Holding the buck: Some thoughts about accountability in the modern marketplace

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the Institute for Recovery from Childhood Trauma at the House of Lords. I decided it would be too stressful to travel down that morning, so about three weeks in advance I booked an apartment through booking.com. I’ve stayed in apartments and rooms through online sites quite a few times before without incident. Normally they send a code for the door by text or email, or instructions to open a key safe. However, this booking was confirmed with instructions to collect the key from a nearby address by 9pm (I was told if I arrived later there would be a £20 late collection fee). So I caught an earlier train and got a taxi to the pick-up address, which transpired to be an office building, locked up for the night. The security guard on site who came out to see why I was loitering had never heard of this being a collection point for apartment keys. So I spent 45 minutes waiting at the pick-up address and checking the apartment address just down the road, with no ability to check my email or find the phone number of the owner due to the o2 outage. I then found a restaurant which let me use its wifi to contact the apartment owner. He answers the phone as Booking.com and says the pickup address sent to me by email was never given (despite me having it in writing on my screen as I spoke to him) and that I had not confirmed the time. He says he will send a man to meet me with a key. But he isn’t willing to send the man to the restaurant in which I am sitting, I have to go wait across the road outside Patisserie Valerie (which is also closed) for a man in a red jacket.

In about 15 minutes that man arrives. He greets me by name, but does not offer me any apologies or identification. I can’t tell if he is the man I spoke to on the phone or not. He does not provide a key to the apartment, but tells me to follow him and walks off in the opposite direction to the apartment. I ask him where we are going, he says “to the apartment”. I say that it isn’t the right way, and I don’t feel comfortable following a strange man to an unknown address. He is short with me and tells me that he is taking me to an alternative apartment, because a cleaner snapped the key in the apartment door 20 minutes previously. I find this suspicious as a) I’ve been waiting at the apartment and just up the road for 90 minutes and nobody has come or gone from it in this time, and b) why would a cleaner be in an apartment at 10pm that is supposed to have check-in from 3pm to 9pm, and c) why did the man on the phone not notify me of a change of address or email me with a change of booking through the site on which I had booked?

He leads me down less busy streets and alleys across Soho. I start to get anxious that I’m in a part of London that is unfamiliar to me, and have no idea where I am going. I will not be at the address I have booked and nobody will know where I am, its past 11pm and dark, and I’m being led by a total stranger who has shown me no ID. So I call my husband, explain the situation and start reading out street names so he knows where I am. He says that I sound nervous, and that if my gut doesn’t feel like this is safe I should trust it and go somewhere that does.

My mind goes into overdrive. I start worrying I’m being taken to an unknown address, where I might be robbed or attacked or anything. I’m thinking perhaps they gave the fake address as a means to be harder to trace, or perhaps they use the photos of one apartment in a good location to put people in cheaper accommodation in less favourable locations. Perhaps he is nothing to do with Booking.com and is just a confidence trickster. Did he definitely use my name? Was he the man on the phone? I have no way of knowing. I can’t just follow a stranger to an unknown address in the middle of the night with no explanation. I find an open wine bar to run into and hide.

Suddenly, all those feelings are right at the surface and I’m sobbing with fear and hiding behind the counter of the wine bar until the man has gone. Then the man who claims to be from Booking.com (I still can’t tell if he is also the man in the red jacket, or someone different) calls me and asks where I am, and I say “I don’t feel safe dealing with you and being taken to an unknown address, I’m going to find somewhere that feels safe to sleep”. It seems like something I should be able to take for granted, that now seems out of reach.

The staff at the bar are super-nice and patch me up, give me some water and use of their wifi. They offer me wine and fancy olives. I take the latter (and they are the best olives ever, as well as thoroughly nice people, so do check out Antidote if you are ever in Soho). When I calm down a bit, I start searching all the usual websites to find a hotel room. I then find out there is nowhere else to stay. And I mean that literally. Even when I increase my parameters to travel up to an hour from my location, nothing is coming up on any hotel booking site that isn’t fully booked. So I’m sat there in a random wine bar in Soho, 200 miles from home, and there are no longer trains to get back there even if I didn’t have to be in London by 9am the next morning to speak at the House of Lords.

At nearly 11pm I find one, very expensive, hotel with a single room available through LastMinute.com. I book it, pay and then pay £20 to get a taxi there only to find it is overbooked and they’ve already turned away 4 other customers. It is a converted Georgian townhouse with a small number of rooms, so I’m sat in the only chair in a tiny lobby. I’m repeatedly calling LastMinute, and it has gone past midnight so there is no longer even a means to find another hotel (as you can’t search for availability for the previous night), and they tell me they don’t have a room. It takes me four calls and 47 minutes on the line to speak to Last Minute’s customer services, who conclude they can’t find an alternative room for me, and don’t see that as their responsibility. At 1.25am they suggest a room is available at the Taj St James Court hotel and they have reserved it for me. I call them, they have no rooms and have never heard of me. It is now 1.30am, and I am making plans to sleep in the bucket chair I am sitting in, in the hotel lobby, as I have nowhere else to go* and it is raining heavily. Eventually at 2am the hotel say that one guest has not checked in yet, and agree to take the gamble and let me use the room. I get less than four hours sleep for twice-the-price-I’d-normally-set-as-my-upper-limit-for-a-room, before having to head out to speak at the House of Lords.

Having given the talk** I decided to complain to both Booking.com and LastMinute.com. The response from the former was “You got a refund for the apartment, so it’s all settled” and the latter offered “€20 as a goodwill gesture due to the 2 hour delay checking in”. No recognition of the fact the experience was traumatic, wasted 5 hours of my evening, cost me 3 extra taxis, and left me 200 miles from home without somewhere safe to sleep. I am faced with the realisation that trauma is subjective, and to many men hearing the tale I might have taken fright for no reason and brought the events that followed upon myself. I am forced to say “imagine if your Mum were in this situation” when explaining it to try to trigger sympathy. But nobody really cares. The apartment owner feels he has done his bit by refunding (and the website has conveniently blocked me from leaving a review). The men in the call centres were in another country, abstracted away from the problem. The customer service teams are seeing the facts in retrospect, not the feelings the experience generated, and are motivated to protect their brand rather than genuinely caring about me as a customer. The night manager of the hotel cared, because he met me in person, and saw I was upset. As a result he tried his best, but he wasn’t in a position that could resolve the problem.

And that’s where I finally reach the point. In a system where you book with a middleman who doesn’t actually provide the product you are paying for, nobody really feels accountable for the service you receive. And, to bring this round to being relevant to a wider point for health and social care, this model is being increasingly replicated in public services, where the NHS or local authority commission the service from another provider, who is assumed to be responsible. That split between online broker and real life provider, or the public sector split between purchaser and provider seems like a good model for each of those parties, as the purchaser delegates responsibility whilst fulfilling their obligations (or making a profit, in the case of online brokerage sites) with much reduced staffing and without having to invest in any tangible assets. The provider gains access to a wider market, rather than becoming obsolete. But somehow inevitably, as in my experience, the recipient of the service misses out in the middle, and finds out there is minimal quality control and an absence of clear lines of accountability when things go wrong or aren’t delivered as planned.

For example, there is a level of risk aversion that has made local authorities anxious about providing residential care placements, because of the prevalence of historic institutional abuse and the increasing awareness of child sexual exploitation and involvement in county lines (and the accompanying risk of compensation lawsuits). The result is a marketplace where private providers (many of them owned by international venture capital groups who pay minimal UK taxes) use unqualified, low-paid staff to care for some of the most complex and vulnerable young people in the UK, and it is hard for recipients or commissioners to distinguish them from provision that has different financial or delivery models. Likewise in health (and public transport) private providers cherry pick off the profitable services, whilst the public purse is left holding the can when they don’t deliver. There is a move to entrench this even further with the push towards Integrated Care Providers, where private organisations can manage the entire health and social care services for a particular region of the UK, in a way that is potentially unaccountable for its decisions and not subject to the rules for public sector organisations (like Freedom of Information requests, public consultation, or being subject to Judicial Enquiries if things go wrong, or even their statutory obligations). I think that might be a recipe for disaster, but then, I’m not a fan of corporations and the super-rich profiting from the suffering of the rest of us.

Update: Booking.com have agreed to reimburse my costs in relation to the apartment (but have not yet done so), whilst LastMinute.com have not yet replied, telling me they take 28 working days to respond to customer complaints that don’t accept the initial boilerplate response. I suspect that just like in health and social care, the (explicit or implicit) policy is to respond to those who kick up a fuss and have the potential to create negative publicity if things are not resolved, meaning that those who are devalued most by society have the least redress when things go wrong.

*call me a wuss, but I declined the option of having one bed in a bunk room in a hostel shared with 8-12 strangers
** which I will give again and video as soon as I shake the cold that’s currently making me croak