Instant Hotel (Season 1, Episodes 6-10)
Watch on Netflix
Season 2 drops June 28
I am writing these words from an Airbnb rental just outside Chicago. When traveling we usually stay at short-term rentals because you can’t beat the location and price. But there are trade-offs. A hotel will not squinch you into a bedroom surrounded by your hosts’ knickknacks and a lock on the closet door. A hotel will have light switches where you expect them and more than one plate and a handful of bent utensils in the kitchenette. A hotel’s visitor guide would not refer to a nearby district of coffee shops and retail stores derisively as “Yuppie Town.” A hotel will not tack on a $75 cleaning fee and then ask you to take out the trash.
Like other savvy Airbnb users, I scroll through screens of comments and photos before booking, to get a sense of what I’m getting myself (and my trusting bride) into. But it’s tricky. Airbnb is the esteem-boosting summer camp of Internet ratings systems, where properties rarely score fewer than 4.7 stars out of 5 and guests have an endearing if unhelpful habit of shrugging off a site’s defects (“WiFi was a little spotty but nothing we couldn’t work with”).
This may explain why I thoroughly enjoyed Instant Hotel, an Australian competitive reality show in which five couples try out each other Airbnbs and then eviscerate them in the reviews. Unlike actual Airbnb, guests on Instant Hotel have no hesitation about dropping a low score on their stay and saying exactly why:
“The sheets are terrible ... The welcome pack sucked ... How can you live in Queensland and not have a pool? ... Vintage decor is cool, but this is busted vintage.”
A hit on Australia’s Seven network in 2017, Instant Hotel began airing around the world on Netflix in 2018. In some ways it resembles Stay Here, an Airbnb makeover show also airing on Netflix, except that Stay Here is two design gurus cheerfully spending money to turn a dowdy dwelling into an eye-popping rental, with room rates to match. Instant Hotel is the Airbnb show for the rest of us — anyone who has tried to save a few bucks on travel and slightly regretted it, but didn’t have the nerve to tell their host that maybe, just maybe, they should find a new side hustle.
The game is simple: Four couples in separate cars find their way, a la Amazing Race, to a short-term rental run by a fifth couple. After everyone gets introduced, the rules are explained. Every couple will stay the night, then rate the property on four criteria: location, cleanliness, night’s sleep, and value. Then it’s another couple’s turn to play host, and so on until everyone’s Airbnb has been judged and the highest scoring team wins.
Most reality shows need some time to find their groove; for Instant Hotel that happened with the start of a new cycle in Episode 6, with three couples quickly developing contempt for one another, which they expressed by crapping on each other’s Airbnbs. Their comments were then read aloud and discussed in heavily edited tribal councils.
The most screen time on the show went to Serena and Sturt, two young entrepreneurs from Melbourne, who tried to smooth out the wrinkles in their unremarkable suburban home by showering their guests with $200 lifting sticks. But when Serena found them, unused and dumped in the rubbish bin, that only ramped up the drama.
“I found that really insulting, you know?” Serena later says. “You either like the item and take it with you, or leave it for someone else.”
Instant Hotel has its share of backstabbery and strategery common to the genre, but the reality-distortion shenanigans don’t stop there. Turns out, many of the properties featured on the show are not on the short-term rental market. As I learned from an interview with Serena, most of these homes were turned into Airbnbs expressly for use on Instant Hotel. Serena moved out of hers, not renting it again. “I was very happy to get away from the house,” she confessed.
At first I found this revelation (not disclosed to the viewers, of course) kind of appalling. But then I reflected on how many people get into Airbnb and — in our experience anyway — aren’t that good at it. In some ways, that’s worse than a newbie who forgets to vacuum under the bed, or discovers too late that the bathroom skylight allows strangers to peer in while you’re on the loo.
And really, they didn’t do such a bad job for first-timers. All the rentals are toured and scored by a hospitality professional, Juliet Ashworth. Unlike the contestants playing for keeps, Ashworth was fair in assessing the upsides and downsides of each property.
Her advice is pretty simple: Don’t tell people the location is great when it’s OK. Keep the rules short and sweet. Don’t overcharge. And, I would add the one piece of counsel I give guests at our house when they say they’re thinking of getting into the Airbnb business: Eat your own dogfood. It is the rare host who sleeps, eats, lounges, and cleans up in their short-term rental, all the while asking what they could do to make it nicer for their guests.
In 1856 a western traveler named Miriam Colt arrived by rail in St. Louis and was put up at one of the many standard boarding houses on the riverfront. Her journal entry for that night read, “Miserable fare -- herring boiled with cabbage -- miserable, dirty beds, and an odor pervading the house that is not at all agreeable. Mistress gone.” I haven’t had overnight experiences quite that grim, but the one in a motel in Ogalalla, Nebraska, came close. And no Airbnb experience has ever been as bad as my five worst budget-inn nights.
So a little perspective is in order. As contrived as Instant Hotel is, there’s a sweet little truth at its core, which is that hospitality — opening your home to others — is hard, takes work, and should be rewarded even if it falls short of expectations.
Also, every Airbnb host should be required to have Juliet Ashworth march through their house before opening it to the public.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.