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March 26, 2018

Airbnb rejects charge of 'astronomical' price gouging for Villanova fans

'Watchdog' claims Final Four weekend highlights alarming trend

For the second time in three years, the Villanova Wildcats are headed to San Antonio to compete in the Final Four of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. 

Fans and family members looking to make it a trip are being warned to watch out for exorbitant Airbnb prices over the next week in the area. Airbnb says the claims represent a hidden agenda. 

AirbnbWATCH, a self-described affordable housing advocate, issued a report on Monday advising consumers of a significant price hike among Airbnb hosts, many of whom are commercial operators running multiple listings during the Final Four weekend.

Some of the price increase above the "off event" rate are outrageous, according to information compiled by AirbnbWATCH.

One rental listed as "Todd's House" is going for $3,200 from March 31-April 2, a 2,809 percent increase over the regular rate of $110 per night. Another listing, "Ryan's House," is asking for $3,500 during the same period compared. An off event night for the same rental would cost $222. 

Among more than a dozen examples provided by AirbnbWATCH, the percentage increase in rates ranges anywhere from 240 percent to 4,866 percent.

“Airbnb’s price gouging was a dream killer for many football fans during the Super Bowl and a buzz kill to party goers during Mardi Gras. Airbnb is continuing that practice with folks looking to enjoy one of America’s truly great sporting events, the College Basketball Final Four,” said Lauren Windsor, a spokesperson for AirbnbWATCH. “Permitting their ‘hosts’ – who many times, let’s be honest, are real estate professionals – to raise rent by these astronomical rates is a very worrisome precedent that Airbnb is setting at widely attended events.”

A spokeswoman for Airbnb challenged the selective data in the report, noting that The New York Times has previously disclosed that AirbnbWATCH is a hotel industry group backed by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, not a consumer watchdog. 

“This hotel industry front group study relies on a handful of cherry-picked listings in an attempt to undermine middle class families that rely on home sharing to make valuable supplemental income," Airbnb said in a statement. "The vast majority of Airbnb hosts in San Antonio are providing affordable stays, allowing fans to experience the tournament when they otherwise could not afford expensive hotel options.”

The company said there remain dozens of listings in the area for under $150 this coming weekend. The hotel industry, the spokeswoman countered, is notorious for raising prices during surges in demand. 

The tendency for home share prices to rise during major U.S. events has been downplayed by Airbnb in the past as well, according to Windsor.  The company's head of global policy and public affairs once told the San Diego Union-Tribune that $20 is a typical bump for an event like the Super Bowl.

Similar large-scale events in the past, such as the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, tend to show price behavior that falls between the two extremes. Unbooked listings may bias higher prices because nobody has decided to pay the high price or the listing is targeted toward last-minute plans. 

The average Airbnb asking price for the weekend of the papal visit in Philadelphia, for example, was about $663 about 10 days before the event, including single homes, private rooms and shared rooms. By the following weekend, those prices came back down to about $476 for a single home and $119 for a private room. That's still quite a bit higher than $20. 

A quick glance at hotel rates in the San Antonio area from March 31-April 2 shows nightly rates ranging from $105-$350, making for a much better deal than the worst of what's appearing on Airbnb. 

Villanova will tip off against Kansas on Saturday night at 8:49 p.m.