October 27, 2011
★ My Year as an AirBNB SuperHost

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The Cabin

The time has come for me to dissolve my relationship with AirBNB as a host. It was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with and maybe the most profitable side-gig. For 13 months, I allowed complete strangers to book my cabin in New Hampshire for up to 2 weeks per booking and up to 10 guests at a time. There were guests from Africa, Australia, Europe and many of the most populous US states. Of course, there were also weekenders from Boston and New York City who drove 2-4 hours north for 2 nights in a cabin away from the city lights. I met some incredible people but there were a few I didn’t meet who booked and were able to simply find my keys laying on the front porch who let themselves in and left before I was able to stop by and say hello. I feel lucky that they trusted me enough to blindly book and show up expecting there to be a real cabin waiting. Sure there were problems and that’s part of the hospitality business. This post’s aim is to lay out what I accomplished with AirBNB and to detail what they’re doing right and wrong. Don’t worry about a tone of support simply because the service treated me well financially. I’m going to go hard on them in this post and lay out a few points. I hope the team gets to read this and I hope people who are on the fence about hosting will feel inspired to take up this profitable and rewarding hobby.

After 13 months, I’m proud of the accomplishments made on AirBNB. For simplicity, I’d like to share a few bulleted points:

  1. I made $6,500 on the site from January to December 2011 and another $200 in 2010. This is taxable income (source) for any hosts who are wondering.
  2. My property climbed the charts and currently is the #1 most recommended rental in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. If you zoom out to display Massachusetts, my rental drops to page 2 of search results.
  3. My AirBNB profile was granted SuperHost status. This entitles my listings to an improved ranking, special badge and other perks like free stays at properties that haven’t been reviewed yet.
  4. One of my past guests wrote a blog post about staying at my place on his site petitioning for a job at AirBNB. This made me all warm & fuzzy inside.
  5. I hosted over 100 guests this year across a few dozen bookings. It was incredible to see my place used while I was traveling and to hear feedback from people like “Your bar is awesome and I love all of your Apple gear!”
  6. I have been interviewed by a few media firms like USA Today for my involvement with AirBNB following the situation they had with a San Francisco host in August.
  7. If I were a creative person, I can easily add a year of “hospitality industry” experience to my resume. Running a part time bed & breakfast was challenging and taught me so much.

I’d like to share what my AirBNB experience has taught me about people and running a hotel:

Tim Ferriss said it best:

Many people are afraid of the world beyond their door, yet the vast majority of humans are not thieves, murderers or rapists. They are people just like you and me who are trying to get by, to help their families and go about living their lives. There is no race, religion or nationality that is exempt from this rule. How they go about living their lives might be different, but their general goals are the same.

I found this to be true in my time as a host on AirBNB. Letting people into my home was risky. I made some risk assessments and took steps to reduce my risks of any issues like theft or property damage. However, theft and damage happens even if it’s unintentional. People may have not planned on stealing towels but they did. Broken glassware and mis-placed items will happen especially when 10 people book your house for 7 days. I think only a couple of guests were careless with my home. I only charged a $10 cleaning fee out of principle to show that cleaning does come at a price in the form of my time so please keep things orderly. In half of the cases, I’d return home and the house was spotless requiring zero cleaning aside from washing towels and linens for the next guest. There were guests that even mopped and vacuumed and cleaned windows. It was pretty remarkable. Another 40% of guests weren’t perfect but I was able to get by with just an hour of cleaning. There was the 1 out of 10 guests that left my house in absolute dismay requiring 3-4 hours of cleaning. There were dirty dishes, towels soaked with alcohol and vomit, mis-placed furniture that ended up in other rooms and a toilet with a note saying, “we stopped it up. sorry” even though there was a plunger right there, it wasn’t worth their time to unstop the toilet. These types of guests are the minority and it’s not my intention to scare away hosts but it is important that you realize that some people treat your house like a home and others treat it like a hotel room. There hasn’t been any serious damage aside from broken plates and glasses and a mirror but there are times when I come home only to pick up and do laundry before another guest arrives that day and have to call my boss and take the afternoon off because I realize this is going to be 4 hours of work before I can let someone else in that will possibly make it dirty again.

You can leave negative reviews for these guests but I usually messaged them first simply stating I was disappointed. I’ve realized that leaving a negative review for a guest will often times end with them leaving a negative review for your place. Being a host means your’e always on top of reviews so you are often the person who reviews a guest first. Say anything negative and you’ll get a very specific reason from them that’s public to all potential guests why your house is the worst possible place to visit and how you’re an evil person. I dealt with this on eBay and it’s the same here. My new approach is that I politely send a message that I was disappointed with the state of the cabin upon my return but I will not review them at all and they usually say something mean to me and never leave a review for me. I’m alright with that but it’s a very awkward way to end a relationship with someone who just lived in your home for a few days.

People don’t expect much from you. Every little thing you do is HUGE for guests. I make available a full bar worth over $3K with fancy glassware, mixers, tools and a nice wine cellar. My only rule is that the guest replace any bottles they finish and don’t open certain wine bottles that I’m collecting. Two of my 10 bottles worth over $100 were consumed by guests who didn’t follow that rule. I cried a little but got over it. It’s my fault for not putting those bottles away from the others. Guests love my huge grill and smoker and deep fryer and they love the kitchen and big screen TV. They LOVE that you can stream 500 movies from my iMac to the Sony LCD TV and access Hulu & Netflix with a remote that’s programmed for each function. One remote, not 10 is the way to go. They love all of the space, the huge back yard and river with a gazebo. My iMac has a guest account where guests can browse the web and print things off. Food in my pantry is fair game if they need anything. There’s no need for a guest to buy bread drums or pasta if a recipe calls for it. Just use some of mine and replace whatever you finish off. You have to present a fair, open and honest approach to everything. Expect that guests will wow you with a respect for your things. If you expect the house is going to burn down and your things stolen, you shouldn’t host with AirBNB because you’re going into this the wrong way. Think positive or don’t even start.

Both parties should give a little bit. The little things like leaving the porch light on and the ceiling fan going or making sure that space heaters and fans are available or making sure there’s a how-to for using your coffee maker. These little additions will make the guest happier and they’ll respect you and your space much more. This is how things usually work but you have to also assume that guests won’t show any respect for your space and things. My bathroom is stocked with fancy products for my hair, face and skin. I have a bottle of shampoo that costs $50 and facial scrub that costs $40. I bathe in sea kelp and algae body wash with a vanilla scented loofah and apply a clay mask once a week. I have $110 bottle of Sake bubble bath. Throughout the last 12 months, I’m okay with people using these things if they forget to pack shampoo or soap but price tags aren’t on my products and there were two night guests that actually cost me money. Once I add up the amount of liquor and food they ate plus the using of a month’s worth of facial scrub with just 2 showers, it exceeds what they paid to stay here. That can disappoint you a bit but my point is that you should always remember that not everyone will respect your things and you should plan accordingly. If something of yours is in your house that you’d miss if it was used, broken or stolen, put that away in a locked closet or room. Throw it in a box and put that under the stairs or in the garage. Labels and notes suggesting things to avoid is a lot of work for guests to remember. Take the guesswork out and just remove things from the picture. I never did that and I do miss my wine, facial scrub and the fact that someone used $50 worth of my bubble bath for one bath not realizing it’s super concentrated and only needs 2 ounces to get effective. Oh well, life goes on.

You can never “check-out” as an AirBNB host. I’ve received 1 AM text messages from guest complaining about seeing a mouse. AirBNB has a strict policy on rodents. If your guest sees one, they get a full refund. I agree with that but this is a cabin in the woods and mice do come in once the temperature drops. I deal with it with traps and it lasts for a month before I stop seeing them. Either way, I immediately called the guest, booked them a hotel in town on my dollar and refunded their money the next morning via AirBNB. I’ve received calls while having dinner out of the country from a guest that just arrived and I end dinner just to help them out and answer questions. You belong to the guest when they’re staying in your home. If you check out and turn off your phone on the weekends, it’s a problem. Guests usually call the host first and, if you don’t pick up, they call AirBNB who frantically tries to get in touch with you. This causes problems and can lead to cancellations if things aren’t going well for the guest. You don’t want this.

Don’t list your property on multiple sites. Use AirBNB only, get involved with the community, keep your calendar up to date when you block out dates and don’t try to have bookings from two different sites because the calendars get screwed up and your search ranking ends up sucking on both sites. I LOVE AirBNB and you will too. Sign up with AirBNB, commit to their system and don’t stretch yourself too thin by listing on Craigslist or other travel sites.

That’s about it. I hope that bit helps any future guests who are interested in AirBNB. You’re a hotel owner when you list a property and, if you do a great job, bookings will jump up considerably over time. July and August, I was booked every day. I didn’t go home for 2 months aside from cleaning. If you’re not ready for that, well just be careful. The goal is to make money and you will but that comes at a price of time and guests always coming and going.

My Advice to AirBNB on how to improve their service for guests and hosts:

Brian and team, you guys are a young startup and you are growing very fast. I see the growth in the amount of people who view my page, message me and book. 95% of my bookings are from members with no previous reviews. These are all new users booking with me and that’s why I try so hard to be a great host so they’ll come back and stay again or book somewhere else for a 2nd stay using AirBNB. I feel like the test waters for a lot of these users and it’s a lot of pressure. I know you guys are enjoying your growth but you should do a few things for hosts and guests. I’m going to use bullets to make this easier to digest.

  1. Require Facebook as the ONLY sign-up method. I understand this has effects on emerging markets, older users and other demographics but this helps with three big issues:
    1. Profile Photos
    2. Verification of an identity (which isn’t always 100% accurate since Facebook can be spoofed)
    3. Context for AirBNB. (who is this person and what is their info like location, relationship status and other figures)
  2. Improve “House Rules” to allow for more in-depth formatting. I’d like to attach photos to my house-rules or a video walk-through of the home showing some features and an ability to mention some Dos and Don’ts for guests. Allow guests a copy of this via PDF for easy printing prior to their stay.
  3. Improve listing features. I’d like to have the ability to display number of real beds, air mattresses, futons and couches. I have to list this in my description but many don’t read entire descriptions.
  4. Ramp up the AirBNB Photographer program NOW. Those of us that aren’t in cities don’t have verified listings with a photographer. The service has pinged me a few times via email about signing up but, when I do I get notes a few days later that my area isn’t supported yet. I was the #1 property in New Hampshire and never heard from a photographer with that personal touch
  5. Continue innovating and changing your design. You guys are doing a good job at always changing. Keep that up. The nav bar and improved listing design is phenomenal. I love webcam support for recording a video or taking a photo. This is great stuff!
  6. Improve your verifications another step and beef up host requirements. The phone verification doesn’t work sometimes and I require a phone number and I don’t know if a potential guest is just lying when they say they want to book but AirBNB wouldn’t verify their phone number.
  7. Force guests to review me before they can book somewhere else. The community relies heavily on reviews more than nearly every other parameter. Following location and price, reviews are the 3rd place guests go when it comes to clicking the book button. Hosts always review guests but then they don’t reciprocate. Maybe an incentive of $5 off their next booking if they review their last? That’s up to you guys but this is a problem.
  8. Ping guests to update their listings. Every 3-months (quarterly) I’d love to get a reminder to upload a new photo, update my description and ensure listing features are up to date. Remind hosts that the search ranking can be improved by updating these things and that our listing rank can be hurt if we don’t do it.
  9. Bring SuperHosts together! I know it’s a new program but I was hoping for more from this program. Connect me with other New England hosts, give us a forum to sound off and chat with others. My biggest complaint as a host is that I feel all alone. I want to feel connected to AirBNB and other hosts. Make this a community. If I stop hosting, I lost my “friends” and that might keep me around. Don’t underestimate the power of a sounding board for your most passionate (and not to mention profitable) hosts to chat, share ideas and collaborate.
  10. Lay down the law on hosts who don’t participate in the community, don’t add photos and accurate descriptions to their listings and list their properties on multiple sites. I tried 3 times to book a place in Maine, Boston and Philly and half of my requests were ignored or I was asked to visit an external site to book my listing. Another case I was told the place was unavailable but their calendar wasn’t up to date. This goes beyond educating hosts (which you guys do a pretty good job at). This is about putting software in place to look for offenders of site policies and offenders of practices that hurt your service and lead to a crappy experience for potential guests.
  11. Allow “One-Click Messaging” for guests who aren’t yet members of AirBNB. John puts in his email and name and he can message me questions. Only when he decides to book does he have to create an account. I understand user retention is the goal here but that sign up field keeps him from reaching out to me. You may have lost John forever. He finds AirBNB through your (I have to mention this is very cool) awesomely well-done SEO of rentals on a Google Search or an Adwords placement on YouTube and he wants to find out more from me. Well, with a hotel he can just call up anonymously to them and ask questions without handing over any user data. With AirBNB, he has to go through the sign up process and I feel this is a hurdle.
  12. iPad app (I’m sure you guys know this though)
  13. Make comparison shopping easier. I want to compare 3 properties side by side by location, price, amenities, reviews. Look at how Hotels.com does it and I love their enlarged map view. It would be awesome to view listings with a full-screen map with roll overs.
  14. Half of my reviews are from guests that STILL don’t have profile pictures. For a property page that’s so brilliantly designed, it looks bad and, as a guest, I wouldn’t trust reviews from users with blank avatars. It looks cheap. This lack of avatars thing is a real problem. AirBNB needs trust from guests and hosts and a photo is the first thing everyone should get (see my 1st suggestion)
  15. Withholding funds shouldn’t happen for users who have future bookings lined up. Right now, a user checks in on a Friday, you release the funds 24 hours later  but it’s a Saturday so the result is that I get an email on Monday that funds are on their way and they clear on Tuesday. That’s 4 days after the guest checks in. I’m not saying you release funds in advance but, on the day of the check-in, funds should process if I have future bookings so, if there is an issue and you guys refund the guest’s money, you just take a hold on my next payout. I’d also be interested in you guys holding my payout for monthly deposits or have the ability to use my money with you guys and apply it toward bookings. Travel is easier on me if I already have money sitting on AirBNB ready to go. It’s like a travel fanatic’s savings account! Then, maybe that’ll help us hosts avoid the tax penalty considering most of us are travel geeks and will probably use your money immediately to go travel somewhere cool. Keep the cash internal and convert to credits.
  16. Do a better job of community involvement. I know you guys are growing fast and I know things are crazy busy but more meet ups, events and emails would be great. Involve hosts and guests! Let us know you’re listening and keep us up to date on what’s new. Not everyone knows about the blog or follows on Twitter.
  17. Improve GuideBook. I setup a GuideBook for my listing. Why don’t you guys pull in Wikipedia information and Google POI data to make this automatically more complete. It adds context to where the guest is staying. “Nearby places to eat” would be an awesome edition to a listing’s context.
  18. Demographic suggestions. “People with kids loved this place!” or “City-Dwellers considered this cabin a place to unwind and relax” or “Love coffee? This place has an espresso machine!” Don’t just show amenities as a confusing and overwhelming list of things. That’s so 90s. Make amenities fun and catered. I want to find places that offer a full bar as a part of the booking in Boston. That would really narrow things down.
  19. Create “specials” where a host can do a fire-sale on a last minute cancellation or a special for New Years Eve and 4th of July. Stay 3 nights and get one free, etc. Places with an active special should receive extra search ranking placement.

I’m absolutely certain there are more things I can add and I’d be happy to do that. Basically, you guys are in such an awesome position. You are redefining the hotel industry and disrupting everything that was broken and couldn’t be changed. Don’t copy Hotels.com or Expedia on everything. Get inspired by them and then innovate beyond their old and boring features. Adopt a loyalty program with flair. Make AirBNB COOLER than hotels! That’s your job. Hotels are rigid, expensive and boring. AirBNB is a way to travel like a local. Make that cool and awesome. Never stop evolving. Ever.

Some kudos are in order to the AirBNB team. I’d like to say a few things about AirBNB that blew me away:

  1. The site is super fast. The facebook login redirect is not (Probably due to Facebook’s OAuth key redirect) but the site is screaming fast! Ops, Engineering and whoever you host with deserve huge props. This is a big deal in the experience.
  2. Your user design team is kicking serious ass as well. The site is evolving on a weekly basis. You guys launch features at 7PM sometimes so I know you all are at the office late working on this stuff. It shows the commitment to a better experience for everyone.
  3. AirBNB Support. There are simply not enough words. You guys have gone above and beyond on 5 occasions. You answer phones fast, emails even faster. Your Twitter account is on top of their game. You reply to users, help out, make suggestions and produce interesting content that makes me want to click.Great job. Interaction with us when we need it is so important and I’m happy you guys got that right. The support team wasn’t always this awesome but I have a feeling that’s due to growth and hiring constraints limited by funding or just too much hiring to do all at once. Either way, that hurdle feels distant past now. Keep up the great work.
  4. I added a comment about my experience with AirBNB on TechCrunch back in August and the CEO added me as a friend on Facebook. How rad is that? I haven’t spoken to Brian yet but it’s awesome that you’re willing to connect with me on that level.
  5. I went from user to host to being followed by AirBNB on Twitter and then emailed by you guys following some public questions I had and then Brian added me on Facebook and then I was accepted as a SuperHost and when I announced I was leaving AirBNB as a host, you guys emailed me to get the full story and ask why I was leaving. I’m just some dude in New Hampshire and am probably a small potatoes operation but you guys freaking care and that is what makes this decision so difficult. Seriously, I’m amazed at how great you guys have been. I’ll be a user and guest for life at AirBNB properties all over the world thanks to your support system and willingness to give a crap about what I had to say.
  6. http://www.airbnb.com/safety is awesome! This page was nothing and now it’s a huge resource for guests and hosts to have a lot of trust in the service. My bookings are up in a HUGE way following all of the cool new verifications. Great work to everyone at AirBNB for pulling off some awesome features very quickly.

Why am I quitting as an AirBNB Host?

I’m pretty bummed to be leaving AirBNB and de-activating my listing. I have no problem activating it back on rare occasions that I want to make extra cash but I haven’t really stated WHY I came to this decision. The money was good, the people were fun and it has been a blast. The real reason is what AirBNB is calling “Host Fatigue”. That’s exactly what this is. Of course I have problems with the service and no service is perfect but nothing about my experience on AirBNB has caused this departure. In truth, I miss my house. I miss the weekends with my girlfriend where we would come here, watch movies, make drinks, read and sit by the river. I hate the times I have to rush home on my lunch break to scrub floors between guests or the times where I spent hours doing dishes and unclogging toilets. I can do it if it were a job but, when you get home to dirty dishes and nasty floors and relocated furniture and realize your 2004 bottle of wine was consumed when you had rules permitting that, it gets you down and you just want to give up. Maybe you don’t but I do. I haven’t really enjoyed my cabin that much because it’s aways being cleaned and scrubbed and booked and I cover rent with bookings but it’s not really my house anymore. I miss my home so much and it’s time that I make it mine again. On bookings where I am not out of town, I stay with my girlfriend. Of course she doesn’t mind but I live out of a suitcase for weeks at a time even though I’m only 10 miles from my house. I’ll be an AirBNB user for life but, as a host, I need a break.

Before I go, I wanted to add that I have a special promo code. If you’re a new host, sign up via the link below and use that promo code. The result is that you’ll get a $50 bonus after your first guest books a night at your property. It’s a nice way to get started and, if your’e going to sign up anyway, might as well make an extra $50.

http://www.airbnb.com/newhost

Code: EQQQNF

This was a very long post but I’m hoping it is useful to future hosts, guests and to the AirBNB team in San Francisco. Thanks for reading.