Airbnb wants level playing field
On the face of it, having representatives of Airbnb and Expedia speak at a hotel investment conference was unusual.
Indeed, the first question asked of them at the Caribbean Hotel Investment Conference and Operations Summit was how they respond to accusations that their businesses are bad for hotels.
The “friend or foe?” question was posed by moderator Jeff Higley, editorial director of Hotel News Now.
Moments earlier Shawn Sullivan, of Airbnb, had given an overview of the company, which operates as a community marketplace network where people can list, discover and book unique accommodations around the world.
He mentioned that Airbnb is now ten years old and has four million accommodations listed worldwide, with an estimated 200 million users.
“The success of Airbnb is driven by the fact that tourism and travel industry is changing, we are a reflection of what he traveller, especially the millennial traveller, is seeking out,” he said.
He acknowledged that Airbnb was competition for the hotel industry, but added: “We want to get to the point where everybody feels as comfortable as they can be with us. We want a level playing field, that's why we work with governments.”
Mr Sullivan, who represents Airbnb's public policy in the Caribbean and Latin America, explained that the company has agreements with various countries, including tax agreements.
“As a company we decided a few years ago that we wanted out guests and hosts to pay their fair share. We want to exchange, we want to be transparent with destinations.”
Airbnb signed an agreement with the Bermuda Tourism Authority in March to create a framework to open dialogue with the Bermuda Government to discuss topical industry matter, including marketing ane regulation.
In April, two Airbnb representatives met with residents at information events on the island. At the time, Airbnb had about 260 listings in Bermuda.
Regarding Airbnb's relationship to the traditional market, Mr Sullivan pointed out that for a number of years it has allowed boutique hotels onto its platform.
“Airbnb is a reflection of consumer demand. People more and more want global experience, unique experiences and get to know the places that they are travelling. There's nothing to say that hotels cannot do the same thing.”
The Chicos event is now in its seventh year, and was held at the Hamilton Princess.
Hari Nair, global senior vice-president at Expedia Media Solutions, spoke about the Expedia family of online companies, including Orbitz and HomeAway. The websites aggregate travel prices and offer worldwide searches for many travel options. Customer ratings and reviews are included on the website.
Describing Expedia as a channel, he said it was a portal that had customers who were intent on making travel arrangements, therefore presenting value to hotels, airlines and countries who wanted to engage with such focused potential customers.
And Mr Nair said new technologies are constantly evolving and changing the way customers seek out information on travel and vacation options. He said that by 2020, 15 per cent of travel search services will be done by voice recognition applications.
He asked delegates to imagine a world in 18 months' time when a customer wants to look for a vacation option but is too busy to conduct an online search, so they ask their home-based intelligent personal assistant — such as Amazon's Alexa — for some vacation choices in Bermuda.
He said the customer probably won't have the time to listen to 15 options, so it has to be a more precise list with two or three options.
“We are very excited about this [technology] space, and that's why a partner like us can work with destinations and companies and help them with that.”
Just as Airbnb has disrupted the traditional vacation accommodation market, it is likely to face challengers itself in five or ten years' time, said Mr Sullivan.
That is why it is working to stay ahead of trends and introduce new tools and products.
One of the challenges it has faced is the growth of the company. He explained: “We have scaled so rapidly over the last ten years that one of the challenges is maintaining that level of engagement and sense of community among Airbnb hosts.”
In the Caribbean, Airbnb has about 80,000 listings.
Mr Sullivan said: “It's important business, it is lucrative. We are seeing more travellers focused on the region and we want to try to stay ahead of that curve.”
He said the nature of travelling is changing dramatically, adding: “Companies and everyone involved in the entire ecosystem that understands that, gets ahead and is able to look and predict what the next generation wants — who are going to be the real spenders for the next several years — those are the ones that are going to make it. Change is coming and people need to react to it.”
Meanwhile, Mr Nair said he had recently seen a memorable quote that read: “You don't travel to escape life, you travel so that life doesn't escape you.”
With that in mind, he said: “Customers are going to choose the device or channel or website that works best for them. We are in the business of creating memories for our customers. We want to keep it that way.”