Open Letter To Homeaway
By Benoit Gateau-Cumin, Chief Recruiting Officer at The Boutique Search Firm
Dear HomeAway and assorted not-so-transparent subsidiaries:
BUT, after 4 experiences with your concept (Southern France, Paris, Hawaii and Palm Springs) I have found out that the issue is credibility and lack of respect for your clientele.
I have found homes completely misrepresented as one-bedroom apartments when they were only (small) studios. Air conditioning amenities turned out to be "typos" and photos depicting the home turned out to be VERY, VERY OLD. Think white sofa, photographed in its prepubescent prime for the sake of the listing photos. Now imagine the same sofa ten years later: the photo is still the same. The sofa, alas, is not.
Maybe one of your problems is that you tend to take the word of the HomeAway host for gospel without checking much or inspecting units at all. In Hawaii, we had booked (and pre-paid in full, no refunds or cancellations) a one month stay at Diamond Head for January 2019. Since we had a bad experience with our booking this January (see tragicomic story below) we insisted with the owner to visit the one-bedroom apartment we were to occupy while we were in the area. Nice building (I used to live there, many many years ago). The listing indicates one-bedroom, A/C, includes washer dryer…etc… No one-bedroom, but a studio (albeit spacious) no A/C ("none of the apartments in the building have A/C, we rely on the breeze from the trade winds") no washer, no dryer ("well, we do have them, in the basement. The building does not allow us to have units in the apartment". We go home to think about it and contact the owner later that day: you have been misrepresenting your unit as a one-bedroom as opposed to a studio and been claiming to have some features you do not have. "Oh, I did not realize the listing was for a one-bedroom. The listing is very old and I never really checked on it. But it is OK, you will get your money back within three weeks." And we did - 5 five weeks later.
More recently, in Palm Springs: very nice 3 bedroom home with garden and heated swimming pool. Expensive, but peak season. My wife, a TV watcher, checks with the agency a few days before our arrival, that there is indeed cable TV and access to a "SmartTV" with all major channels, including HBO, Netflix and the like. She is told there is. We arrive at the home. There is a nicely put together User's Guide describing the various features and amenities of the house. One full page is dedicated to the operation of the main TV set, described as "Smart Television". That, it ain't. The agency dispatches a TV specialist. Twice. To no avail. They finally get hold of the owner who says: it is not a SmartTV and will not upgrade the cable from the 12(!) channels it currently has. Then why is it listed as such in the manual? As a result, my wife ends up going to a local store to purchase a Roku device, at our expense. She is a true techie and, within an hour, we have all the right channels.
But let me tell you about our January Hawaii experience: December, January and February are the busiest months in Hawaii. We had booked, 9 months out, a one-bedroom cottage in Lanikai. There were plenty of photos to describe the unit and I had several conversations with the owner over a period of several months. I was a bit worried when there was some confusion as to when deposits were due, as I was billed twice for the same thing. The owner, however, blamed that on HomeAway and reimbursed me in a matter of days on my PayPal account. One week before our arrival, I called the owner for two reasons: to get the exact address of the cottage and to ask her when I ought to pay the balance. She said the balance could wait until we get there, and sent me an address I did not bother to check on a map. Two days later, I received an invoice from HomeAway asking me to pay the balance. So I did. Had I checked on a map the address she gave me, I would have realized it was not "a 3-minute walk to the beach" but a good 15 minute car ride to Lanikai Beach. When we arrived we went to the address we had been given, and told to wait for the owners husband. It was a drab two story faux-colonial apartment building abutting the local Target. When the husband, showed up, he showed us the studio apartment: small, crowded and damp. After checking the "living area" and the kitchen, I naturally asked for the bedroom. The bedroom, he asks? Here it is: he pulls down a Murphy bed! "Super comfortable and it saves you a lot of room." A few lies later, I asked him if by any chance, he and his wife may have 2 rentals, including a one-bedroom overlooking a garden and a 3 minute walk from the beach. Yes, he said, but that one is rented already. I explained to him it was rented, but that it was to me. After one night in the studio, we tell him he has to do something about it and take care of us. He offers to return our money: what good would it do to us in January when every single property in Hawaii is rented out? So he says he would check with a friend of his, who own a guest "cottage" right off the beach, that happens to be available. We move there: what he calls a guest "cottage" is a unpermitted converted garage that obviously does not meet any safety standards. The first "visitor" we meet upon arrival is a giant cockroach on its back. "Do not worry, the big ones are not bad, because they die quickly. It is the small ones you have to worry about." After two nights in the cramped "guest cottage", I cry Uncle and speak to the owner about the luxury 4-bedroom main front house on the beach: it is vacant and he is about to list it for sale (for $3.7 million) we do make a deal and proceed to have an enchanting vacation. Never hearing from the original studio owner again. And my rental budget was blown up from $2,100.00 to $7,500.00.
Moral of the story, I was the victim of a "bait and switch" and was "walked" from an overbooked hotel. Imagine being walked from your hotel while you attend a convention in Manhattan and there is not one single room to be had? Leaves you few options, doesn't it. However, you have the option to sue, and, with the right documentation are almost guaranteed to win.
At the luxury end of things, there have always been marvelous private residences available though specialized agencies, but the mechanics are not the same. They still exist, by the way, and AirBnB has not put much of a dent in their business. Just like I sincerely doubt it has put a serious dent in the occupancy of the Ritz, Claridge's or the Carlyle. You do not buy a Rolls Royce on CarFax, do you? And, by the way you better come up soon with what travelers perceive as their Number Two priority in selecting a hotel: the preferred guest program or equivalent reward system. Not easy to implement, but when there is a will, there is a way.
Please do establish a code of conduct, rules and a mission statement: a rental unit has to be inspected at least once a year. The photos of the unit should be refreshed at least once a year, and the date when they were taken should be posted. Homeowners who do not abide by the rules (they should have to sign a contractual agreement) should be dropped, reported and possibly liable for damages.
Dear Homeaway, you have been behaving the way hotels did when occupancy was running so high, it did not matter if guests would come once and never return. You remind me of Spain's Costa Brava in July and August, when tourists get packed like sardines in cheap hotels but don't care because it is summer and they crave the sun.
There is no such thing as having your cake and eating it too….
Born and raised in France, Benoit managed to scoop up a French law degree prior to studying Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Upon graduation in 1975, he engaged in an eleven-year hotel management career that took him to Chicago, New York, Washington DC, San Diego, Istanbul, Jamaica and Hawaii.More from Benoit Gateau-Cumin