The Surprise Un-Hotel (And A Word on the Benefit of Expectations)

Posted by   Annette on    March 7, 2018

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“AirBNB vs. Hotel” Is A Fool’s Game, And All Travelers Are Losing

It seems that the hospitality industry is having something of a conflicted moment.

I’ve been traveling full-time since 2009. I stay in a lot of hotels, and a lot of AirBNBs. Many dozens per year, in fact.

I love the AirBNB experience for its intimacy and its invitation to live like a true local, though that often comes with quite a bit of meetings-halfway on things like internet connection, privacy, cleanliness and convenience. That’s cool. I get it. That’s why I booked an AirBNB.

The site is introducing a new service level this year to try to address the inconsistencies, but y’know what? In so many circumstances, I like those inconsistencies. They provide a kind of wabi-sabi toothsomeness in a life that might otherwise be spent in a Fight-Club-style series of featureless boxes.

The other thing I love about AirBNB is that it, by the very nature of its existence, has helped define that one means by “the hotel standard.” Merely because it exists, these days, when one books a hotel, it is because one needs a hotel. One needs a seamless check-in and check-out experience at any hour. One needs the internet to work. One needs the bed to be comfortable. One needs the shower to be clean. One needs one’s privacy respected. One needs the professionalism and detail that comes with an actual, factual HOTEL. There is often a premium associated with this certainty--but when you need a hotel, you need a hotel.

I’ve had a couple of experiences this year that are shaking my confidence that such a beautiful balance is long for this world. It seems, dear readers, that both warring factions--on the sharing-economy side and the traditional-hotel side--are waging a war for a market they imagine they share in totality, and we suitcase-luggers are all gonna suffer for it, because they do not.

Take, for example, The Curious Case of the Surprise Non-Hotel.

When I first saw this property on Hotels.com, I assumed it was a professionally serviced apartment. They were, after all, charging a $191 (no typo) resort fee for a two-night stay at a property with no discernible resort amenities. No bother: a professionally serviced apartment was certainly what I needed: I was working a key position at a very-high-profile event at UCLA’s biggest venue. I needed my rest, my internet, my privacy and a nice space; I couldn’t AirBNB it for this.

When I arrived and I saw what I was really in for, I was stunned. I rolled my bag past a crowd of college students in the hall to discover a bare-bones apartment, furnished with a stark minimum of yard-sale stuff.

Sure enough, there was a “Welcome to your AirBNB” house manual on the countertop.

The shower glass was covered with soap scum, with a half-full bulk bottle of cheap drugstore shampoo and a pump bottle of antibacterial hand soap tossed in as amenities. Crinkly little hairs populated all the corners. There were two tiny, cheap, non-absorbent towels IN THE WHOLE PLACE. We checked every closet in the house.

And the internet didn’t work for one moment of the entire stay, no matter how much diddling we did with the hardware. The network never even appeared.

When my “how was your check-in” notes came back with a big frowny face, one of the people associated with the AirBNB-in-hotel's-clothing came knocking. It was almost 11p.m. I had a call time early the next morning for my event, so I didn’t answer. He didn’t go away; he kept knocking until my partner let him in. The hapless fella did nothing to help.

It hardly mattered, though: Both nights, there were college-kid parties in full swing across the hall, drunken party conversations floating through the paper-thin walls until the early morning. I tried in vain to sleep on a bed that managed to be too hard and too soft all at once, slumping down into a dejected pit in the center.

When morning creaked into view, it was time to start the workday. We arrived at our assigned parking space to discover an angry note on the rental car windshield. The scrawl thereon blared that the space we had been instructed to park in was, in fact, assigned to one of the uni-kid residents, and that we were about to be towed. We high-tailed it outta there.

After my show was safely in the rear-view mirror, I cracked my knuckles and laid into Hotels.com. Hard. I’ve been a Gold member as long as I can remember, and--to their credit--they returned a credit for part of my stay. The credit wasn’t complete and their contrition only partial (my scathing review has not, as of publication, actually appeared on the site to help others), but I chose to move on.

Fast-forward to yesterday, in Prague.

I was arriving alone, luggage-laden and SIM-cardless, in the dead of Czech winter. I speak no Czech. I’d flown in on three legs from Phoenix, each of which had pummeled me with delay after cancellation after delay. I had to be at the main Prague train station by 06:30 the next morning.

I needed a hotel. I really needed hotel.

I chose the Hotel Sovereign for its high ratings and its proximity to the station. I crossed my fingers.

And y’know what? It worked.

They sent a car service to pick me up at arrivals, my name displayed cheerfully on a little card. The driver treated me to a little personalized tour of the city (with which I was already quite familiar, but I loved his storytelling, so I nuzzled into the back seat and let him unspool). When I arrived, the pretty Czech coed at reception was the soul of hospitality, offering me a carry-out breakfast when I made my way to the station the next morning. The room was sparkling. The WiFi worked. The bed was cozy. And, when jet lag routed me out of it at an abominable hour, I wandered down to the fitness center and hefted some kettlebells to crank-start my bleary system.

To wit: It was a true hotel experience, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

This dichotomy of experience has given me a few hard thinks about the accommodation marketplace. I’m an AirBNB owner myself, so I have skin in this game, and I’m very keen on the idea that the market on the sharing side of the fence continue strong.

If accommodation brokers continue to dilute their offerings with non-hotel-standard rentals, I think they do so at their own peril. Who will risk it? We’ll just add the extra step of searching a Google map and booking direct.

My conclusion: Maintaining some semblance of separation between hotels and sharing-economy spaces helps everybody manage expectations. This is key because, at the end of the day, the hospitality industry’s stock-in-trade is the exceeding of expectations--and you can’t exceed expectations you haven’t managed.

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Playing around in a decidedly hotel-hotel room at The Drostdy in Graaf-Reinet, South Africa (one of my personal favorites)