Airbnb: The Ups and Downs of Stakeholder Engagement

Airbnb is a popular web based service that lets people rent out their spare rooms or even entire homes when they’re not around. I happen to be a big fan and have used them dozens of times to rent out my own place as well as to stay in other cities. I was therefore pretty shocked, along with many others, to read the news last week about the meticulous ransacking of a woman’s apartment by an Airbnb renter.

The ransacking was so bizarre, over the top, and downright evil, it actually spawned conspiracy theories that the whole thing was a set up – perhaps done by hotel industry goons to give Airbnb a bad name. That theory will likely dissolve in light of some recent arrests.

Nonetheless, a few mis-steps in handling the situation landed Airbnb on the front page of innumerable mainstream media leading many to question the safety of the service – a PR disaster of epic magnitude. For many, this was the first time they’d heard of the company – the worst possible first impression.

So what went wrong, and how did Airbnb set it right?

According to “EJ” (the woman who’s apartment was sacked), and reported on her own blog, Airbnb mounted an initially swift investigation, offering support and promising to go above and beyond any legal obligations to make sure EJ had a habitable place to live.  Then, according to EJ, the line went dead. Airbnb not only left her hanging for close to a month, but went on the defensive.  They backtracked on precisely what their legal obligations were, suggested they would not cover any damages, and (allegedly) suggested that EJ edit or remove her blog postings for fear of mounting negative PR.  Big mistake.  A mushroom cloud of bad press ensued and Airbnb entered its first round of what can optimistically be called “growing pains.”

Those of us familiar with young, inexperienced organizations can probably understand how easy it must have been to panic, try to make things better, then second guess oneself when the gravity of a situation dawns, and the business impact of the initial solution is unclear and risky.

Since then (reported widely), the leadership of Airbnb seems to have had some time to get their senses together.  They’ve realized their initial gut response was the right one regardless of exactly what their legal obligations were (technically, they had none).  They realized that in over-thinking it after the fact, they lost touch with their moral obligations.  The fact is, they were under a moral obligation to address the needs of EJ to the best of their ability – especially since the entire tenet of their organization, and indeed the very basis of the sharing economy on which they are based – depends on trust.  In a case as extreme as EJs, a little extra effort on Airbnb’s part would have likely prevented the maelstrom of negativity they’ve been enduring.

So, yesterday, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky penned a letter to all Airbnb customers politely taking responsibility for a poorly executed response to the EJ incident.  He also pledged to institute a series of additional security measures and most significantly, a $50,000 guarantee against any vandalism or theft coming from an Airbnb rental.  One assumes EJ will get some of that $50,000.

Will it make everything better?  EJ isn’t quite ready to let it go, but it’s a very reassuring gesture to many customers and has earned a new wave of positive and genuine buzz for the company.  It will also likely be costly for Airbnb while they hire new people, figure out how to handle the insurance, and protect against fraud should someone try to hijack the system.  Perhaps such costs could have been prevented by a more measured and consistent response.

The optimist in me is not about to dismiss Airbnb, regardless of how they handled a highly unusual situation.  After all, no matter how secure the system is, you’re always taking a risk when you let someone stay in your home – a little common sense will protect against all but the rarest infractions.

All signs point to Airbnb continuing their incredible rise towards revolutionizing travel and in time, this story will indeed be assigned the moniker of a mere growing pain.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.