MAY 14, 2020
The travel industry has an existential problem. How to convince the public that leaving home will be a safe and enjoyable activity in a drastically changed world?
I think it will be a tough sell for many reasons, particularly after so many months of the sheltering-in-place mindset.
In theory, though, renting a private home should have some advantages over other lodging options because staying in a private home has social distancing baked into the experience, with no crowded hotel lobbies, elevators, or breakfast buffets.
But there's a glitch: The majority of home rentals are individually owned and managed, so when it comes to cleaning and safety protocols—as well as cancellation policies—vacationers must rely to no small degree on the standards of each renter.
Airbnb and other vacation rental websites have varying approaches to solving this issue, but, quite frankly, none of those companies has devised a system that truly holds hosts accountable.
With so many individual property owners and a business model that depends on user ratings instead of corporate oversight, that's to be expected.
But in the time of a pandemic, the stakes are higher than ever. Good safety procedures could mean the difference between a traveler's sickness and health.
Here's what three of the biggest players in rentals say they're doing. Is it enough?
On May 8, the family of home rental brands under Expedia Group's corporate umbrella—Vrbo, HomeAway, and VacationRentals.com—announced some of the ways the company is tackling safety, cleanliness, and cancellations in the wake of Covid-19.
The plan is, by far, the most detailed statement of intent we've seen from any of the large rental sites. But the plan does have some significant holes, the most glaring of which is that none of the guidelines set forth are mandatory.
Vrbo worked with a medical expert from the Infectious Diseases Society of America to assimilate the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other health and safety groups, creating one unified document of non-binding guidelines for hosts.
Vrbo hosts are now encouraged—again, not required—to provide the following services and supplies for guests:
• contactless check-in and checkout (through apps, smart locks, etc.) and minimization of physical contact between host and guests
• sufficient hand sanitizer and soap products to be supplied to guests at entry points and other key areas
• masks and other types of PPE to be supplied to guests
• no back-to-back bookings—properties will remain empty for a minimum blackout period of 24 hours between guests
• a cleaning process checklist that goes from the lowest-risk areas (bedroom, living room) to highest-risk areas (kitchen, bathroom) with cross-contamination prevented by using equipment that is specific to each area and is sanitized after each use
• using cleaning workers who have been properly trained on "cleaning, disinfecting, and chemical products (e.g., germicides) and on safe waste disposal"
• using PPE for only one cleaning session
That's all very well. But remember: Hosts are on their own when it comes to meeting Vrbo's new cleanliness standards.
The corporate offices won't be sending hosts supplies like soap and hand sanitizer and masks—which, as you may have noticed, aren't always easy to find on store shelves.
And that's a huge gap in the new system: The company's guidance assumes that hosts will have the necessary cleaning products and protective equipment, but those things are in short supply nationwide.
Hosts at Vrbo and its corporate siblings will use the "policies" section of listings to lay out what steps they are taking to make properties cleaner. So far it does not appear that this material will be formatted in any particular way, which may make it cumbersome to scan.
That means it might not be easy to see quickly which properties are taking the most precautions—but it's difficult to know for sure because Vrbo has yet to release any samples of revised listings with this additional information.
Vrbo has also added notifications to the site to alert travelers when they are searching for a property that is in an area under orders regarding travel or lodging restrictions. (Frommer's only endorses renting homes in locations where it's currently permitted and local health guidelines are observed.)
Vrbo has said it will encourage larger property management groups that manage multiple listings to obtain third-party certifications from accredited hygiene organizations hired to do cleanings. When I asked how common Vrbo expects these types of certifications to be, company representatives were not able to provide an answer.
Vrbo has changed its website's search filtering capabilities so travelers can look for properties with flexible cancellation policies, including ones that grant full refunds before arrival. The length of the grace period varies by property but is described in each listing.
Individual hosts, not Vrbo, are responsible for fulfilling the company's hygiene recommendations—and those hosts shouldn't expect much help from Vrbo in that regard.
As for consumers, what are they supposed to do when a host claims to have given a property a thorough cleaning, but the guest disagrees?
Vrbo president Jeff Hurst wrote me in an email, "Homeowners and property managers [will] describe the cleaning procedures they're following on their amenities list and property description. This content will be monitored and Vrbo will remove cleanliness claims from properties that are found to be misrepresenting what they're doing."
Translation: It's up to hosts to ensure cleanliness and it's up to guests to assess cleanliness—a very big ask in both cases. Especially since the guest won't have any way to make that assessment until arriving at the property (and even then, it could be difficult).
Like Vrbo's guidelines, Airbnb's are not mandatory—though Airbnb seems to be giving more incentive for hosts to comply by creating a certification system in which those who meet cleanliness standards will be given a badge of approval.
Though it was announced with great fanfare that details of Airbnb's certification program would be released in May, we're now halfway through the month and nothing tangible is in place yet.
When I asked a spokesperson for Airbnb whether the certification process would involve webinars, reading material, or some other form of instruction, I was only told, "Hosts will be responsible for taking advantage of educational resources that will be made available by Airbnb, undergoing a certification process, and attesting to the implementation of the standards.”
Which doesn't tell us much of anything.
Airbnb's initial announcement put a lot of emphasis on hosts using cleaning and sanitation products recommended by Airbnb to receive the certification badge.
When I asked the spokesperson if hosts would lose certification if they couldn't access the correct products, I was told: "We are working on several future solutions to support our host community, and we are mindful that there may be temporary product shortages in some regions. The Cleaning Protocol is being developed for the home sharing industry, so its design is focused on ordinary people who share their homes and may either do their own cleaning or hire individuals or companies to do that. It will include guidance on products and protective gear, as well as a learning and certification program."
Airbnb seems to be leaving the door open to several rounds of certification, noting that the company is planning to update protocols as the science evolves.
One given: Sanitization will include leaving properties dark for at least 24 hours between guests and leaving windows open (if possible) to better clear away any virus-laden droplets left by previous guests. For guests who want to be extra-sure, there will be an online feature to prevent bookings of less than 72 hours apart.
According to a company notice, Airbnb's still-mysterious hygiene certification training for hosts will include instruction on "personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves" as well as info on which disenfectants "are approved by regulatory authorities."
Hosts may decide not to take the cleanliness and safety training—which means no certification badge.
However, hosts who don't take the training can still agree to a "booking buffer" that will automatically impose a 24-hour dark period between guest bookings. That information will be visible on rental profiles.
Once the certification process has been developed, Airbnb says it will add an easily recognizable badge on the profiles of hosts who have agreed to adopt the company's cleaning protocol and undergo training.
So it may be easier to spot a listing's level of cleaning detail on Airbnb than on Vrbo.
Airbnb guests can obtain full refunds or credits for future travel for any stays booked before March 15, 2020, for rentals until June 15, 2020, according to a recent update to the company's "Extenuating Circumstances Policy."
Airbnb has also created a program called More Flexible Reservations, which will reward hosts that offer wider flexibility on refunds by showing their listings higher in search results. The company notes that 60% of hosts allow for full refunds on cancellations made five days or longer before a reservation.
As with Vrbo, Airbnb does not have a mechanism in place to ensure that hosts have actually followed the recommended protocols.
When I asked the company rep about this issue, I was told, "This initiative is designed to help hosts, guests, and their communities by providing updated, expert-backed prevention guidance, but does not fully protect against the disease."
As with Vrbo, the onus is on the guest to report issues, according to the spokesperson, who wrote to me, "In the very rare cases when things go wrong, we encourage our users to contact Community Support so we can respond accordingly."
FlipKey/TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals
That may be because the company is undergoing severe financial difficulties—though so is Airbnb. Both companies recently fired 25% of their employees. Expedia, which owns Vrbo, is expected to cut 12% of its workforce companywide.
When I reached out by email to ask if either FlipKey or TripAdvisor had issued new procedures for rental hosts, Brian Hoyt, who handles communications for both sites, responded, "As a means to support the recovery of the tourism industry (and help keep travelers safe), I can tell you that we’re currently discussing how [new] standards could be integrated into the user experience, especially when searching for information on one of the accommodations listed on our platform. . . . I promise to share any news in this area as soon as it is available."
Let's hope that's soon.