The establishment of Airbnb in 2008 changed the way many travelers think about lodging. This peer-to-peer online marketplace began as an alternative for those who were unable to book a hotel room due to saturation at certain times of year. Then, as frequent travelers caught on to the potential savings of short-term home sharing, and residents caught on to the income opportunity, the concept took off. Somewhere along the way, the stigma (and fear) of sleeping on a stranger’s sofa disappeared.
Today, we have a nation of home-sharing hosts and guests, as a variety of companies — HomeAway, FlipKey and CouchSurfing, for example — emerged to compete with Airbnb for their own share of this burgeoning market. As testament to the success of this movement, the hotel industry has come to view short-term home sharing as a true threat to its traditional sales and pricing models.
THE CHALLENGE. But while the home-sharing model is popular, it certainly isn’t perfect. Sponsoring companies do screen hosts and offer guidelines for both hosts and travelers, but properties are not inspected or required to comply to safety and sanitation standards as hotels are. Participants in home-sharing arrangements seem fine with this, trusting their peers completely…until someone starts to itch.
“These companies aren’t held to any pest prevention requirements. That leaves homes and guests wide open to bed bug infestations,” says James Molluso of Northeastern Exterminating in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I know of one company that refunds guests’ money and locks the host out from listing for two weeks (or longer, if the situation hasn’t been rectified) if those guests complain of bed bug bites or other evidence of infestation. It’s a good protocol, but it needs to be supplemented by standard prevention practices.”
Having been a member of the New York City Bed Bug Advisory Board, Gil Bloom of Standard Pest Management subsequently reached out to some of these companies, offering to develop prevention protocols for them. “Even after I explained that the people staying in their places were higher risk because they tend to stay at a multitude of locations as they travel, they were unwilling to address the situation,” he says. “They seemed to be concerned that imposing regulations would cause some hosts to stop participating.”
This philosophy of marching to their own beat is being challenged by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which is lobbying for greater regulation of short-term online rental companies. Whether these efforts might result in instituting pest management protocols is unclear.
THE SOLUTION. What do Molluso and Bloom see as solutions to this issue of freewheeling bed bugs?
“Minimally annual, but preferably quarterly, inspections, which would identify pest issues before they become full-blown infestations,” says Molluso, who believes that homeowners simply aren’t aware of the magnitude of the bed bug issue. It never occurs to them that guests would bring bugs into their home, he says.
Once called to an apartment or home that has been infested, Molluso offers them incentives to continue regular service. “We provide a dated certificate saying that their house or apartment has been inspected for bed bugs, and explain that this is a good way to promote their listing. Given a choice, people want to stay in a home that is pest-free.”
Bloom says he believes sponsor companies should disseminate information to make every host and guest aware of the potential for bed bug infestations. “Hosts need to be made aware of what to watch for, and guests need recommendations for minimizing their exposure to bed bugs as they travel from home to home. It’s all about enlightenment: Ignoring this issue will not make it go away.”
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. Email her at email@example.com.