The Airbnb revolution, fueled by the power of the internet to allow owners of private accommodation to connect directly with guests, is reaching a fascinating tipping point.
There are now more nights available to let through Airbnb than there are through any of the world’s biggest hotel chains – and that number looks certain to increase. In December 2015, Airbnb had a million rooms available, while the world’s largest hotel groups (Marriott, IHG and Hilton) all had 700,000 rooms each in their respective portfolios.
As part of its Travel Brilliantly campaign, Marriott has been experimenting with the concept of virtual travel. It first created an elaborate setup involving the Oculus Rift, and it recently introduced a streamlined version using Samsung’s Gear VR. Virtual reality not only lets armchair travelers explore faraway destinations, but also instill wanderlust to book actual travel (and, in Marriott’s case, hopefully a stay at one of its properties).
Virtual tours “can help you make better travel decisions,” not just the feeling of being somewhere else, says Michael Dail, Marriott Hotels’ vice president for Global Brand Marketing. Virtual travel is no different than navigating around the world via Google Earth and Google Maps, but VR offers a more immersive experience. VR is expected to take off in 2016 and beyond, and as hardware gets cheaper and the resolution gets better, we expect Marriott and others in the travel industry to continue to push this technology from hokey to, well, reality.
However, Airbnb still isn’t getting as many bookings as the hotel chains. A Barclays report last year suggests that it is providing about 37 million room-nights per year, compared with IHG’s 177 million. But the gap is closing fast and Airbnb is becoming part of the mainstream. American Express even offers Airbnb vouchers which its customers can buy with their reward points. Hotels have been slow to respond, but 2016 will see widespread transformation in the sector. Marriott announced last month that it sees expansion as part of the answer. It is stepping up to the Airbnb challenge by increasing its offer to one million rooms by the end of 2016.
Hotel groups are also innovating with more convenience technology, introducing check-in on mobile phones, for example – something that Airbnb owners might find it harder to do. And Hilton Worldwide trialed a system last summer allowing its loyalty card members to access their rooms by means of a digital key on their mobile phones. It is now available at more than 95 Hilton properties in the United States, and may be rolled out to all Hilton hotels later this year.
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