sued, and the theoretical damages could be life-altering.

Perhaps more importantly, in some instances, AirBnB is encouraging and facilitating illegal behavior. In San Francisco, where the ugly incident took place, it's apparently against the law to rent out a home for short periods (under 30 days).

In many cases, AirBnB members are renters themselves who may be violating the terms of their leases by subletting their apartments. Insurance is the obvious protection AirBnB could offer members, and it says it may do just that, but insurance companies won't insure activity where it is illegal.

All of this notwithstanding, even if 99.9% of the time, members can get away with what they're doing, AirBnB faces an ironic evolutionary path:

  • As the service gets more popular, it will catch the eye of criminals. 

    Right now, AirBnB is popular, but it isn't quite mainstream. The possibility of having complete access to a person's home is so enticing that once criminals become familiar with AirBnB, the incentives to abuse it will exceed any challenges posed by the security measures AirBnB can realistically add. In other words, AirBnB will find itself in an arm's race it can't win.

  • The risks will drive regular folks away.

    For many prospective renters, AirBnB's greatest appeal is that you can find sweet digs in great locations at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. And because you're renting a real home, it's more personable than staying in a hotel.

    But as the risks (and the laws) become more well known, AirBnB will likely see the percentage of regular folks renting out their homes decrease, and the percentage of professionals renting out rental properties will increase.

    The net-net: AirBnB will become a property listing service more than a peer-to-peer marketplace for those looking to rent out their homes, and that may not be compatible with the brand it is trying to build currently.

In light of the above, I think the logical conclusion is that AirBnB's problem isn't PR, but rather its business model. Its fairly modest response to the recent incident, which includes "creating a Host Education Center where hosts can find safety tips" and "facilitating richer communication between guests and hosts before booking, including experimentation with VOIP and video chat" are good fodder for PR, but won't solve the company's fundamental problems.

Which highlights a simple fact: at some point, many businesses discover flaws in their business models. This doesn't always occur as a result of a PR crisis, but when it does, the key to overcoming the challenge is recognizing that dealing with PR fallout is only the first step; rethinking and reworking the business model is also necessary.

We'll see if AirBnB does that.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 July, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

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Justin

If you read the whole extracts from all the posts on tech crunch there is a distinct whiff of this being some sort of put-up job by a hotel chain worried about their industry and a threat from a start-up with a great idea. Especially as the "victim" signs off by telling people to book with hotels next time!

almost 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Justin,

I highly doubt that. But even if you want to take a conspiratorial worldview, it doesn't change the fact that AirBnB's biggest problem isn't a PR crisis but rather some fundamental flaws in its business model.

Perhaps it can address those, but right now it seems to be treating this as primarily a PR matter.

almost 5 years ago

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Justin

I was being a bit facetious but I do think this has been blown out of all proportion.

This was bound to happen at some point. Nothing has changed with the business model over the last few months so I don't really understand why suddenly this incident changes everything rather than it generating some bad PR.

There are some legitimate concerns of course in terms of how they can guarantee safety for the community but I think you should give them a bit more credit.

Otherwise it implies that all those investors pumping in millions of dollars into the company and other similar start-ups have no business sense whatsoever. I hope that somebody would have considered that this was always going to happen at some point before they handed over all that cash! If not then the VC community in Silicon Valley is in serious trouble!

almost 5 years ago

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gavin griffiths

its going to be the same story as with ebay, the early adopters use it in the spirit it was intended, then the scammers and crooks find it, then the historical ratings and feedback scores become a big factor in who you choose to do business with. you rarely deal with anyone on ebay who has a low rating score. so as it grows new clients will have to work hard to get on the ratings ladder (perhaps subjecting themselves to interviews via web cam etc) but once they get a track record and some longevity then they are off (most criminals don't play the long con to steal household goods). it will self regulate i'm sure.

furthermore this isn't a threat to hotels, its a threat to the backpacker and hostel market.

almost 5 years ago

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Hotel Haiku

Your assertion that "AirBnB's greatest appeal is that you can find sweet digs in great locations at a fraction of the cost of a hotel" is a misnomer. In some cases more expensive than a hotel; in others cheaper, but at a "fraction of the cost of a hotel"?

I'd love to see some examples to back up that claim.

almost 5 years ago

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ilja

No matter how weird that may sound, but I think that this is absolutely normal. It has always been that human nature will abuse the freedom it has been granted. I personally don't think that there is something majorly wrong with the business model. I also think that people don't invest 112m into something, just because it feels right or looks appealing. The idea and concept behind this service is really great, but just as the author has mentioned, this probably will be a big turn-off for regular folks who don't mind some people crashing at their place. And that is the biggest issue in this case.

almost 5 years ago

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anti-est.org

WOW. EJ's situation was a very tough thing to have to endure. In her 1st post, she praised Airbnb for the great actions and support that they provided - but also criticized them for what they could have done better. In her 2nd post, she so gracefully maintained her composure while detailing a lot of disturbing information about Airbnb's lack of support and questionable behavior, days after the crime occured.

I admire the forthright vision of B.Chesky and Co. for starting this service/website. I also love to see a cool start-up WIN and see longevity, but I think Airbnb is in a very risky business and there has to be SEVERAL fundamental changes (that will undoubtedly cost some hefty dollars) in order to make this thing work.

almost 5 years ago

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Thad_McIlroy

An account of my unhappy dealings with Airbnb. They're nowhere near as bad as EJ's. But I think they fill in the business side of the Airbnb story.

http://thefutureofpublishing.com/2011/07/airbnb-and-the-comfort-of-strangers/

--
Thad McIlroy
www.TheFutureofPublishing.com

almost 5 years ago

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D97axa

As a digital marketer (not for Air Bnb i might add) and an AirBnb host, i feel i am very well placed to comment on this whole unfortunate episode.
As with all things in life, the few can ruin it for everybody (if you let them), however this is one of those situations whereby you as the host are in a pretty good position to control to the large part your own destiny.
We first started taking bookings in April, and made sure that we did so only from people that had stayed with other hosts before, that we'd had a chance to contact individually, and when we knew that we would be around during their stay (ie not leaving them in the house for a week on their own).
I am not naive enough to think that there aren't risks associated with this kind of business model, however if you take proper precautions, you can help to significantly reduce them. Yes there may be people that want to cause a lot of problems, however as you have to pay for your booking up front, you as a holiday maker have to literally put your money where your mouth is before you arrive. So, if you are a potential anarchist or burglar, you are in effect having to pay to do that and provide a paper trail at the same time. In response to the accommodation being cheaper than a hotel, yes and no. It depends on what you are looking for and where, however its big plus that i can see, is the local knowledge. These people aren't staying in tourist accommodation, but in "real people's houses" and as such, i would argue, have a much better insight into the area they are staying in. That for me is worth its weight in gold as a holiday maker. I would pay more to avoid the tourist traps and have an experience that nobody else has, by living and staying like a local.

almost 5 years ago

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Hotel Haiku

@D97axa - with due respect, you sound like a bit of a Airbnb cheerleader. You say you're a 'digital marketer', which automatically makes me distrust you, and you are hiding behind anonymity - which shifts my distrust way off the scale!

In terms of accommodation being cheaper than a hotel I already answered that myself. What I was questioning was the assertion that it's 'fraction of the cost of a hotel'.

I still haven't seen examples to back this claim up.

almost 5 years ago

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W Tek, Associate at Private Equity

Excuse me, why did my comment comparing AirBnB to Couchsurfing get removed?

almost 5 years ago

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D97axa

Hotel Haiku, I am certainly not an Airbnb cheerleader, and i do take it personally that you distrust me because of the industry that i work in. I have nothing to do with them (other than being a host), and i merely commented to put across the hosts side to this, in light of Thad McIlroy's comments putting the guests side of things out there.

Considering that a lot of hotels in London cost hundreds of pounds, and staying with an AirBnber costs around £50, i think that answers the costs question, however different people want different things. There is a time for hotels and a time for staying with locals. Personally i love 5 star hotels, but also hate being a sheep in a tourist destination, and therfore would gladly stay with an Airbnber too. I think it says a lot that because somebody says something positive, that i must automatically be a ringer. It is my decision to keep my anonimity, but it doesn't make my points any less valid.

almost 5 years ago

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Tracy Currer

This is tragic news for Airbnb and especially as the idea of collaborative consumption can bring so many good benefits for both individuals and the environment alike. But this is exactly why we did our homework before we launched our peer-to-peer service - Ecomodo.com - last year in the UK.

Ecomodo enables people to take deposits for their items which we hold for the duration of the lend, choose an insurance option for lending household goods with a replacement value of over £50 and our feedback rating system checks both parties are happy at the end of the lend - and if not we have a dispute resolution system in place to sort out the problem. On top of this, Ecomodo lenders can automatically restrict who can borrow their items with trusted lending circles (friends, neighbourhood, workplaces, schools, clubs etc) which also means feedback given may have very real-world implications.

almost 5 years ago

Joseph Buhler

Joseph Buhler, Principal at buhlerworks

Airbnb definitely has more than a PR problem on its hands, and that one they didn't handle too well either. The business model contains a number of risks that are coming to the fore here with this case. While it is an isolated one right now, who can tell how many more will happen as this service takes off - if, in fact it does as the owners expect and the billion dollar valuation seems to predict.

For established travel companies involved in the industry for years, the merchant of record issue has always been one that requires a lot of attention with the liability issue related to it. It seems that start-ups not familiar with travel disregard essential elements required to make their business models robust and resistant to this type of potential legal problems. This requires more than just trusting that the majority of people are "fundamentally good"!

almost 5 years ago

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Jeremy Pepper

It's interesting that this is the first post I've read that talks about the PR failings thus far in the whole situation.

Well written, well-stated and so much more left to this story. But one thing is clear: no one thought of the PR issues, which says to me that no one is really understanding PR there.

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

I'm actually really surprised to see this blog article being promoted in an industry-known newsletter. It almost sounds, to me, that a disruptive company (BTW, I do not see them as a threat to the hospitality industry, maybe bad hotels, but only them) is now being attacked for the image it has in the hospitality industry.

I won't got back to the different arguments in that article but I remember traveling in other people houses 15 years ago, thanks to printed catalogues which were the exact offline version of Airbnb. This business model has long been around and never did any harm to the hospitality industry as they address different market segments, why would it be different this time? And all that taxes non-payers and other arguments are not new neither.

The current problems that Airbnb encounter are due to lack of processes, including safety mesures for renters, etc... mainly due to their massive growth. And now that CNN is posting about it (http://bit.ly/nY2eca), some other stories might appear.

However, the whole take-away behind this is that Airbnb is going to get plenty of inputs about how to improve their services with bloggers providing ideas, users commenting about potential issues and solutions for Airbnb, main-stream media catching on the story and the mass-market learning about this company. Airbnb is consequently learning a lot and getting lots of press coverage.

As for the mass-market (their target, not hospitality industry professionals or geeks who do make their own conclusions), they will remember about few negative stories which are nothing compared to all positive experiences that can be found. Look at the general sentiment about Airbnb and you will see that everyone like their services and product-offering and that all the buzz around the EJ story is heavily covered by a specialized audience but does not really alter the trust of the general public.

They could manage their PR crisis in a better way, sure, but for now, they answered on Twitter when needed and reached out to Techcrunch, where the story was the most covered. There is no uproar on their Facebook page and no real mention of people being scared.

All in one, it might cause a big buzz but people will quickly forget about it and just see the nice alternative they represent, while appreciating evolutions and safety measures that Airbnb will put in place with their recent founding and all the input it's currently getting.

Just giving my 2 piece point of view and more than happy to see counter-arguments :)

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

And by the way, speaking of that industry newsletter, the editor should be ashamed for including such a story, one of the basic rules of Internet (and social media impact) being not to trash on "competitors". What was the point?!

almost 5 years ago

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Cheryl H.

Renting a property to anyone, long term or short term, always has risks. While the majority of renters are wonderful, there are those who are inconsiderate, irresponsible or in rare cases, downright criminal. Property owners CAN purchase insurance which is a cost they can pass on to the renter. It is NOT AirBnB's fault that a criminal, committed a crime! Shame on you for implying that it does!

almost 5 years ago

Adam Candlish

Adam Candlish, Commercial Director at DataIQ

I use AirBnB and received an email this morning from the CEO (probably from the marketing team, signed by the CEO!)detailing not only the details of the incident at EJs property but also about the new measures they have put in place to ensure that this does not happen again - including a default cover for any AirBnB properties for damages up to $50,000. More details at http://www.airbnb.com/safety

I have to say that they have made a good attempt to repair the brand damage done here. It would have been far easier to shut up shop, make no comment and do things behind closed doors.
I think AirBnB have done well to be transparent and open about the incident, and have made some sensible steps to ensure it does not occur again.

almost 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Cheryl,

You cannot insure illegal activity. As noted in my post, the city in which this took place (San Francisco) has a law forbidding short term rentals. Additionally, the victim was renting the apartment herself -- she was not the landlord. Typically, rental leases forbid subletting.

Your comment assumes that AirBnB's members are property *owners* complying with applicable laws. In many if not most instances, this is simply not the case.

Therefore it's fair to say that AirBnB's business model is based in large part on activity it knows is not proper (either by law or contract). Hence the point of this article: AirBnB's real problem is business model failure, not PR crisis.

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

Patricio,

I agree with you and legally speaking it is right to say that many renters do not have the right to sub-rent their flat. However, I'm not convinced that it is a business model failure. I see more Airbnb being ahead of a long existing "industry" that never made its Internet revolution (Apart of some initiatives like Craiglist or Coach-surfing).

A majority of countries have different laws and the market opportunity of Airbnb might be Europe / South America / Asia more than US. There are lots of cultural aspects to take into account but, ultimately, the way Europeans travel is much more adapted to the Airbnb product offering. Americans prefer big, branded properties / resorts, when Europeans prefer boutique / small hotels.

Sure, there are legal issues, some elected individuals might have incentives to point out this issue but I really don't think that it is such a problem, as long as proper insurance measures and quality checks are made. Even so hotels can provide a fabulous service, sometimes, you might prefer to be closer to the city, or have a more intimate place than a low-cost / bad service property.

almost 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Antoine,

When your business is based on illegal activity, or activity that requires individuals to violate contractual obligations, you have a business model failure, not a PR crisis.

There are good reasons why many cities forbid short-term rentals, and why landlords don't permit subletting. Notwithstanding the fact that insurers won't insure illegal activity, there's a good reason why insurers wouldn't, at minimal cost, insure the majority of the rentals that takeplace on AirBnB. The potential for significant loss and damage is simply too high, and the lack of information about the transactions makes it difficult to assess risk.

Couchsurfing, wherein an individual opens his or her home to another person while he or she is present without expectation of monetary compensation, is of course a completely different subject.

almost 5 years ago

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Chris A

Regulation will have to evolve... Since ever entrepreneurs have being steps ahead regulation, it is natural, so rules will adapt.

With current economy precarious situation lots of people have found a way on Airnb and competitors to pay their bills. Furthermore lost of people have found a way for experiencing with new people from all over the world, getting to know rapidly several cultures and practicing languages... This is a new trend on demand that can't be stopped.

People want/ need it. Airbnb will learn and evolve; and regulation will follow after...

I live in Madrid and I have been an Airbnb host for a year already. I have had more than 50 guests and in 99.5% of the cases I have had wonderful experiences with them... with one guest I felt unsafe, but in the end nothing wrong happened (I did felt uncomfortable due to cleanning issues). With this I also learned what made me felt unsafe so I evolved as a host.

What I am trying to say is that we are all evolving constantly within this new collaborative consumption trend.

almost 5 years ago

Adam Candlish

Adam Candlish, Commercial Director at DataIQ

You make a good point Patricio. Come to think of it, when I stayed in an apartment I booked through AirBnB in New York a few months ago, I got this impression. I met the host (I say host as I do not know if he was the owner or tenant) and he said that if anyone asks, just say you are a friend who crashing for the week.

So clearly, the AirBnB model does in way encourage illegal activity. Whatever your view on sub-letting (I personally agree with Antoine, that it is harmless in most cases)it is part of a legally binding contract.

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

Chris - Hola desde Barcelona!

Dear Patricio / Adam,

I totally agree with you on the legal issues behind this. However, I do not see it as a business model failure as Airbnb clearly states that owners should have the legal right to rent their flat (And investors wouldn't put $100 million in a company without running background checks on the viability of the business model):

"offer, as a host, any accommodations that you do not yourself own or rent in as living space (without limiting the foregoing, you will not list accommodations as a host if you are serving in the capacity of a rental agent or listing agent for a third party property owner)"

"Site Rules and Restrictions. In connection with your use of our Services, you must act responsibly and exercise good judgment. Without limiting the foregoing, you will not:

(a) violate any local, state, provincial, national, or other law or regulation, or any order of a court;"

Can you hold Airbnb responsible for illegal actions made by owners or hosts? It is the responsability of the owner to respect laws, not the responsability of airbnb which clearly states that in the Terms of Use.

It is the same issue as a platform like Youtube or Craiglist ; they are not responsible for illegal actions on their websites but should take all necessary actions when notified of issues.

The same applies to Airbnb. To be totally honest, I would really like to know, apart of the legal aspect, why you seem to be so much against airbnb which provides a really useful service and fill-ins a gap in the hospitality industry.

I'm not stating that you are wrong or misinformed and your different points are really valid. However, I do not consider them as being something that cannot be improved.

Best regards,

Antoine

almost 5 years ago

Adam Candlish

Adam Candlish, Commercial Director at DataIQ

Antoine

You are factually correct, and I don't think it is down to AirBnB to enforce this. They are simply the middle man in the process and I agree that it is up to the advertisers/hosts to take responsibility for ensuring they are operating within the law.
What I was saying, is that with their model, they inadvertently, if completely unintentionally, encourage people to break the rules of their tenancy by subletting as it can make them very easy money.

I would imagine that if you took all the properties that are illegally subletting off of AirBnB the number of listings would drop dramatically. Basically because I imagine that 99% of tenancies do not permit subletting for the reason, as Patricio pointed out, that as a landlord you just can't get insurance.

I think the change in policy that you alluded to would have to start with the insurance companies, allowing sub-letting, which would increase their risk and in turn the cost to the landlords which would just drive up rents across the board which would not do anyone any good.

Also, put yourself in a landlords shoes; they love stability. Any landlord would take a steady, referenced tenant, rather than make 5% extra rent and have to deal with changing tenants every week/fortnight/month. The risk is too high, and people who jet set are by nature unreliable. Not to mention the hassle of getting people in and out of the property week by week.

I really like the AirBnB model and had a great experience with them, but the necessary changes are unfortunately unlikely. When using AirBnB in the future I would probably not ask if the host owned the property or was subletting, as I would not want to know the likely answer. If it did not affect my trip and was not my legal responsibility then I would holiday in blissful ignorance. ;)

Adam

almost 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Chris,

Even if you were to assume that cities currently forbidding short-term rentals change their laws to allow for them, that would still not address the issue of subletting being forbidden by contract. Again, there are very good reasons that property owners do not permit subletting.

Antoine,

I think you miss a key point.

AirBnB can put whatever it wants into its agreement, but if it knows or should reasonably know that a rental is in violation of the law or rental agreement, it's going to have a difficult time defending itself against lawsuits filed by third parties (eg. property owners) who are harmed by rentals and who were never party to that agreement.

AirBnB is not simply a listing service or passive middleman. It facilitates rental transactions and collects a commission on them. Effectively, it is actively engaged in the business of renting out properties without even verifying that its partners (members) have the authority to rent out properties they themselves may be renting.

As AirBnB is collecting a commission from these transactions, I think an actual property owner harmed by an AirBnB rental is going to have a pretty compelling argument that AirBnB is a party to the transaction that produced the harm and is therefore at least partially liable for damages.

Realistically, there are two solutions here:

1. AirBnB must become a listing service, wherein its members pay fees to list their properties for rent. For obvious reasons, this business model is a lot less lucrative and will not be appealing to most members.

2. AirBnB must verify that its members have the legal right and contractual authority to rent out their properties. This might entail, for instance, requiring the member to provide a copy of her lease to ensure that subletting is permitted. And of course it would need to block rentals in cities it knows forbid short-term rentals, like San Francisco and New York. One would suspect that if AirBnB did all of this, the number of listings on its site would drop dramatically.

Adam,

As noted above, I think AirBnB's status as a "middleman" is highly questionable. It is now involved in screening, is providing monetary guarantees against theft and property damage and of course collects a commission on rentals. From a legal standpoint, I think all of these things are going to make it increasingly difficult for AirBnB to absolve itself of liability when sued by a property owner.

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

Hi Adam,

Thank you for taking the time to answer and I admittedly agree with you.

Adam / Patricio - Thank you for your interactions. We might not agree on several points but this first encounter with the econsultancy team was interesting and will make me come back more often to read your analysis.

Enjoy your week-end!

Regards,

antoine

almost 5 years ago

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antoinegrillon

Hi Patricio,

I'm not entirely sure that Airbnb has to verify this kind of information. Similar to Ebay, they do provide insurance services but still act as passive a middle-man. It is the duty of the owner or renter to respect the law, not Airbnb. If someone sells a stolen good on Ebay, the seller is responsible, not the website.

However, all your points are legitimate and AirBnb needs to investigate all these potential issues as quickly as possible if they want to continue having a sane growth in the future and avoid having such experiences happening.

almost 5 years ago

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Jaramy Li

May be The current problems that Airbnb encounter are due to lack of processes, including safety mesures for renters, etc...

almost 5 years ago

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Julie

To gavin griffiths comment that the company is like ebay and it's early days of seller reviews.

It is not at all the same.....The risk to life, property and personal safety is exponentially greater (in the millions) than selling a widgit to a stranger on ebay.

almost 5 years ago

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Jay Williams

I do not understand why AirB&B do not pay / charge UK VAT.
It was my understanding that if you have rental transactions in the UK between a UK host and guest VAT would need to be charged and paid on the commission payment airB&B receive. Does anyone else know anything about this?

almost 5 years ago

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Zana Burton

I really hope AirB&B attempts to restrict corporate listings on the site. It's an amazing service that gives us, the individual a rare chance to bypass the corporate systems. They could limit the number of listings per host - or at least try and vet each listing to make sure hotels and corporate letting agents don't overrun the site. Unlikely though, Ebay, Gumtree, Facebook all being examples of sites that sold out long ago.

over 4 years ago

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