Emerging threats to our (meetings and events) way of life: Part 2

27/03/2015 By James Bland

27 March, 2015.

Share and share alike

Elements of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Meetings & Incentive Travel.

I wrote last week about the threats posed to the M&E sector (as we know it currently) from data security (Part 1 - Emerging threats). The other threat I see as being the most relevant right now is the sharing economy, and how better to illustrate that than again to consider Airbnb?

Truly, airbnb and the sharing economy concept is the main industry disruptor right now. This is taking our expectations of what paid accommodation looks like and is blowing a great big raspberry in our faces. It’s ruffling feathers and making noise, annoying the neighbours, upsetting cities and dividing political opinion. It stands out, it’s different and it’s subversive. I am convinced that’s why it chimes with Generation Y travellers, who, in Great Britain, are twice as likely to be aware of it as the older generations, and throughout Western Europe show higher levels of awareness amongst both business and leisure travellers. In fact, when we asked them in March/April 2014, nearly 8% of both business and leisure travellers in Generation Y had used Airbnb for a leisure booking in the last twelve months.

Its impact could potentially be without limit. Already it claims over 800,000 ‘beds’, and while the majority of its bookings are currently leisure-based, it has been targeting the business market for quite a while. All last summer, each time I passed through Euston Station during commuting hours their videos were playing on the large advertising screens. It’s a definite marketing priority for them.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, airbnb operates on the ‘sharing economy’ principle. If you have a spare room to let, it provides a marketplace for you to sell it to someone seeking accommodation. Its name comes from air-bed and breakfast; to raise some cash, its founders sold nights on an inflatable mattress in their shared flat over the internet back in 2008. Today it has been valued at nearly USD 10bn, more than both Hyatt and Wyndham, and it has referred to itself as “the world’s biggest hotelier”.

Those who object will point to the safety and security you get from a licensed hotel. Advocates of airbnb will refer you to the review system – where a reputation is made or broken by the guest feedback it gets. Critics of that will point to the Trip Advisor scandals surrounding spurious reviews, but the defence there will be that only genuine guests get the chance to give feedback, and what’s in it for them to lie?

Then there’s the question of taxes – according to Benjamin Franklin one of life’s only certainties (let’s not dwell on the other). Accommodation providers, by law, have to declare their earned income just as hotels pay tax on their profits. The extent to which these two groups are pursued by HMRC and their international equivalents no doubt differs hugely, and one could speculate with reasonable confidence that across a nation’s airbnb landlords the correct amount of tax is neither declared nor collected.

Competitors also claim that airbnb enjoys an unfair advantage because its accommodation providers do not yet have to go through the same rigorous compliance as hotels regarding health and safety. For me, the key word there is ‘yet’, because as authorities begin to get to grips with airbnb and understand what it is, there is no doubt regulation will begin catch up.

But that’s just bedrooms, you cry! True. At the moment, airbnb only offers accommodation bookings. However, it is already changing the behaviour of meeting attendees: consider the case of the sales executive who rejected block-booked hotel rooms in favour of hiring a nearby apartment to share with three colleagues.

Looking at meetings themselves, Zipcube.com, having started as the ultimate evolution of hot-desking, now offers a market place to connect owners and seekers of meeting space. Although nowhere near as high-profile as Airbnb, and seemingly limited to London at present, it does already claim the BBC, Google, Sainsbury’s and HM Treasury among its users, and although it doesn’t specify whether this is for desk space or meeting space, it is inevitable that converts to the cause will switch between applications. Paris and New York are, according to its website, “coming soon” while if you are unable to find a site through its portal, a team will research locations for you.

I suggest we all brace for impact!

How’s it going to play out? Read on next week