vacation rental

Ejo #103 – An Open Letter to Annette of Holiday Shacks

 

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The email that launched a thousand words.  A simple apology would have seen the matter die a natural and quiet death.

Dear Annette of Holiday Shacks,

Thanks so much for your email. I must say though, it wasn’t exactly the response I’d been hoping for. I thought, perhaps, you might go for something a tad more conciliatory. A touch more apologetic, considering your crappy handling of what went down when we rented one of your “shacks” earlier this year. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting you to so nimbly squirm out of accepting any responsibility at all. Allow me to recap.

In April of this year I rented one of your ludicrously priced holiday homes for a weekend. You see I live abroad, so whenever my husband David and I are back in Melbourne we have this little tradition of renting a country house with my sisters so that we can all catch up, have some drinks, cook some food, dance around, swim, play games, shoot the shit and just have some good old fashioned, wholesome, family fun.

As you can imagine, we were suitably impressed when we arrived at Oceania Retreat – it’s a stunning property. Which is why I rented it, notwithstanding the astronomical (and actually pretty embarrassing) price tag. I’m sure you’ll agree that $3050 for a weekend away is a shitload of money, Annette. Because I would hate for you to think that I can go around splashing cash like that on the regular. No, no, no. It was definitely way above my budget. To be very honest with you, I actually booked it by accident one night, when I was super drunk. Oops! And I’m not ashamed to say that paying that much money for a two day getaway made me feel a little bit like vomiting in my mouth. But as I’ve already said, time with my sisters is very special to me, so I went through with the booking.

So yes, we were impressed with the house. But as I told you in my initial complaint, there were a few things we were not so impressed with. Especially considering the price we paid. For instance, the dirty socks we found on the back porch. What the hell, Annette? For $3050, the least you could have done was pick up the socks? Also for that price, how about providing an umbrella that actually fits into the picnic table, instead of one that doesn’t. And hey, why would you advertise the house as having a “coffee maker” and a “fully stocked gourmet kitchen and pantry” but not actually provide any bloody coffee? That’s just nasty, girlfriend. I mean, alright, coffee might not seem like such a big deal… but it kinda is a big deal Annette. It kinda is! And while you’re at it, you might also want to think about asking the owner to repair the broken bi-fold doors that we were strictly forbidden to use. The busted bi-folds were a hoof to the face, Annette. I bloody love bi-folds!! I love the effortless blending of indoor and outdoor living that they provide. The bi-folds were one of the main reasons I booked Oceania Retreat in the first place. And the fact that the entire wall of them was broken and unusable does not seem fair considering that I paid full price for the house.

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The row of bi-fold doors that are designed to welcome the outdoors inside.  These were locked shut during our weekend stay.

 

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This is the house I thought I was renting.  Sadly, because the bi-fold doors were locked shut, it’s not the house I got.

But look, all of those inconveniences paled into comparison when, at around 9.30pm on Friday night, the electricity in three quarters of the house just went out. And no Annette, despite your strident assertions, we had not overloaded the system. Not in the least. Nary an iPhone was being charged at the time. But the power went kaput anyway. Being practical people, we figured we’d just find the fuse box, flip the safety switch and get back to having fun. Except Annette, we couldn’t find the fuse box. We looked everywhere, inside and outside of the house. But it was nowhere to be found. Was it because we were drunk? No. Was it because there were no lights? No. It was because the fuse box was hidden… wait for it, behind a locked door!!!

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Curious.

Which begged the question, Annette, where the fuck was the key? I still believe that was a very reasonable question to ask, sitting in a big-ass summer house with no electricity on the first night of a weekend away that cost us an asspile of money.  For some reason, you disagree.

We spent a couple of futile hours looking for the damn key before giving up, a little after midnight, and calling the number in the guest compendium. We called twice, because we felt that the situation was serious enough to warrant immediate attention. But the woman who took our calls obviously didn’t think that a power outage in a luxury holiday property was worth waking anyone up for. And so we spent the night in a $1525-a-night house with no electricity. Which was significantly worse than a mere “inconvenience”.

Look, Annette, ultimately it wasn’t the electricity failure that pissed me off. It wasn’t the dirty socks or the sadistic, empty promise of coffee. It wasn’t even that the fuse box was stupidly locked in a room that we couldn’t access – even though that was fucking ridiculous. I mean, come on. If you were going to give us the key anyway, why lock the door in the first place?  Mess with your guests, much?  (For future guests staying in Oceania Retreat, the key is in a small bag, in a box, on a middle shelf in one of the cupboards in the laundry – good luck finding it in the dark.)

No Annette, what really upset me was your email. How long it took me to make my initial complaint is irrelevant; I’m a busy person. And I’m sorry that most of your guests are in bed by midnight, I truly am.  But we paid for the privilege to stay up as late as we wanted.  So sure, we called after midnight, but the power had been out since 9.30pm. We called only because we were out of options and we were worried that the fridge situation was going to become a health hazard. The meat was starting to smell and the beer was getting warm. And that is most certainly not OK.

I know you’re not a hotel. Duh! I’m not interested in a 24 hour concierge desk.  I’m interested in 24 hour electricity.  I have stayed in over 50 holiday homes through companies such as yours, as well as 72 Airbnb rentals. I have never seen a fuse box locked in a room with no access. You know why Annette? Because I’m fairly certain that it’s illegal. And the reason the room was locked? To protect the secret treasure trove of wine and coffee hidden inside (oh yeah, there was fucken coffee!!!). Seriously, if the owner is so concerned about their mediocre wine collection they should find another place to hide it. The fuse box needs to be accessible 24/7.

Your final comment was: “We consider that his matter has been finalised as we dealt with the situation in an appropriate time frame and don’t consider Facebook as the appropriate forum when the situation was resolved.”

Listen, seven hours to respond to what I would call an urgent situation is not dealing with it in an appropriate time frame. And indeed Annette, Facebook was definitely not the best forum on which to air my grievances about Holiday Shacks. High five for pointing that out. Hospitality, you see, is an industry that relies on excellent customer experiences and positive word of mouth. Particularly the rarefied realm of luxury hospitality in which Holiday Shacks lurks. Your website bandies around terms like, “luxury holiday accommodation business”, “luxury coastal and rural holiday homes”, “luxury villas” and “guest luxury experiences”. That’s a whole lotta jive about luxury, Annette. But do you know what I don’t consider a luxury? Electricity. I tend to think of electricity as more of your “essential” type item. You rent mansions (not caravans); on the Mornington Peninsula (not outback Australia). Unlimited access to running water and electricity is not optional. And ten hours without electricity is not an inconvenience. It’s fucking unacceptable. And even worse, avoidable.

Before I finish, I’m going to leave you with a suggestion. Some constructive criticism, if you will. Seeing as you work in customer service, perhaps you could try using a bit more diplomacy next time you receive a complaint. Instead of blaming us, your customers, for a situation that was not our fault, perhaps you could … oh, I don’t know, maybe just think about apologising instead?? Just saying, Annette. I have a feeling that your email to me was so dismissive and contemptuous because you presumed that the final word was yours. But you were wrong, Annette. It’s mine.

And now the matter is finalised.

Ejo #89 – Airbnb & Me

David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.

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The pool-house we stayed at in Adelaide on our most recent trip to Australia.  We had free run of the pool which was nice coz it was HOT!!!!

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A palazzo.  In Barcelona!!!!!

It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.

Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.

This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.

And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.

Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.

OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.

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I don’t think we’ve ever stayed anywhere with less than a 4.5 overall rating. 

 

Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.

I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.

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This has never happened to us before – because we stay away from hosts that cancel a lot. 

 

Even more ominous:

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Shudder.  I just can’t even with this.

 

Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.

Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:

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look this wide:

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Same room!!!!  Look how wide the couch (and the map of Australia) looks in comparison to above.  Very deceptive. 

 

So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:

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C’mon, why is that cabinet door open??

 

or this:

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Where am I going to put my shit???

 

or this:

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I hate when a host leaves ALL their toiletries in the bathroom.  And WHY is the toilet seat up?  

I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):

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What a beautiful living room.  An apartment in Madrid. 

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Look at all that space – and none of the host’s personal belongings.  An apartment in Amsterdam. 

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No clutter.  Room for me to spread out.  A bathroom in London. 

Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.

Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:

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Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.

So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.

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Here’s the dirt I collected in just this small area.  The whole house was as filthy.

I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.

Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”

Here’s the review he left for me.

Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.

This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:

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Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.

* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.