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Trust & Safety: How to prevent COVID-19 house parties (with Airbnb, Booking.com and Vrbo tips)

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As clubs have been closed and major outdoor festivals have been shut down because of coronavirus-related social distancing measures, party organizers are opting for vacation rentals. We’ll see together that it is happening in several regions around the world, from Chicago to Paris, London to Los Angeles, Florida to New Jersey. Updating your house rules is a basic and mandatory step, but this is not enough. We’ll go over some common sense tips on how to prevent COVID-19 house parties, as well as look at the policies at Airbnb, Booking.com, and Vrbo.

Summer 2020: The (coronavirus) party in not over

Since early May 2020, the news organizations in several countries have reported massive parties where coronavirus-preventions and social distancing were not in place. Not all of these parties are illegal and not all of them happen in vacation rentals and airbnbs.

Legal pool party in the Ozarks, Missouri

For instance, videos circulated on social media in May, during Memorial Day weekend, showing enjoying large-scale pool parties in Lake of the Ozarks, in central Missouri (US). A few days ago, the mayor of the city said that the viral videos of crowded parties without social distancing or face masks had helped double tourism and attract more than 9.1million visitors to the area during the pandemic.

Yet, other large outdoor parties are illegal and taking place all over the world. For example, this New York Times article reported on parties happening in Berlin, Paris, and London. Thanks to social media and Whatsapp, the word (and the virus) can easily spread around. So, large parties are happening. But smaller parties are happening too and short-term rental accommodations seem to be venues of choice.

A rise in COVID-19 house parties

House parties at vacation rentals are nothing new. Property owners and managers have had to face them for decades. For instance, quite a few property managers can share stories of announced wedding ceremonies taking place a property that had a strict no-event policy. What is new here is the rise of locals booking a large rental for a night and hosting dozens of people, at a time when large gatherings are either illegal or strongly discouraged because of the risk of bringing together superspreaders that will then go and infect their families later on.

In the news, it is easy to find cases of illegal house parties taking place in US vacation rentals, as there are so many news outlets in the US. But as you can see below, they have been reported across many countries. Some parties can count up to forty people, others hundreds. Not all degenerate into violence. Here are a few examples to help you understand what is happening:

London, UK: Police shut down illegal house party attended by ‘more than 160 people’ in north London.

Families were kept awake until 3 am as crowds of young people attended the unlicensed event in Tavistock Terrace, Archway on Friday night, police said. Footage of the party shows dozens of people in the garden of the terraced house not wearing masks or socially distancing. Met Police eventually broke up the event after receiving complaints from neighbours.” “He said the property had been let out on Airbnb and guests “took advantage by holding a gigantic party that quickly got out of hand”.

Los Angeles, California: Raucous parties, young adults fueling California’s COVID-19 crisis.

“Younger adults are fueling California’s COVID-19 pandemic like never before, health officials are warning, and raucous parties and other large social gatherings are threatening to unravel the progress the state is making.” ” Concern is also growing that young adults are heading to parties at private homes in tony areas of the city, especially the Hollywood Hills. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday night authorized shutting off water and electricity service to homes that had repeatedly hosted large parties in defiance of the ban on gatherings.”

Los Angeles, California: A wild party at Mulholland Drive mansion, a deadly shooting and fears of COVID-19 spread.

“What started as a massive, boisterous party held in defiance of coronavirus-related health orders ended in gunfire early Tuesday, leaving one woman dead, four other people injured and raising new concerns about private gatherings as a way of spreading COVID-19.” “A mass shooting broke out at the short-term rental property, owned by former Sullivans child star-turned property mogul Susan Hannaford, in the affluent LA neighbourhood of West Mulholland Drive”.

New Jersey, US: Airbnb suspends dozens of New Jersey rentals that violate coronavirus restrictions.

“We stand with Governor Murphy, and we support his call to action to stop parties and promote behavior that respects the public’s health,” Airbnb said in a statement. “The giant online rental company said it made the move following complaints of house parties that violate coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.”

Paris, France: Rented on Airbnb, the apartment turns into a night club or into a brothel (Loué sur Airbnb, l’appartement se transforme en discothèque ou bordel)

The owner of the apartments claims to be powerless, despite the multiple complaints from the neighborhood: “Since the beginning of the lockdown, I have indeed had many groups of young partygoers renting. I hear complaints from the neighborhood. But how do I know they’re going to make such a mess? When they make a reservation, they don’t say they’re coming to a huge party!” Same impotence regarding prostitution: “I’m not going to forbid a woman alone to rent my property, suspecting right away that she’s a prostitute!”
Airbnb would like to give its version of the facts: “These accommodations are listed on many different rental platforms (Editor’s note: Booking, Homeaway or Expedia for example) and we have no evidence of recurring parties or illegal activities during stays booked via Airbnb

No silver bullet, but several tips to avoid COVID-19 house parties at your properties

House parties have been a worry for vacation rental owners, Airbnb hosts, and short-term rental operators long before the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis. Some advice is basic and common sense, but this is where to start. The first thing you want is to deter the wrong people from booking your place. Then, if they do book, you want to be able to reinforce your “no party / no events” messages by communicating with your guests. You can also monitor the situation, in person or not.

Avoid bookings that are statically more prone to be hiding house parties

Some booking patterns are more suspicious than others. Let’s say that a same-day reservation for a 5-bedroom villa, for 1 night, on a Friday evening, made by a 22-year old living in the same city as where the property is located, is suspicious.

Some settings are in your channel manager or on websites like Airbnb, Vrbo or Booking can help you: No same-day booking, no 1-night stay on weekends, for instance.

Blocking people from the city as your property is possible if your property is on request (so, not on instant booking). Airbnb does give you the right to say that you feel uncomfortable hosting a guest but be careful that you are not actively discriminating against someone.

Also, because COVID-19 is wrecking your booking revenues, you may be tempted to drop your prices on your big properties. Be careful not to tempt the wrong kind of people. Do not make it too easy for them to pay for a place where to throw a party.

Set house rules and damage deposits

On your website and in your rental agreements, have a section for your house rules. What do you allow? What are you not OK with? Airbnb, Vrbo, and Booking.com all have a House Rules section that owners and managers can fill in. Yes, some people do not read anything. And some people read the house rules and blatantly disregard them. But to not discount that a property with no house rules visible looks like an invitation to partying. You do not want to the be owner of that house. Also, if something happens, you want to be able to build up your case with the OTA and show that you had indeed indicated that parties were not allowed.

For example, Vrbo’s House Rules are made up of six simple fields that allow you to determine your rules clearly and concisely:

  1. Minimum age for primary renter
  2. Maximum occupancy
  3. Special Events allowed
  4. Pets allowed
  5. Children allowed
  6. Smoking allowed

You should also think about asking for a refundable damage deposit. A high damage deposit creates friction in the booking process and, on OTAs, you will get fewer bookings than similar properties that have no or low damage deposits. Up to you to think about the trade-off between revenues and risk. On Airbnb and Booking.com, you can indicate the amount of your damage deposit, but remember that these platforms do not collect it. Only Vrbo will do it for you and give it back to the guest if nothing happens.

House Rules to prevent house parties

Vet your guests and ask questions

Vacation rentals can be on-request on Airbnb and Vrbo (not Booking.com, which accepts only instant bookable properties). This allows you to have a closer look at a guest enquiry. On Airbnb and Vrbo, can look at the guest’s history and look for past reviews.

Before the booking, or after in the case of an instantly booked reservation, ask questions. Be polite. You can explain that you want to prepare the house as best as possible for your guests and need to know more. And it is ok to mention that you do have house rules. As long as it is part of your regular procedure and that you are not discriminating against a specific person, it is OK. For example, you can ask about the guest’s plans, about the number of guests, about how many cars will be parking at the property.

Be clear about what your maximum occupancy means and that it applies by day and night, even if the additional guests are only staying for one hour at the property.

People can lie and they may do so. What you want through this communication is to pick up any red flag.

Once guests are there: In-person monitoring

It is not too late, at check-in time, to show up, welcome the guests, and politely reiterate your rules. If you are concerned with your safety, drive-by after check-in time to count the number of cars in the driveway. You can also ask a neighbor to keep an eye on the property and to call you should something suspicious happen.

Remote monitoring is OK .. but remain transparent

Guest monitoring – House party prevention

You can also use monitoring devices. Again, be sure to protect the privacy of your guests (e.g. no indoor camera) and to be transparent towards them. Disclosing that you have a camera in the driveway and a noise monitoring device in the living room may also help deter some people from organizing a party at your place.

Once guests are there; check-in in person Drive-by Have a neighbour keep an yes it 
Use monitoring devicesPrivavy and disclosures. Disclosure is good because it is honest and may deter as well Outdoor cameras : Ring Noise monitoring:   RoomMonitor, Minut, NoiseAware, Party Squaher

How Airbnb, Booking.com and Vrbo have adapted to the demand for more trust and safety from owners and managers

Coronavirus parties in vacation rentals – maks are usually not provided

Trust & Safety: House parties on Airbnb

In 2019, several shootings happened at properties rented on Airbnb. As a result, the company decided to crack down on party houses in December 2019. In July 2020, restrictions became even stronger, although they are not bulletproof.

Airbnb has updated its rules for parties and events:

Unauthorized parties
Any party that violates House Rules and/or happens without the knowledge or consent of the host is prohibited. Guests who throw unauthorized parties are subject to suspension or removal.
Open-Invite Parties Or Events
Open-invite parties and events are prohibited in Airbnb listings. This includes any party or event where the listing host has limited knowledge of the attendees, or that does not have a specific guest list, such as gatherings advertised on social media. Guests who hold such events will have their account removed, and hosts who violate this rule and allow guests to throw open-invite parties will be subject to account consequences.

Since December 2019, Airbnb also manually reviews high-risk reservations:

Starting today in the US, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, we are expanding the manual screening of high-risk reservations flagged by our automated systems. This will help identify reservations that could potentially present issues and help stop unauthorized parties before they start. In our review, we will look at a number of factors, including the duration of the stay and listing attributes such as the size of the listing.

In July 2020, it started restricting some U.S. guests under the age of 25 from booking entire home listings in their local area. The measure had already been in place in Canada. Airbnb is usually inviting these guests to book a hotel room instead.

U.S. guests under the age of 25 with less than three positive reviews are not able to book entire home listings that are close to where they live. These guests can still book any type of listing outside their local area.
All guests under the age of 25 are still free to book private rooms and hotel rooms through Airbnb, regardless of where they live.  
Most importantly, younger guests with at least three positive reviews and no negative reviews on Airbnb or with long-term plans are not subject to this restriction, and they’re welcome to continue to book entire home listings in their local area.

Trust & Safety: House parties on Booking.com

Booking.com has also started better explaining what they were doing behind the scenes, through their new trust and safety section: booking.com/trust-and-safety. The company says that:

We take our partners’ safety seriously at Booking.com. We strive to help you welcome high-quality guests: We have an in-depth security process that includes verification and fraud checks.

For example, Booking partners can now ask for more Guest Requirements before someone can instant book their property. These requirements are:

  • a verified phone number
  • an address

As mentioned above, partners can also indicate in their House Rules whether they allow parties and events.

Finally, partners can report guest misconduct through the Booking.com extranet.

Trust & safety: House parties on vrbo

As shown above, Vrbo lets forbid special events at your property through house rule settings.

You can also require travelers to sign a legal rental agreement before arriving at the property. A detailed rental agreement can be used to communicate exactly how owners or managers wish their properties to be treated. They can address smoking rules, pet preferences, and additional fees such as cleaning.

Vrbo has also created a content area for trust and safety advice: vrbo.com/trust. As on Booking and Airbnb, Vrbo partners can report any case of guest misconduct, if a traveler has acted inappropriately or made you feel unsafe.

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