The Subtleties of Hospitality: Lodging in the Sharing Economy

Take it from me: If you are in desperate need of a topic to discuss in relation to the hospitality industry, whether it be for an online discussion board post, a capstone essay, or a face-to-face class meeting in which you feel as though you must boost your verbal participation, look no further than Airbnb.

Truthfully, I can state that over the past two years over which I have increasingly become acclimated to the evolution of the lodging sector, this company has appeared a multitude of times and in a number of formats. In fact, while I do often experience a bit of “Airbnb fatigue” after reading post after post, textbook after textbook, and article after article on the topic, I cannot deny that I only contribute to this phenomenon that infiltrates my studies.

So, I am here today to, once again, perpetuate the Airbnb discourse.

Why, one may ask?

Well, because Airbnb really just is that interesting, dynamic, and potentially consequential to the hospitality industry–an area already facing a remarkable number of issues (hello, concurrent labor shortage and experimentation with automation, not to mention human resources troubles and environmental impacts).

For those who are unaware of what exactly Airbnb is, I would recommend that you take a look at the company’s website; otherwise, you must simply digest my summation of this entity as an apt example of the sharing economy, due to its status as a way in which “hosts” are able to rent out lodging spaces (such as homes) and experiences to guests through an online platform.

Upon my first exploration of Airbnb, by way of a video displaying a talk from co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk that a professor showed in one of my foundational hospitality management courses, I was exposed to what would later appear, from my perspective, to be a widely-held notion in the business: Airbnb is a disruptor, and can be a threatening one at that, but it is also one that hoteliers will admit to utilizing and of which they will work to adopt the best qualities.

In other words, whether or not they wish to admit this fact to the public, the same individuals who know that the future of the properties they manage may rest on the implications of services like Airbnb are, quite often, consumers from which these companies benefit. Indeed, a recent survey that I prepared, conducted, and analyzed in conjunction with a group project for a hospitality marketing course, while surely flawed in a plethora of manners, introduced me to the proposition that those of us entrenched in the world of hospitality management are still considerably more familiar with and harbor a greater number of characteristics conducive to participation in Airbnb than other segments of the population. Meeting back up with said group once we received our results from the survey this past week, one of the first points on which we all agreed was our surprise at the relatively low number of respondents who used, or were even aware of, the company’s offerings; specifically, 75.90% of the people who took our survey had simply heard of Airbnb, while 21.69% were unsure of its familiarity and 2.4% were wholly unaware. Furthermore, when compared to the use of other sharing services, including Uber, Postmates, and Lyft, according to our results, Airbnb has yet to become prominent in individuals’ habits. Surely, the lesser number of opportunities that the typical person possesses to employ a rental service akin to Airbnb contributes to this result, but there still is something to be said about the fact that 26.27% of our respondents had ever stayed in an Airbnb, even as nearly double that amount admitted to employing other offshoots of the sharing economy.

Of course, my hasty discoveries cannot, and do not, dismiss the true significance of Airbnb. Demonstrating just a select few of the ways in which the hotel industry appears vigilant in its mission of remaining relevant to travelers amid disruptors is the October 3, 2018, Chicago Tribune article entitled “Hotels Take on Airbnb–With Mixed Results.” (Shout out to one of my family members for sharing the piece with me.) Dee-Ann Durbin, in her analysis of such efforts, relays the contentious findings that Airbnb grew by 25% in their number of listings (totaling to 5 million) during the same period of one year over which the Marriott inventory expanded to 1.3 million rooms, showcasing a growth of five percent; in turn, the prospective ability of Airbnb to weaken the performance of traditional lodging companies is undeniable. Correspondingly, proprietors have begun to probe the realm of Airbnb, with Marriott’s home-rental program and the now-defunct relationship between Hyatt and rental company Oasis being two notable examples supporting the statement from Pennsylvania State University’s Daniel Mount that the lack of current profitability that comes with entering Airbnb’s domain (no pun intended) should not prompt hotels to stay completely autonomous from home-sharing. Making matters all the more complicated and crucial is the movement of Airbnb itself into partnerships with boutique hotels and acquisitions of luxurious rental spaces–despite the claims of representatives that Expedia, along with other online travel agents, represent the company’s largest source of competition in the lodging sector. The short, final note on which Durbin recounts the perspective of Chris Lehane, a policy director for Airbnb, though, is quite telling: “The need for accommodations is so vast that Airbnb and hotels will continue to coexist, he says, but Airbnb will do better at providing unique places.”

In particular, I would contend that the last two words of this sentence convey and reinforce the article’s opening statement that “Travelers sometimes want a cookie-cutter room in a downtown hotel, and they sometimes want a cozy Tuscan farmhouse to share with friends.” Simply put, Airbnb provides the idiosyncratic and personalized experiences that are perfect complements to the growing market segment of prospective guests who are eager to trade in the comforting consistency of chain hotels for the sense of satisfaction (of equal or greater magnitude) that comes with the unique atmosphere and “homey” qualities of rentals. When asked to rank the level of importance they assign to certain characteristics and amenities of lodging facilities, the respondents to my aforementioned survey suggested this dynamic quite clearly. For instance, after segmenting the participants into the groups of Airbnb users, those who are aware of the company but are not engaged in its offerings, and individuals who are unfamiliar with the platform, the last two of the three categories (the final one being comprised of respondents who fell within the survey’s highest age ranges 83.33% of the time, notably) most often prioritized “safety,” “privacy,” “housekeeping,” and “atmosphere.” Meanwhile, Airbnb users favored “atmosphere,” “privacy,” and “laundry services.” Regarding the facets to which those surveyed were most apathetic, “cooking equipment,” “laundry services,” and “feeling part of the community” were often highlighted by respondents who had never employed Airbnb, and renters found “bell services” and “room service” least vital. In combination with the repeated admissions of users that the location, value, greater amount of space, and comfortable feel of Airbnb sites were the most favorable aspects of their experiences, one can conclude that the perception of both control and inherent singularity make the company’s offerings particularly appealing to current guests. Nevertheless, as the relevance of such aspects as atmosphere and privacy to all three segments of respondents implies, Airbnb can exploit its potential to expand in market share, if and when the “right” messages are directed toward the “right” portions of the population. 

Whew. I am just scratching the surface of the implications and ramifications of Airbnb.

The emerging home-sharing regulations around the world! Explicit losses of revenue for hotels! The concentration of Airbnb sites within areas in which demand is remarkably high, and thus the possibility that the company actually has negligent effects on the hotel industry!

These, and many more, subjects are prone to and worthy of thorough examination from experts across disciplines and professions. Still, underlying these concerns are the genuine, evolving demands of guests and their appreciation of innovations that satisfy their needs, even when only perceived upon the rollout of said output. Being the dynamic and people-focused industry that it is, the hotel sector is destined to continue its experimentation with the services of companies like Airbnb, which are growing to extents that demand both attention and action. Perhaps we cannot yet be sure of whether the subsequent modifications of the lodging industry, especially in conjunction with the changing demographics and psychographics of travelers, will dramatically impact the hotel experience in the years to come; for now, the measured studies and tests being conducted by stakeholders amid increasingly widespread conversation make the nuances of the sharing economy true subtleties of hospitality.

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this installment of my rather cynical series entitled “Subtleties of Hospitality,” with which I aim to provide an amalgam of my thoughts and accumulated knowledge of findings from actual experts regarding subjects related to this industry that I find severly overlooked and unappreciated.

In any case, have you, my reader, ever stayed in an Airbnb? Why or why not, and how do your behaviors relate to your general lodging preferences? Please let me know.


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