Black Travelers Say Home-Share Hosts Discriminate, and a New Airbnb Report Agrees

Airbnb is the largest company in the vacation-rental industry, but it’s not the only one wrestling with discrimination. Vrbo, which is part of the Expedia Group, has also taken steps to combat bias, including educating hosts, creating more diverse and inclusive marketing campaigns‌, and requiring that words such as “plantation” be used without celebrating slavery. Every listing has a “Report This Property” link that lets users identify problems, which are reviewed and escalated to Vrbo’s trust and safety team, if appropriate, the company said.

“We’ve removed photos and last names from profiles, things that past studies have shown can contribute to discriminatory behavior,” said Melanie Fish, the head of global ‌public relations for Expedia Group Brands. “We have a full-time trust and safety team working on rooting out discriminatory behaviors and also reacting when guests and hosts report bad actors to us.”

Still, in April 2021, Dallas and Shirley Smith, who are Black, said they encountered racism when they booked a garage apartment in Montgomery, Ala., for a weekend to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary. Vrbo does not require guests to have a profile photo. When the Smiths arrived and called the host for an entry code, he told them they had to leave — the apartment was rented to someone else. Mr. Smith pointed out that it appeared to be vacant.

“He said, ‘I can’t rent to you,’” before hanging up, recalled Mr. Smith, 80, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official. The Smiths believe that when the host saw that they were Black, he changed his mind about renting to them. The host could not be reached for comment.

The Smiths aren’t strangers to racism. Traveling in the South in the 1960s, they packed a shoe box of food and patronized only hotel and gas station chains that had adopted nondiscrimination policies. But they had barely experienced it in their journeys since, to 54 countries and 50 states.

“It kind of snapped us back 50 years,” Mr. Smith said.

The Smiths’ daughter called Vrbo and was told that the company would look into the situation and that she should call back on a weekday; it did not offer to rebook her parents, she said. The Smiths ended their celebration trip early. Vrbo soon refunded their money without an explanation or an apology, they said.