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It sounds almost too good to be true: rent an apartment in any city for a fraction of what it costs to stay at a hotel. You get a kitchen, more space and save a lot of money.  And that much IS true. But with the savings comes the risk and stress of fending for yourself in the event of a mishap.
 
Buyer beware! You may wind up paying dearly in other ways.  That's what my family and I learned the hard way when we rented a Paris apartment through AirBNB to attend Le Web 2011, where the company's founder Brian Chesky was keynoting. And despite my repeated attempts to find out how AirBNB protects renters, I kept getting the run around.
 
So I joined FIR co-hosts Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz in a Google+ Hangout to recount my less-than-stellar experience with AirBNB, and what it all means for this and other start-ups selling the proposition of collaborative consumption without adequate customer service.  
 
Connecting buyers and sellers without providing an intermediary, such as an agency, to resolve disputes and address issues that arise as a result of the transaction, is a recipe for disaster, particularly when the stakes are as high as they are when you travel.
 
In the end, I think my experience illustrates some serious flaws in AirBNB's business model. The concept of a community marketplace for rentals seems like a good idea at first, but with no real protection for hosts or guests, and with both sides having such a low tolerance for pain, I'm not sure the business has long term viability.
 
Mishaps can happen to anyone and probably do, which I imagine is why AirBNB declined to speak with me on the record about my experience.  I learned a hard lesson by experiencing a big chink in AirBNB's armor firsthand.  And after more people learn this same lesson the hard way, I wonder just how gung-ho VCs will be about backing travel-related collaborative consumption websites like AirBNB.
 
AirBNB's ultimate test will be based on just how price sensitive travelers are. Saving on a computer by purchasing from a big box retailer is not without risk, but the risk is manageable. On the other hand, the risks of travel accomodations gone wrong are much higher.  Holding for customer service in the comfort of your home is tolerable. Standing in the rain for an owner to get let you in when the lock breaks is something else.  Time will tell, but this traveler has learned a very important, hard lesson about the risks of renting through AirBNB and the risk of using a community marketplace for travel services. Uber take note.
 
Chris Elliot wrote about my incident on his blog, and is conducting a survey on whether or not he should help me get AirBNB to agree to talk to me for this podcast. Cast your vote here.