It’s a rum world. The biggest retailer in the world owns not one physical shop. The biggest food takeaway service owns no kitchen, the biggest taxi firm owns no cars, and the biggest financial brand owns no bank. So it should come as no surprise that the biggest hospitality company currently owns not a single bed.
I had cause to comment this week on an initiative launched by our friends at Airbnb. This time it’s an online portal where local law enforcement can post requests for information about guests.
The stated aim is to ensure the safety of the whole Airbnb ‘community’ of guests and hosts, by working with lawmakers to share information; but at the same time the platform confirms it’s only responding to a proportion of verified and emergency requests. Not working with them to regulate short-let accommodation as it’s been asked to do repeatedly by those same city councils.
Acting in the face of criticism, once again, and talking a lot of the talk; but only going so far.
Airbnb has also partnered this week with wildlife activist charity PETA, donating $100,000 to counter the potentially damaging aspect of its new ‘experiences with animals’ brand. So on the one hand it promotes Instagram-friendly activities like posing with elephants, or swimming with dolphins, now bookable (with great fanfare!) as part of an Airbnb package. On the other, “showing tourists how to avoid abusive wild-animal attractions and forge an animal-friendly travel future”. And calling on the whole industry to follow them in their sudden focus on conservation.
It’s not only Airbnb of course; but it’s an obvious target. In the countdown to its likely IPO next year and with a value believed to be well above the $31bn estimated two years ago, this behemoth, with its avowed intent to connect communities and head up the crowdsourced sharing economy, is getting brilliant at heading off critics and regulators. Setting the PR machine in motion very fast. Compared with those billions, $100,000 is small beer. But it’s cleverly pitched to bring on board the very consumers whose goodwill is crucial to the continued success of the brand, especially the environmentally aware millennials and Gen Z consumers.
And of course this is a challenging time for the homestay sector, with hotels actively pricing them out in some regions, and our own serviced apartment sector proving that its offering, especially its accredited accommodation, is every bit as interesting for the guest – and a lot more professional.
Consumers looking for bargains may not have taken in the lack of visible safety precautions offered by an Airbnb booking. And if they have, may not give it too much thought as they seek to live like a local, living someone else’s life. In the hospitality sector, we’re all used to the strict regulation around hotels and serviced apartments. But fire departments the world over attack Airbnb and other homestay platforms for offering guests what they probably imagine to be a safe and curated alternative to a regular hotel, but which in contrast may lack even the most basic of fire safety and security. Of course, every individual is entitled to live their own life without a smoke alarm, or a carbon monoxide monitor. And if you’re living in someone else’s own space, the same freedom of choice applies.
When you’re booking an alternative to a hotel, and you’re booking on a huge and technologically-smart website, whether that’s Airbnb or Expedia or booking.com or any one of the other OTAs, you might expect the same duty of care will apply, whichever route you take. You can book a homestay direct with a host on most OTA’s these days – just like on Airbnb; but in just the same way, there’s no obligation for that host to have any information about fire alarms or escape routes.
But a consumer sees it listed alongside regular, regulated, safety-conscious hotels and serviced apartments, and cannot be blamed for considering the homestay is in the same league, and that their personal safety is assured. Not so! Some don’t even mention safety in any way. Airbnb at least has a fire alarm icon in a list of amenities, and if the host doesn’t tick that box, a pop-up appears in the booking process suggesting the guest considers bringing an alarm or a carbon monoxide detector with them, to be safe.
Brilliant. Squeeze your own safety equipment into your already over packed Ryanair carry-on! Responsibility dumped on the guest. Job done.
We have an uphill struggle in our industry to explain both to consumers and corporate travel bookers that by booking with an ISAAP Accredited ASAP Member, compliance, safety, quality and service are a given. And that the traveller doesn’t have to forego interesting experiences, quirky locations, personalised service and living their own free, flexible way in the accommodation our Members provide, setting their own schedules and living their own way. But we must keep banging that drum. All of us.
Of course we hope and pray that every traveller, however and wherever they book, has a great experience and at the very least survives the trip! But as more and more potentially risky homestays join the major OTAs and Airbnb gets clever with the smoke and mirrors when it comes to heading off criticism, we have to stand over the transparency and genuine care for the guest that our Members offer. To make them the accommodation of choice for everyone booking, anywhere in the world.