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COVID-19 Misinformation Spreads as Vrbo Travelers Encouraged to Come to Arizona

Messages received from Vrbo-affiliated property owners in Arizona downplaying the severity of the novel coronavirus.EXPAND
Messages received from Vrbo-affiliated property owners in Arizona downplaying the severity of the novel coronavirus.
Hannah Critchfield

As the number of people positive for COVID-19 in Arizona rises, short-term renters continue to encourage would-be travelers to come here from states with even more confirmed cases of the disease.

As Vrbo, a short-term home-rental company owned by HomeAway, continues to allow its individual property owners to decide whether or not to issue refunds, Phoenix New Times spoke to six customers who alleged their property owners have spread misinformation about the coronavirus situation in Arizona in an attempt to withhold refunds or to dissuade renters from canceling trips to the state.

Some of these customers have compromised immune systems. Others are groups of more than 10 people hailing from “hot zones,” or areas known to be worst affected by the pandemic, including Washington state.

Christopher Lee and his 15 friends in Seattle were headed to Scottsdale for a bachelor party the weekend of March 19. As the organizer, the 33-year-old man booked a $4,000 home with GoodNight Stay, a rental company with properties in Scottsdale, Dallas, Orlando, and Nashville, months ago.

But as the friends watched their state become ground zero for the pandemic in the United States, Lee said, they started to discuss postponing the trip. They called GoodNight Stay to ask about their options if they did.

“They gave me the whole, ‘Everything should be fine, it’s beautiful down here, and whatever,’ speech,” Lee alleged. He said he was surprised. “Maybe Arizona’s a little bit behind, but all the deaths that are happening are here in Washington. The death toll is here; it’s very hot.”

After President Donald Trump advised people not to gather in groups of more than 10 on Monday morning, the group decided they had to cancel.

“We just decided, hey, it would be irresponsible for us to go,” Lee said, noting he works in the health care field providing Medicare insurance to elderly individuals and lives with two grandparents. “I’ve been working at home the last couple of weeks, because if I were to contract this and give it to one of my clients, I’d never be able to forgive myself.”

After waiting two hours to speak to a customer service representative (phone lines for Vrbo are currently overloaded due to coronavirus-related cancellations; a call made by New Times at 2:30 a.m. still had a 20-minute wait), Vrbo told Lee he needed to contact GoodNight Stay directly to discuss a getting a refund for their $4,000 deposit.

But when he did, he alleges the company representative tried to dissuade him from canceling, and declined to return the money.

“It was like talking to robots. They kept saying the same thing over and over again: ‘This is part of the contract; you can’t cancel within 30 days.’

“So they want 16 guys coming from a hot zone in Seattle? I don’t want to do that to anyone. As much as I want to go, it wouldn’t be right,” Lee said.

Earlier this week, GoodNight Stay came under fire after the company falsely told another customer, Catherine McConnell that the governor’s office had told them they “they aren’t too worried about this virus,” and said that Arizona is “one of the least affected states,” with “only a few isolated cases” and streets “bustling” with people “enjoying the incredible weather, golf, and other attractions.”

After New Times published its story, the company proceeded to deny making those claims, alleging that the information had been “manipulated by a disgruntled guest,” according to emails shared with New Times by Wayne Schutsky, managing editor of the Scottsdale Progress. In the emails, GoodNight Stay also shared a screenshot with a falsified booking date, alleging they’d actually messaged the customer that information on March 6, before the novel coronavirus situation worsened. A Vrbo representative confirmed this is not true — GoodNight Stay sent the messages on March 16, as the customer had stated.

Lee said he hadn’t expected the response to his group either. “Everyone else has been very accommodating,” he said, noting refunds their group had received from Alaska Airlines, Delta, Ramada, Talking Stick Resort, and Peoria Sports Complex.

“It’s just disappointing. All the 16 guys are going to have to split the $4,000,” said Lee. “As a company, you have to stand by higher morals and have higher integrity. Sure, we’re going to lose some money, but if we want to sleep at night, we’re going to do what’s right.”

Another customer, Kyle Johnson, also received an identical message to McConnell's from the company when his group of 13 from Illinois, Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Missouri tried to cancel their Scottsdale visit on Monday, according to a Vrbo email reviewed by New Times. Johnson said he is still waiting for a refund of his deposit of about $4,600.

Though GoodNight Stay is often the source of complaints by customers online and heard by New Times, misinformation is allegedly being spread by many other Vrbo-affiliated homeowners in Arizona.

Often, the claims highlight the lack of cases in a particular city in the state, and involve discrediting news coverage of the virus.

Alissa Lea, a 40-year-old from Arkansas who planned to visit family in the Valley with her husband, asked about cancelling their HomeAway, Vrbo's parent company, reservation last week. After Trump’s announcement on Monday, she reached out again by text and received a reply from the property manager, Morgan Spencer.

“Hi there I’m sorry no refund will be available since Phoenix is not in contact with the coronavirus,” Spencer said in a text reviewed by New Times.

Lea was confused — she told the property manager that she knew the situation was being taken seriously in Arizona — her nephews attend school in Paradise Valley Unified School District, which recently had closed due to the coronavirus.

“Hi I realize that but my beliefs are contrary to what the public and media see it as,” Spencer replied. “Your reservation still stands.”

Alan Schmitz, who is also from Washington state and had planned a trip to Scottsdale with three friends from Colorado, received a similar reply from his property managers on Monday:

“If it is helpful, there is not an issue with Corona virus in Scottsdale,” said homeowners Jamie and David Zubick in a message sent through Vrbo and reviewed by New Times. “It is disappointing that much of the concern is being pushed by the media.

“It would be a wonderful retreat to ‘normal’ should you make it to Arizona for your vacation,” they added.

Schmitz called the response “shortsighted and just wrong.”

“Three of our group are in health care, including one being a nurse undergoing treatment for breast cancer and one being a resident doctor in the emergency department in Denver,” said Schmitz in an email. “For years we’ve seen Arizona as a wonderful vacation destination and I fear Vrbo is ruining that for many folks.”

Claire Bailey, 60, a Scottsdale resident who said she has a compromised immune system and was planning a trip to Sedona with friends from Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas, said that even when property managers are not spreading misinformation, the denial of refunds to Arizona travelers has been difficult.

“The steps that everybody’s taking are going to help me live longer,” Bailey said, noting that refunds would incentivize people to stay home. “This is about what can we do for our country, to ensure those with issues can have good lives.”

Her property owner, who originally denied her request, refunded her the initial $500 deposit on Monday after she messaged, ”One of the travelers is coughing blood and awaiting tests in Alabama. The other two are traveling from Tennessee and Texas. None of us want to expose your property to health issues.”

But when she asked if he would return the remaining $322 paid in additional lodging fees, he disappeared.

“Since we are not staying at the property, will you also be refunding the $15 linen fee, $5 hot tub, $155 cleaning, $67 service fee which VRBO will fund you, and the $80.48 lodging tax?” she asked. “I am trying to be fair and reasonable. Believe me … if there was a way for my friends and I to travel, we would be doing so.”

Bailey said she still has not received a reply from the homeowner.

HomeAway has not responded to requests for comment, but a Vrbo customer service representative did tell New Times, “Vrbo is an advertising site. That means with regard to any refund, that is the sole responsibility of the property owner. Their property is their business. We cannot legally compel them to issue refunds.”

“Homeowners and property managers who list homes on Vrbo have been encouraged to adopt more flexible cancellation policies in light of COVID-19 and offer full refunds to those who wish to cancel for concerns of their own well-being,” said Jeff Hurst, Vrbo president, in an emailed statement.

Update, March 19: HomeAway, the company that owns Vrbo, sent New Times the following statement.

"Any intimidation of travelers, such as suggesting that travel is safer for them than staying home or dismissing the severity of the crisis, will result in permanent removal from Vrbo and Expedia Group."

Vrbo has also now issued a COVID-19 Emergency Policy.

The company says it is refunding 100 percent of money it makes through traveler service fees when someone cancels a trip due to COVID-19.

Property managers still have the option to deny refunds, but Vrbo is now strongly recommending that homeowners accommodate guests who need to cancel trips booked before March 12 for stays that fall between March 13 and April 30 by either: 1) Offering a credit for full value and flexible stay dates within the next year, at no additional cost, to the travelers, or 2) If a traveler is unwilling to accept a credit, Vrbo's advice is to issue them a full refund.

"Our intent is to reward Vrbo partners who offer flexibility to travelers during this time of uncertainty with additional visibility in traveler searches on Vrbo and Expedia Group," the policy states to homeowners. "The idea is that the more you do now for travelers, the more we will reward you moving forward (so a 100% credit/refund will count more than 50% refund and so on)."

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