UPDATE: This story now has a happy ending. See below.
There's an old saying in marketing that the first impression is the last impression.
With the increasing sophistication of digital platforms, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industry, it's easier than ever to book accommodation in regions like the Eyre Peninsula. In theory.
Airbnb is one of those platforms attracting many operators. In my years of consulting, I have watched it go from being eyed suspiciously to begrudgingly, to appreciatively by tourism businesses.
As a consumer, I strive to book directly when I have familiarity with a region or operator but find myself lured by its ease of navigation and management of communication. In theory.
However, my recent experiences have left me wondering if some of our tourism operators have gone a bit to gung ho in this online listing adventure, leading to double bookings and mismanaged experiences.
I'm hoping it won't result in my family having to furtively camp on the beach this Christmas!
It's Christmas In Port Lincoln Year
We return every second year to see family and this unexpected changing of the years has meant we were late to the party and our direct communication with previous suppliers left us empty handed.
Sadly, nothing quite matched on Visit Port Lincoln; a function of the lateness of the hour. That's to be expected. But I do thank Naomi from the Port Lincoln Visitor Information Centre for reminding me of that local gateway. In fact, we should always remember that Visitor Information Centres are always worth a call in situations like this. Right, on with the story.
On this occasion, much to my astonishment, I have had three bookings accepted by Airbnb then cancelled by the operators, and the same thing has happened once on Stayz.
I've only had that happen once before, but this cluster seems unprecedented.
As Oscar Wilde might say, to have one booking rejected may be regarded as a misfortune; to have four rejected looks like carelessness!
While it's understandable that mishaps can occur, a pattern of such events hints at a deeper issue that requires our attention as an industry sector.
That said, here are the four reasons we were given:
- Booking 1, airbnb: Hi Steve, our house isn’t available due to some renovations. This is supposed to be blocked on the BnB calendar… not sure what happened there! Apologies for this. I hope you find somewhere suitable to stay.
- Booking 2, stayz: Hi Stephen, sorry this shouldn’t be showing as available, ill check our settings. Kind regards, (name)
- Booking 3, airbnb: G'day Steve, I am so sorry as we have these dates already booked on another platform & I did not block out the airbnb calender. Please accept my sincere apologies & hope that you can find another property for your holidays. Cheers, (name)
- Booking 4, airbnb: Hi Steve, I’m not sure what is going on with Airbnb, but I sold this property 2 years ago and suddenly there are bookings being made. I apologise for any inconvenience, but obviously I cannot accept the booking. I have been trying to contact them all day. Regards, (name)
As you can see, this is a mish-mash of reasons and worthy of discussion at any tourism marketing workshops (I will be mentioning it when I run them) and in any other industry training.
Nothing to see here
We have a familial magnet keeping us committed to finding a solution but had we not, it would have been just as easy to go and try a completely different region.
I love Eyre Peninsula and I have often come really, really close to moving to Port Lincoln, so my affinity for the town will not be damaged by this. But for a first-timer, this becomes the stuff of social media discussion, pub discussion, and some might even blog about it. Oh, hmmm.
The short message, when it's not related to Airbnb's "ghost listing" of a property, is to keep acute focus on inventory management.
If you have an accommodation business, we need to be obsessive about calendar management and even coming up with a plan B. For example, one B&B operator I mentored in Mount Gambier two years ago said if ever she had a "snafu", she would check directly with some other locals to see if she could connect her potential customer with them. That's customer service, that's hospitality.
When I shared one of these moments on social media, I did have someone say, just don't use places like Airbnb that "clip the ticket" on the way through.
As mentioned, we do often book directly but we equally rely on the discovery of new options through aggregator sites. That "clipping of the ticket" is actually the premium for creating a directory and having it appear prominently in search. I don't begrudge any entity if they're doing that well.
However, in this gig economy where we are used to drivers being active on Uber and other services and just dropping a booking if they get a booking with more commission, us consumers need to expect less reliability from service providers.
But while that works for someone scraping dollars together driving, I don't think that's good enough for accommodation providers who are putting energy into marketing their property as a special place worthy of our time, money, and trust.
To all the operators who are on top of this, bravo! If you've been caught out a few times, hopefully this little story will stress the importance of making this aspect of your operation a priority.
A happy ending
Prompted by some wonderful friends in the SA VIC community, I took up the offer of talking directly to Penny at the Port Lincoln Visitor Information Centre.
Within moments, she had discovered a few options I had missed on the Visitor Port Lincoln site. We were then able to book and pay for accommodation.
Here's my new rule of thumb as a consumer:
- When you are aware of operators you've previously stayed with, go back to them directly as your first option, unless you're wanting a change.
- Chat to the local Visitor Information Centre (by phone or email) to get their advice on general availabilities and any local booking systems. Visitor Information Centres aren't always involved in managing bookings directly but they know their patch of turf.
- Airbnb and similar aggregator sites are now in third place.
One upside of Airbnb is their availability finder did suggest breaking our 7-night request into two different accommodation providers. That then changed the search which most likely brought some of the local listings back to "available" status because our dates were different.
That said, aggregators have a role to play in helping tourist operators stay on top of syncing availability across platforms AND to responding more earnestly when operators let them know a property is either unavailable or has been sold many years ago and no longer in their possession! Sheesh.
Travel is crucial for our economy as well as our collective mental health. It is a vital sector. The fewer bumps we can put on the road, the better, given the turbulence our airlines are serving up. But that's a topic for another day that dives more deeply into remembering the human component of all involved in an enterprise; staff, cutomers, and suppliers.
Meanwhile, that icky sense of rejection when receiving the cold, dismissive Airbnb messages, titled, Your reservation request was declined, has dissipated thanks to the warmth and care of Penny and her Visitor Information Centre colleagues.