The attraction of homestay, and what hotels can do about it

By James Bland

Naturally, those which disrupt eventually become part of the establishment.  Homesharing and the peer-to-peer economy passed that tipping point a couple of years ago. But I am still yet to use Airbnb, and am reticent to try it.  When pressed as for my reasons why, I honestly struggle to articulate them.

Am I in sync with everyone else, or am I an outlier?

In 2018’s Hotel Guest Survey (HGS), we reported that 20% of British business travellers and 14% of leisure travellers had, at some point in the last 12 months, booked a stay using Airbnb. Prima facie, then, I’m in the majority.  At least when it comes to recent usage.

However, that 20% would have placed Airbnb at sixth place in the business segment of our “recalled usage” ranking of more than 140 brands.  In the leisure segment, 14% would translate to fifth place – that’s a level of market penetration above even Marriott!

And it’s worth remembering that our Hotel Guest Survey, as the name suggests, only looks at the behaviours of hotel guests – people who have stayed in a hotel over the last 12 months.  Outside of that, of course, is a whole cohort of people who don’t use hotels, but undoubtedly do use other categories of paid-for accommodation

I wrote last week about whether hotels have lost their sense of hospitality.  In truth, I’m not sure they have necessarily lost anything.  Instead, the game has changed and they perhaps haven’t all changed with it…yet.

We look, quantitatively, at reasons why people use homestay accommodation in HGS and have presented findings from qualitative research at industry conferences in the past. But towards the end of last year I was interested in what my colleagues here thought of Airbnb.

I was struck by how a number of themes recurred during my (admittedly unscientific) survey of their recent homestay experiences.

Leaving your comfort zone

One anecdote I picked up involved a colleague with a slight sense of dread as he and his family drove for four hours through France in the rain, worried about missing the prearranged time to meet their host, and possibly needing to converse in French when they got there. None of that would have been a worry if they were heading to a hotel.

But getting to know their host proved to be one of the highlights of the holiday. They ended up chatting about the relative merits of de Gaulle and Churchill, and it turned out that her son – who ran his own business in Paris – knew of BVA.

The odd exceptional team member notwithstanding, for the most part, that personal touch would not have been present for them if they’d opted to stay in a chain hotel. But it wasn’t just that: it was also pushing the boundaries of what they were used to. It made, for them, a more memorable experience than staying in a hotel.

The idea that you are heading into the unknown was cited by others, too. Another colleague related her tale of staying in an Airbnb in Florence. Alarm bells rang when they couldn’t see anything other than a sofa bed on arrival. But pressing the wall made it pivot, and through they went to the bedroom and bathroom.

Not all homestay visits are as “James Bond” as that, of course, but it’s not something that could replicated en-masse in a hotel environment (although I’m no architect). Again, it created an experience and an adventure they will remember for years.

Longer stays

Opting for the homestay option also seems more attractive if a visit is for longer.

That second colleague told me that “if it was just for a couple of days, I’d probably do a hotel, but for anything longer it’s just nice to have your space”. It can make you feel that you’re actually living there rather than just being a tourist. There’s something rather warming and homely about returning to your own bolthole at the end of the day rather than having to head back to a hotel room.

And that leads on to the benefits of…

Flexibility

If you’re on a city break and you want to head home mid-afternoon to catch your breath before hitting the town again in the evening, a homestay property lets you slouch around. Not that you can’t return to a hotel room at 4pm, of course, but unless you pay for a really nice room, you can’t just sit on a sofa and chill.

It’s the same with meals. If you’re staying in a hotel, breakfast and dinner are laid on for you. But you can find yourself restricted in terms of timings and menu, particularly if your other plans necessitate either an early or a particularly late meal. People who choose a homestay holiday can have their breakfast in their PJs when they want it and although hotel buffets are increasingly impressive and inclusive, there is a natural limit to the needs for which they can cater, so abundant are the options open to us now and so varied our dietary preferences.

How can hotels fight back?

Hotels will never win back all their guests, as homestay is firmly established. But as with all industries that have disrupters come in and shake things up, there are lessons the sector can learn.

As one of my colleagues told me: “Hotels could fight back with smarter food service options, reconfigured ‘public’ space, and greater empowerment of staff to personalise experiences and recommendations for their visitors.”  The first two, undoubtedly, are becoming increasingly present; particularly within newer brands and refurbished hotels amongst the more-established ones, should you be lucky enough to find yourself in one.  The latter… the jury remains out, and with the sector facing a scrap to attract and retain talent, it isn’t really something on which large brands can rely right across their portfolios.

But hotels should also play to their strengths. A good hotel that attracts repeat custom does so because visitors know exactly what the rooms and the service and the restaurant are like. Not everyone wants an adventure – for many, one of the strengths of a hotel is its familiarity and reliability.  A safety net, if you will.  A hotel brand that finds the magic formula that allows them to provide all these things to all different travellers would be a wondrous thing indeed.  (Why do you suppose all the brand houses keep pumping out new brands?)

That colleague I mentioned who’d driven halfway across France in the rain for a rendezvous with his homestay contact at the start of a memorable holiday says he’d do something similar again, without a second thought. But would he do it for a business trip with a next-day presentation to prepare for? “Not a chance. Would I want to do it on a wedding anniversary trip with the other half? Probably not – the ease, simplicity and convenience of having everything done for us in a nice hotel, while leaving us to go and enjoy the area, would probably trump the advantages of Airbnb.”

It’s horses for courses, and both have their attractions.

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