A week ago, the online accommodations agency Airbnb found itself scrambling after a woman who used the service complained in a blog post that the people renting her apartment had vandalized her place and left it in a shambles.
Although Airbnb was initially supportive of the San Francisco woman named EJ, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that an official from the company subsequently asked her to take down the post. She was told that that any negative publicity might impede the company's ability to raise private funding. (As it turned out, that wasn't an impediment. Airbnb, which now has booked more than two million nights, successfully raised $112 million, a sum that would value the company at more than $1 billion.)
But "EJ" wasn't the only customer with a horror story. Another man wrote about how he returned home to find drug paraphernalia all over his apartment. For good measure, he said his apartment was left with "thousands of dollars of bizarre damage."
So it was that on Monday, a flush-with-cash Airbnb announced a $50,000 guarantee that would indemnify any customers who suffer material damages when they use its site to rent out their properties. ( EJ and any hosts who suffered similar incidents will be grandfathered into the program.) Sounding a bit shell-shocked by the PR shellacking Airbnb received, co-founder Brian Chesky apologized in an open letter to customers, likening the last week to "a crash course in crisis management." He said he hoped the company's experience would serve as "a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts."
Airbnb also announced it would set up a 24-hour customer hotline beginning next week. In addition, an-house task force will review listings for suspicious activity.
Separately, the San Francisco police said it had arrested a suspect in the case, booking her on possession of stolen property, methamphetamine and fraud charges.
The following is the text of the letter from CEO Brian Chesky:
Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn't reflect my true feelings. So here we go.
There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words. In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.
With regards to EJ, we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive action to make sure she felt safe and secure. But we weren't prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we're dealing with the consequences. In working with the San Francisco Police Department, we are happy to say a suspect is now in custody. Even so, we realize that we have disappointed the community. To EJ, and all the other hosts who have had bad experiences, we know you deserve better from us.
We want to make it right. On August 15th, we will be implementing a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests who book reservations through our website. We will extend this program to EJ and any other hosts who may have reported such property damage while renting on Airbnb in the past.
We've built this company by listening to our community. Guided by your feedback, we have iterated to become safer and more secure. Our job's not done yet; we're still evolving. In the wake of these recent events, we've heard an uproar from people, both inside and outside our community. Know that we were closely listening.
Today we are launching a new safety section of the website (www.airbnb.com/safety) with the following offerings:
Starting August 15th, when hosts book reservations through Airbnb their personal property will be covered for loss or damage due to vandalism or theft caused by an Airbnb guest up to $50,000 with our Airbnb Guarantee. Terms will apply to the program and may vary (e.g. by country). This program will also apply retroactively to any hosts who may have reported such property damage prior to August 1, 2011.
24-Hour Customer Hotline
Beginning next week, we will have operators and customer support staff ready to provide around the clock phone and email support for anything big or small.
2x Customer Support Team
Since last month we have more than doubled our Customer Support team from forty-two to eighty-eight people, and will be bringing on a 10-year veteran from eBay as our Director of Customer Support next week.
Dedicated Trust & Safety Department
Airbnb now has an in-house task force devoted to the manual review of suspicious activity. This team will also build new security features based on community feedback.
Contact the CEO
If you can't get a hold of anyone or if you just want to contact me, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We've also added several other safety-related features to strengthen the trust and confidence of our community:
Suggestions for both guests and hosts on how to utilize our tools to better inform your decisions.
Our updated user profiles chronicle their public history on Airbnb, giving you more insight than ever about a potential host or guest. Along with standard social information, you'll also see if a user has verified their phone number, connected to their Facebook account, and whether the majority of their reviews are positive or negative. And as always, you can read their reviews and references.
Customized trust settings
We now give hosts the ability to set custom trust parameters for bookings; those who don't meet the specified requirements will be unable to make a reservation. Selections for Trust Settings include: verified phone numbers, profile descriptions, location information, with more coming soon.
Product suggestions poll
Have more ideas on improving safety? Now, you can submit and vote on the best ideas through our new product suggestions poll.
Many more product updates will be released in the coming days. In addition to these new features, there are safeguards already in place to protect the community. These include over 60 million Social Connections, private messaging to screen before booking, a secure reservation and payment system and transaction-based reviews. We also provide verified photographs, fraud detection algorithms, and flagging capabilities.
These steps are just the beginning. Improving the safety and security of our system is ongoing. Although we do have these measures in place, no system is without some risk, so we remind you to be vigilant and discerning. As a member of the community, you have invaluable experience that we hope to draw upon to improve our system. If you have any constructive ideas or feedback, please share them with us at www.airbnb.com/safety.
What's made us proud during this trying time is the response of our community. Emails of support to EJ poured in; many hosts offered her a place to stay in their homes. It's been inspiring to see that Airbnb can really bring out the best in people. Like Airbnb, the world works on the idea that people are good, and we're in this together.
When we first started Airbnb, I told my mom about our plans for the business and she said, "Are you crazy? I'd never do that." But when I told my late grandfather he said, "Of course! Everyone used to stay in each others' homes." We're bringing back this age-old idea with new technology. Now each day, you and the rest of the community are creating meaningful connections around the world.
Thank you for being part of Airbnb.