Merchant Innovation

Airbnb Must Sleep In The Bed It Made In Rio 2016

Airbnb Sets Sights On Rio

Olympics are massive, international undertakings, so it shouldn't be shocking that almost every modern iteration has run into its fair share of troubles during the run up to the Opening Ceremony. Beijing 2008 had to seed rain clouds to perfect the weather, London 2012 had some questions raised over its official logo and Sochi 2014 ran tens of billions of dollars over budget (and still had stray dogs hanging outside arenas).

None of those problems were Airbnb's, though. In a few short months, for right or wrong, the turmoil swirling around Rio 2016 could very well be.

The story starts with the official sponsorship Airbnb signed with Olympic organizers back in 2015 to supplement the local accommodations for the games. The anti-hotelier hasn't been shy about inserting itself aggressively into new markets before, but a deal with the Olympics presents a much larger stage for the company than any it's risen to before.

The agreement wasn't strictly necessary, per se. Airbnb managed to capture 20 percent of all bookings during the World Cup held in Rio in 2014. However, Stephen Boyd, hotel analyst at Fitch Ratings, floated the idea to The Wall Street Journal that Airbnb may have had its hand forced on the sponsorship when it comes to other Airbnb-like rivals in the country.

“I think word has gotten out," Boyd said. "People are seeing [Airbnb] as a viable way to make some additional money. To pony up and be an official sponsor suggests that there is some competition out there.”

Signing a sponsorship deal to box out competitors is one thing, but to do so with a high-profile event like the Rio Games is another. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and it's impossible to say that Airbnb should have prognosticated the inevitable problems nearly all Olympics encounter.

But that doesn't mean that Airbnb has found itself hitched to a wagon that looks to be going further and further off course.

Sure, the delays in hotel construction could mean a windfall for bookings from last-minute travelers, but the confluence of security issues in the city and an encroaching threat from the Zika virus present an effect that not even Airbnb can wash its hands of. Despite a standing policy that doles out refunds for cancelled bookings about as frequently as gold medals to Caribbean bobsled teams, Airbnb has amended its opinion on the issue: Now, pregnant women, those expecting to be and anyone in their families can cancel Rio 2016 bookings and receive every penny back in return, no questions asked.

More than that, though, Airbnb is taking an active role as far as safety from the virus is concerned.

"We’re a global company, so information is being shared constantly as we follow the news," Stephanie Ruiz, head of communications for Airbnb's Latin American market, told PRWeek. "We make sure everyone’s aligned. Our office in Brazil is taking the lead since they’re in the market. But we remain aware of the different sensitivities to the situation around the world."

Airbnb has already taken overt steps to supercharge its payments capabilities for the expected surge of activity during the games, but looking after the convenience of one's consumers clearly doesn't cut it when it comes to the Rio Olympics. Airbnb isn't legally liable if users of its platform don't see their countries excel during the games or if something decidedly more serious happens, but the company clearly isn't taking any chances that its reputation could suffer under any of the unpredictable circumstances surrounding these games.

It's far happier leaving that kind of negative PR to the hotels that have decades of experience dealing with it.

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