I have recently returned from a short break in Mallorca, where we decided to try out the sharing economy, and booked our accommodation through the market leader. My experience did make me stop and think about what whether we can ever expect appropriate standards of safety in this marketplace.
Don’t get me wrong, the value for money was excellent – you can’t complain about paying around £275 for a 2 bedroom apartment for a 3 night stay for 3 people in a reasonable location around 10 minutes drive from the centre of Palma. It was interesting to note that the price included a 10% service fee payable to the website provider, and I am guessing that they will also have charged something to the accommodation owner – so for the provision of a marketing facility, the return is higher than most traditional tour operators or agents would make on the sale of an individual holiday component.
So why should I be concerned? I had certain key criteria before I booked we needed the right location, close to Palma, ideally a view of the sea, and wi-fi available – all of which we received. As an industry insider I don’t know what I was expecting in relation to safety – probably not very much, as the sharing economy providers are simply acting as a means of contact between willing sellers and interested buyers. However, in the UK government consultation on the subject last year, there seemed to be a broad consensus that buyers had a right to expect that safety standards should be no worse than they would receive if they had booked through more traditional routes to market. For me, that doesn’t seem an entirely unreasonable requirement – but my experience has made me question whether it is realistic – and if not, what should be the obligations on the providers of this type of product in return for their high gross margin?
The apartment we booked was in a 10-storey block built some time in the 1960s or possibly 1970s. each floor had 4 apartments, so the building had in total 40 apartments. I have no idea whether the owner we rented from was the only one who chose to rent out their accommodation to tourists, or whether there were others in the building. The design meant that on each floor the apartments opened out on to the central stair well, and there was no alternative means of escape. This stair well had no form of fire protection in it at all, so in the event of a fire in any of the 40 apartments, smoke would quickly have filled the whole central stair well, preventing anyone from escaping from their apartment to a place of safety.
If this had been a tourist apartment block being considered for use by the major tour operators, we would probably have not agreed to use the accommodation as the occupants were continually at risk. At the least, we would probably have asked for either some separation by floor to prevent the spread of smoke, although this wouldn’t help if you were on the eighth floor and a fire broke out in a second floor apartment. More realistically, we would probably have wanted either a secondary means of escape or a sprinkler system installing, or preferably both.
I had similar concerns of principle in relation to the swimming pool, even though I personally didn’t use it. There were no signs of any depth markings or advice to potential swimmers. The pool also included a small kids area, although the only separation to the main pool was an underwater wall which was half the height of the freeboard. Any child in the pool could very easily have got into the main pool, which was particularly deep at its centre. Whilst we expect parents to supervise their children in pools, we all know that a swimming pool is a magnet for children of any age. The larger tour operators would have expected at the least some depth markings on the pool, as well as proper separation between the kids swimming area and the main pool, even if this was only some form of fencing across the underwater wall.
Probably because I know too much about the potential risks, I had a nagging feeling of discomfort all weekend about staying in this apartment, but clearly there was nothing I could personally do to mitigate the risks. Equally I can understand better the challenge faced by the sharing website. If they have a single owner using their site, there is little that they can do to address the safety concerns with the apartment block owners or management company.
My question is whether therefore the “do nothing” option is an acceptable position. For me, it probably is not, but how I would want the issue addressed is also a challenge. Had I known of the physical layout issues in this accommodation, I would probably not have chosen to book this particular apartment. But I know sufficient about safety to recognise the scale of the risk and the challenges which would arise in the event of a fire. Even if the website had told most customers that the accommodation opened on to a single unprotected stairwell with no alternative means of escape, that wouldn’t immediately make those customers recognise the risk they are taking. Equally, I can’t see much merit in putting an explicit warning on the website in relation to this accommodation to make clear that in the event of a fire within the building, anyone booking the apartment would face an unacceptable level of risk.
The starting point has to come back to central regulation of safety standards. I have always supported a positon that government and local authorities should regulate and manage tourist accommodation safety, and that it is impossible for intermediaries to undertake this function. This accommodation demonstrated clearly to me that this is exactly where the obligation should lay, but now that almost any accommodation can be tourist accommodation, does that mean a major re-think about safety standards overall? The answer is probably yes. But equally, I do not believe that intermediaries, like the websites trading in the sharing economy can simply abdicate their responsibilities entirely by saying that they are not responsible for buyer safety in the accommodation they make available.
Now more than ever, we need a coherent approach to tourist accommodation safety.