As I opened the door to the entryway of the slightly leaning apartment building that housed the New York City Airbnb unit where I'd be staying, a dust bunny cascaded off the second-floor landing, flipped twice and gracefully touched down at my feet.
At which point, I thought of the Danny Glover-spoken mantra from the "Lethal Weapon" film series: "I'm getting too old for this s**t."
The occasion was my annual early-June trek east from Los Angeles to the New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, which always gives me an opportunity to check out what's new among New York's hotels.
However, with Airbnb fast emerging as Public Enemy No. 1 within the hospitality industry, particularly within the New York lodging sector, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to reach across the culture wars' front line to see what's being offered among the home-based set (and maybe save Travel Weekly a few dollars while I was at it).
With Airbnb's "live like a local" credo, I even attempted to put some thought behind into where I would stay. The result was that for the first part of the week (work), I'd be near the midtown location of the conference, and for the second part of the week (play), I'd be downtown.
The first leg started out well. A fairly reasonably priced (we'll get to those details a bit later) one-bedroom apartment that had some local character (literally, in that the host was a musician who had instruments on the walls) was available for a two-night stay starting June 5 in what looked like a Hell's Kitchen location that appeared on the little-bitty Airbnb map to be far enough west of Times Square to avoid the riff-raff.
After some Sunday storms delayed my flight, and thus my arrival time from 7 p.m. to past 11 p.m. and the influx of flights to JFK overloaded the supplies of both taxis and Uber vehicles, my host, who was to meet me with keys at the apartment, remained gracious in our corresponding texts as I arrived in Manhattan well past midnight.
Red Flag No. 1 was that the "best location in New York City" (per the host's description on Airbnb) was in the shadow of the Port Authority Bus Terminal's ramps, something that was difficult to see from those little-bitty Airbnb maps, of course.
Red Flag No. 2 was the aforementioned acrobatic dust bunny.
Red Flag No. 3 was the following request from my host as he handed me the keys: "If anyone in the building asks, you're a friend of mine. But everyone should be cool."
The apartment itself was fine. Sure, the bedroom was small in that, well, you had to climb over the bed to get from the doorway to the desk and the window A/C unit.
And the bed was a bit marshmallow-y. But the apartment was clean, the kitchen stocked with the basics, the living room a decent size. It didn't make you forget you were living in someone else's pad, but aside from the slightly sketchy block, it did the trick.
Higher hopes came with my ensuing reservation for a "Jewel Box Studio" in Nolita, complete with old brick walls and a prime Spring Street location. After contacting the host at 2 p.m. on my first day of the stay, however, the host texted me about an hour later directing me to get in touch with "Lorraine" for entry instructions. Unfortunately, my call to "Lorraine" resulted in a "This line has been disconnected" recording.
Two rounds of phone calls later, the host told me that he didn't know "Lorraine" would be out of town on a "family emergency," and he didn't have anyone in town to let me into the place and that he would refund me for not being able to make his place available for my reservation.
So, on Tuesday, June 7, at 6:15 p.m., I was sitting in the press room (which was about to be locked up) at the Marriott Marquis (which was charging $625 a night that week) frantically searching both Airbnb and local hotel listings. At which point the scene in "An Officer and a Gentleman" where Richard Gere is sobbing to Louis Gossett Jr. raced through my head: "I got nowhere else to go!"
Because Manhattan was now full. And I was not happy.
Of course, unhappy people tweet their experiences, so I followed suit, tapping out something smarmy about a hotel editor getting what he deserved and, of course, hash-tagging Airbnb. After checking into the Hampton Inn Chelsea about an hour later (let's just say I single-handedly boosted the brand's RevPAR for June) and going back online, I saw a "review" of the "Jewel Box Studio" attributed to me saying, "The host canceled this reservation 28 days before arrival. This is an automated posting."
Now I'm livid.
Within 10 minutes, I was tearing into a customer rep from Airbnb (fortunately, he was still at work back in San Francisco), talking about shady dealings, suspecting a cover-up for some unscrupulous or irresponsible hosts and indignantly proclaiming that I'm a journalist and that the false "review" attributed to me needed to be taken down because the host canceled the reservation the day of the guest's arrival, not 28 days prior.
At which point the customer rep pointed out that I had made the reservation for July 7, not June 7.
Of course, there's no question that Airbnb has had a major impact on the lodging industry, especially in the largest U.S. markets, hence the debate over how to make sure Airbnb hosts are playing by the same rules as hoteliers.
In fact, when NYU Hospitality Conference panelist and Denihan Hospitality Group executive vice president Ellen Brown asked for a show of hands for how many in the audience of about 75 people had ever stayed at an Airbnb, almost every hand shot up.
And for even the mildly price-conscious, there are deals to be had. The Holiday Inn Express two blocks south of my Airbnb unit in Midtown would have cost me $66 more for the two nights; a microsuite at Yotel one block west would have been $138 more; and the Element New York Times Square three blocks south would have set me back $154 more.
The Nolita studio that I thought I had booked for early June would have averaged out to about $275 a night, which, while not cheap, is a bargain relative to just about any boutique-type hotel downtown. It just about equaled the average of my one pricey night at the Hampton and the two more moderate nights at the Pod 39 upscale microsuite specialist.
Here's the real question, though: Is the trade-off of traveling without the proverbial safety net worth it? Two of the more prevalent travel trends are the growing popularity of Airbnb and the increase in last-minute bookings, but the two trends don't always dovetail, as my last-minute attempts to get an Airbnb unit (and there were more than a dozen requests put in during two separate nights) were fruitless. In fact, one host told me she couldn't accommodate me because not only was it her birthday, but she also ended up at the hospital. So many social engagements, so little time.
If nothing else, though, I did have the opportunity to have the tables turned in this review-happy environment. Because, just as Airbnb gives guests a chance to review hosts, the service also provides a platform for hosts to review the guests. And while my impression of my two-night Airbnb stay in midtown was lukewarm, the host's impression of me was a little more charitable.
"Danny was a great guest. He took care of the apartment as if it were his own," the host wrote. "It was a pleasure having him there. Thanks Danny!"