Are Hotel Guests the Next OTA?

October 15, 2019



The travel agent’s office is symbol of a different era in the hospitality business. It was the closest thing we had to a web site: You would step inside and look at all the pamphlets with glossy pictures of far-off places. You’d be hearing advice, whether you liked it or not, from one or more people. Your options would be limited to the experiences of those providing them.


In fact, limited options are part of what make travel agents more appealing today. We’ve seen what it’s like to have endless options online, and we know that it leads to a phenomenon called “analysis paralysis” in some people.


Old-school travel agencies were also like web sites in that they told you which hotels were good, and which hotels weren’t. This kind of information wasn’t widely available – you had to read magazines, or talk to a neighbour, or see a TV commercial, or go to a travel agent.


The OTA revolution changed all this by allowing travellers to talk to one another directly, share advice, and aggregate popular sentiment about hotels in a given city or place. Along with this came endless blogs and listicles of places you should visit. Air travel became more accessible to the far corners of the globe, and a share-economy revolution made privately-owned apartments and houses into professional hospitality options.  


Given all these changes, it’s no wonder some people want to take a step back and visit a bricks-and-mortar travel agent, even if that type of throwback experience now involves a virtual reality helmet and a three-dimensional tour of the hotels you could book.


In this age of taking things apart and putting them together to find new ways of thinking about travel, it was only a matter of time until guests themselves became travel advisors who could earn commissions on bookings. The basic line of reasoning is this: You already travel a lot, and you’ve gained a lot of knowledge. Why not share that knowledge with other people, and earn some cash in the process?


One early mover in this is space is One Night Inc, who have launched a platform called Benny. Backed by a major shareholder in hotel group Standard International, it is set to launch this month (October 2019) as a web site, and the app will arrive sometime in 2020.


Initially focussed on Standard’s own hotels and those represented by One Night, Benny will allow guests to recommend specific hotels to friends, and represents the idea that your average traveller can become a de facto travel agency. If you travel a lot, and if there are certain properties you really recommend, you can take a financial stake in disseminating that information.


This is by no means a new trick. If you think about it, it has been going on forever under the label of “recommend a friend and get a $100 credit.” Amazon regularly reward top reviewers with a lot of free stuff in the mail but as far as I can tell, OTAs are yet to financially incentivise ordinary people to write reviews.


Depending on their vision, Benny could try to position itself as the Uber or AirBnb of travel agents, in which anybody can be a player in the game; but this might not be a salient comparison, since millions of people around the world rely on Uber and AirBnb as a key source of income.


At a glance, it seems like one would have to spend an awful lot of time on Benny to have it be a meaningful addition to their tax statement. But the idea that we are all travel agents is novel, and it may prove to be a way for people to earn pocket money by increasing their knowledge and awareness of travel.


By now, we shouldn’t be surprised when these experiments fail – nor when they succeed to the point of becoming a word in the dictionary. Like it or not, we all take advice before we make our travel bookings. The role of the travel agent is ever-evolving as the market seeks new ways to deliver that advice, and the ‘ordinary guest’ may be a more dynamic factor than some of the current players in the industry have imagined.


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