AirBnB vs. The Hospitality Industry: Creating an Unified Experience

May 13, 2015



Like it or not, AirBnB is changing the hospitality industry. Not temporarily, not in a small way, but permanently and significantly. Is this a bad thing for traditional industry players? Not at all—provided they pick up the clues that AirBnB is giving about the future of the industry.


In part one of this series, we discussed how AirBnB is spearheading a trend toward the personal in hospitality. People are connecting with this service because of the personality, warmth, and authenticity it promises. It’s now possible to rent a fully furnished loft in Paris, or a luxury apartment in Melbourne, directly from the owner. Instead of being a “guest” in a “hotel,” people are looking for a genuine experience of place, often with highly personalized guidance from the owner of the property. If all goes well, AirBnB’s customers almost feel like they’ve gotten away with something.


But what if it doesn’t go so well? We already know there are horror stories, bug problems, parties, unexpected noise, plumbing fiascos. What then? The lack of standardized service would appear to be a big strike against AirBnB’s business model, and a big argument in favour of traditional hospitality. A strong brand is reassuring; it gives customers something they can rely on. AirBnB can’t possibly do that.


Can they?


Actually, they can. Without scores of satisfied customers, there is no way AirBnB could be on track to surpass Hilton Worldwide Holdings in corporate valuation. The question is, with all the variables of independent ownership, why are quality control issues not posing a bigger a threat to the model? How are they managing to draw so much business—and keep people coming back for more?


I think the answer lies in the user interface and the client review system. AirBnB does not actually own any property, but they’re still a brand seeking direct interaction with clients. As a result, they place extra emphasis on the things they can control (user interface), while implementing a robust system for users to generate their own quality controls (client review system).


First, let’s look at the user interface. Bold and clean, it’s everything a next generation online experience should be. The search fields are spacious, the text is easy to scan, the focus on images and relevant details allows users to make decisions quickly. And just as importantly, users understand how to use it.


They have done this because  the company take its web design seriously.(One of the company’s co-founders once took the entire design team to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about one of Japan’s living sushi masters, in order to demonstrate the importance of detail.)


Perhaps most importantly, the transaction itself is seamless. Instead of being whisked off to a third party site, or entering sensitive details into a page that looks like a throwback to the late 1990s, users feel confident that the AirBnB’s system is effective and secure for today’s traveler.


In short, AirBnB understands—on a deeper level than many traditional hospitality players—that it’s not just about having a place to stay. Guests want an experience, and in the digital age, that experience is likely to begin on a laptop, phone or tablet. Pouring design improvements into a physical property whilst leaving the online property in shambles makes less sense with every passing day. Both should be improved and aligned in order to tell a unified story, create a unified personality, and offer guests a unified experience from front to finish.


(For more evidence of the importance of user interface in today’s economy, check out this article over at techcrunch)


In terms of user reviews, which are a fixture of any “sharing economy” business, AirBnB is not exceptional except, again, in the way that reviews are presented. A five star system, based on input in several different categories, allows hosts and guests to leave detailed feedback about each other, which is prominently displayed. This creates transparency and brings quality issues to the fore.


Or at least, it’s supposed to. One recurring criticism of AirBnB and other sharing economies is that the highly personal nature of the transaction makes it difficult in some cases to leave honest, objective feedback. Granted, there are opportunities to deliver feedback direct to the owner outside of this, but most people can read between the (on)lines.If this “sugar coating” effect does exist, it can safely be said that traditional properties don’t have the same luxury. It’s precisely because the relationship is more “businesslike” that guests have no problem leaving honest feedback. This makes it all the more important to deliver a high quality experience from the online booking to checkout—and to create a good balance between personality and professionalism. This is the only way to naturally ensure a property’s online reputation goes up.


AirBnB isn’t going anywhere. It will not grow forever, and certain limitations are already becoming apparent—but of more interest are are the limitations it has done away with. Like all good disruptive companies AirBnB has taken an existing business (providing accommodation) and imagined a new way of doing it. Owners and managers of traditional properties should reflect deeply on what people love about this company. If they do so, they will almost certainly end up with valuable insights into their own business.



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