The internet is amazing for connecting buyer with seller, and individual with crowd. But over the last six months or so, we’ve seen repeatedly that buying from a big online brand doesn’t always mean that, should anything go wrong, should your expectations not be met, there’s a real person at the end of a phoneline just waiting to help you.
And when it comes to buying from the online travel agents, that means you might just find yourself literally out on the street with your suitcases, or shunted off into accommodation that doesn’t meet your needs or expectations, even if you’ve paid upfront and have a confirmation email trail as long as your arm.
I won’t bang the drum again that even the most experienced of us can get caught out by that one!
Suffice to say, the advice pages of most of the national press in every country are filled with consumer complaints about the OTAs and how they’re damaging that city/region/country’s reputation with tourists.
But some recent events seem to have finally got through to some of the big online brands, and this shines a light on what exactly the consumer expects of them – those platforms that have their money, but maybe not their loyalty, and there might be a lesson for all in that.
One thing it does seem to show is that when a brand becomes a part of everyday life – an app, the first thing the consumer checks in the morning, where they look to buy something – it takes on a kind of personality for the consumer every bit as real as a physical high street shop or a person.
And that’s when the brand needs to step up and manage its interactions with some human feeling.
One such, outside our own sector, is Instagram, regularly criticised and facing some kind of self-regulation at the very least for giving an unrealistic, airbrushed view of other people’s lives, and enabling troubled teens to exchange images and links about self-harm or body image or anxiety. Can this be the platform’s fault? Not exactly.
But Instagram is seen by those who use it less as a digital conduit for exchanging views, and more a kind of guardian angel, a friend, even a parent, as though there’s a real person sitting watching over whatever’s posted. Not very realistic, since almost a year ago there were more than 95,000,000 images shared on that platform daily. But that doesn’t matter to the user, the consumer, who trusts it. So does it have at least some moral responsibility to manage some of the content that it facilitates?
Facebook is another one which has recently come under scrutiny, for products sold on its Marketplace – a direct C2C platform where people can freely trade goods, services and ideas – when some people have become ill from products they’ve bought because the allergens weren’t clearly labelled. The tragic case in 2016 of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after a reaction to sesame in a Pret baguette brought tighter regulation to food labelling. And Pret were liable to some extent at least, because they physically made the sandwich. But why would someone who bought a cake on Facebook actually blame Facebook for the food, and not the merchant? Does it matter? The consumer sees the platform as responsible and if the seller won’t take the blame, they have to look higher up the food chain (literally!).
Back to our own industry.
Airbnb is being sued by the family of a young man shot dead in a property booked through its platform, where a Halloween party took place and gangs started shooting – there were actually four other deaths and five more were injured. Airbnb don’t own the property, of course, and weren’t actually involved in running the party. But the consumer doesn’t see it that way, especially as apparently the house had regularly been visited by police after complaints of rowdy behaviour.
As a result of that and two more recent fatal shootings in host properties, and in response to rising numbers of fraudulent listings, either non-existent, over-booked or not living up to expectations, Airbnb has now instigated measures to stop such a reoccurrence. They’ve set up a task force to spot suspiciously large bookings for one night only; they’re finally verifying all 6 million listings worldwide (albeit digitally and self-certified in many cases); and they’re providing a phone line for guests in distress.
But a series of recent reports and exposes have shown that the platform’s rection isn’t always in the guest’s best interest. After more fraudulent were exposed by ‘Wired’, Airbnb cut the account of the management company concerned instantly and issued refunds by text. But this left guests who’d already checked in at the mercy of heavies on the doorstep demanding they pay up again or have their belongings thrown into the street. So you might say they’re doing the right thing, in a way, and full marks for that. But yet again it’s the consumer, the guest, who’s at the sharp end and left reeling, struggling to work out what’s happening. And where’s the human being to sort it out for them?
In this particular case, the management company in question also has listings on booking.com, and they, too, are cancelling all of them. Doubtless leaving guests racing around to find replacement accommodation, which might not suit them.
Poor old consumer, once again…
Many OTA platforms are now so big, they make it easy for those bad actors to exploit them for gain, and it’s time they took responsibility for the actions of those seeing an easy route to riches and made this kind of activity harder to achieve. Facebook and Co are facing regulation, why not those in the travel industry?
The bottom line is that all of us within hospitality need to keep at the forefront of our minds that this transaction is more than that, to the guest. They might be going on holiday, it might be the trip of a lifetime. It might be a quick break to get away from work, it might be a work trip and not fun at all! But it doesn’t matter. They have made a choice to stay wherever they have chosen, and they have an expectation of what the brand in question is going to provide.