Lacroix knew that he was taking a chance by booking a rental apartment online through Airbnb, which matches people who need a place to stay with people who have one to rent and which doesn’t operate under the same standards as a hotel. But he thought that making a reservation through a trusted intermediary meant that there’d be a minimum level of service and that he’d have someone to turn to in case the accommodations didn’t live up to their billing. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case.
The $24 billion vacation rental industry is struggling to reassure customers like Lacroix that it can be trusted. This fall, the Vacation Rental Managers Association, the 27-year-old trade association for vacation rentals, set out to change its image. It wants to convince travelers that a professionally managed vacation rental property can be just as good as, and maybe better than, a hotel. Steve Trover, the association’s president, calls the group a “new brand” in the lodging business.
The dominant home-rental Web site, HomeAway, recently rolled out a new program called HomeAway Secure Communication that offers a safer way to book, similar to the way you book at hotels. Its goal is to protect owners and customers from phishing, a form of online fraud that involves criminals who pose as property owners and fraudulently collect rental payments. “HomeAway would be able to ensure the legitimacy of the owner or property manager and the traveler,” said Tom Hale, the company’s chief product officer.
And Airbnb, expanding its role beyond that of just a broker between homeowner and renter, last summer introduced the Airbnb Host Guarantee, which covers hosts for up to $1 million for loss or damage due to theft or vandalism caused by an Airbnb guest.
These varied moves share a common goal, industry-watchers say: to assure renters and homeowners that they can feel confident about their next vacation rental.
But we’re not there yet, to hear Lacroix and other guests talk about it. When he called Airbnb from Turkey, a representative told Lacroix that the problems were merely “cosmetic” and helped him fix the WiFi signal. The company agreed to credit him only $13 — 25 percent off the nightly rate — to compensate for the broken WiFi connection.
Lacroix contacted me for help after sending Airbnb photos of the rental and again being rebuffed. I asked Monroe Labouisse, Airbnb’s director of customer service, to review the complaint. “It was clearly not a good experience,” he agreed.