As the proud CEO of this Association, I represent 160 member organisations operating in 24 countries. That’s fantastic!
And my past career in the hospitality industry has seen me working with and for some extraordinary brands; British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, VisitEngland are among them. So I get to see this battle from pretty much all sides.
I’m an avid traveller, both professionally and with my family and friends; and at the same time I’m part of a leadership team trying to find solutions for the challenges faced by all our Members, who themselves comprise a vast range of sizes and types, and with differing needs.
All this, whilst also finding myself fascinated by the wider trends that affect us all – both within the sector and in our personal life.
As a rising sector within hospitality, serviced apartment providers have a real and genuine focus on the guest. And let’s face it, that covers a lot of different individuals.
Sometimes it’s the business traveller who may not have arranged his or her own trip, or the corporate booker who is looking for safe, efficient and cost-effective solutions. And that business traveller might be looking to extend a trip with a bleisure element. Or it might be a digital nomad who’s travelling the world looking for authentic experiences, and live like a local. Or it might be a family relocating between cities or countries – or even continents – looking for a home-like experience outside a hotel room. Or any number of other potential guests.
What all these travellers have in common is that at the end of the day, their head will be on a pillow, in a bed, in a room, somewhere in the world. And we must keep that at the centre of every decision we make.
At the Association we talk all the time about threats, and the many different directions they come from. The sharing economy, the pop-up travel advisor, the online booking aggregators, the often-rigid corporate travel policy.
But I have come to believe that the real threat is actually from those in the hospitality space who are doing it badly.
I spoke at the HOST event at the start of the month, a convention aimed at accommodation services and partners in the holiday rental space, helping them capitalise on this growing £150 billion market. Speakers ranged from the UK Competition and Markets Authority to HomeAway and Airbnb – and those management companies attached to those behemoths, making money on the back of them; and from several of our own ASAP Members through to representatives of Marriott International and UKHospitality.
And I spoke there on the subject of trust. The importance of the guest knowing he or she could rely on their accommodation to provide exactly the physical surroundings and duty of care the guest expected from the transaction.
And with a week, Airbnb and Booking.com were slated for a whole slew of transgressions; from an investigation into the number of fraudulent listings that represented something totally different from reality, and didn’t exist or were double-booked or the host wasn’t there, leaving guests out in the cold looking for alternatives but with nobody to speak to for help, right through to illegal lets where deaths took place when parties got out of hand.
In fact, my own team and I get contacted weekly by guests who have travelled thousands of miles and paid thousands of pounds to an online booking agent, only to find the property is already occupied, or isn’t anything like they expected, or in many cases, does not even exist! And because they can’t find anyone to help in their desperation, they contact us.
All of this has reinforced to me my deep-held belief, that travel should be all about confidence. Confidence in the product a guest will receive when he or she arrives. With the standard of accommodation being as described, and physical safety, the very least that should be expected.
The same thing has happened to me, in fact. I booked a Barcelona penthouse apartment some years ago, on the top floor of a block, ‘with stunning views over the city’, but arrived to find instead a damp basement flat with one external window and cleaning chemicals stored under the bed.
How long will it take for the organisations who made it so simple for me to part with my money, to wake up and take responsibility for rogue operators who do not care?
Airbnb in fairness have finally agreed to verify all 7 million of their listings over the next year, to provide a healpline and to take action against the bad actors in the space. And the likes of booking.com and other OTAs have been reined in for their auctioning top spots in searches, and hard-sell practices that can lead to over-booking and unexpected charges. Those researching stays are still bombarded with stressful messages about how few rooms are left and how many people are also looking at that accommodation, and don’t worry, you don’t need to pay now and can cancel later – only to find themselves charged in any case, and waiting some time to get the money refunded.
Our industry is at its core about human interaction, empathy and experience. It’s the hospitality industry. Hospitality: ‘the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers’!
And it’s all about people, getting a comfortable, safe night’s sleep.
By putting so much of our industry, our interaction with the guest, online, and then not living up to the guest’s expectation, short-term profits may rise but the consumer will lose faith and disengage. They’ll lose trust in the process, as more and more rogue operators will be incentivised to make a quick buck – and take little responsibility for the product.
I believe that differentiation is the greatest opportunity for our industry.
Parts of the sharing economy suggest during the booking process that guests might consider taking their own fire alarm, since the property owner hasn’t installed one. It’s hardly ideal! But at least that guest knows that up-front, and can compare that situation with a professionally-managed part of the industry where their safety is a priority, at least they can see the differentiation and are in a position to make an informed decision. As part of our ASAP Membership, our operators have at the very least met a stringent set of quality standards and levels of customer service as an absolute minimum, and they sign up to our code of conduct that insists properties are transparent in what they offer, that support will be available 24/7, and that levels of duty of care are in place and met. And these standards are regularly checked to ensure consistency. And I believe our Members are proud of this differentiation, and stand proudly over meeting these standards.