COVID-19 has potentially changed everything—ushering in the possibility for brands to disrupt the disruptors.
Predictable and boring amenities and designs shared by brands ushered in independent boutique hotels, allowing for unique experiences and celebrations of local culture and art. High costs ushered in Airbnb, allowing travelers in the millennial generation access to neighborhoods and travel that they never had access to previously. Now with demand at historic lows and health and hygiene being the ultimate goal, brands are uniquely positioned to put a large number of these competitors out of business.
A lot has happened since the tides shifted away from brands with their investment in new flags, design, technology and management philosophy that answer the needs of a changing consumer. Independent hotels have continued to stay relevant and Airbnb has continued its market growth unchecked.
With a global pandemic, the tide has changed. I’m sure you’ve heard that in cities across the country, Airbnb units have been listed for sale. Owners not able to make the payments on them while empty has forced these small business owners to exit completely while the real estate market can still support it.
This COULD be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Brands are rolling out standard operating procedures worldwide, giving predictability and confidence back to its guests. As independent hotels and individual unit owners consider keyless entry, digital check-in is part of the global app experience at most of the larger brands. Heightened communication, more lenient cancellation policies, universal collateral communicating heightened cleaning procedures to guests are giving consumers of big branded hotels the confidence they need to keep coming back. A safe, well-thought-out and executed cleaning experience awaits them at the next hotel they visit.
With a mixed response from different Airbnbs and unclear rules at independent hotels, it isn’t clear for guests what the experience will be or if the hotel has made any changes whatsoever. This gives the branded hotels a massive lead in the consideration phase for the next stay, especially on last-minute and corporate transient business. Its easily conceivable for large companies to mandate a certain brand to protect its employees from the potential dangers of COVID-19.
Since Airbnb took flight, brands left reeling have been slowly building their technology stacks. They’re working with major players to develop fully integrated experiential technology with serious analytics on the back end to improve their offering to hotel owners and developers. This investment was likely outmatched by Airbnb, but independent hotels continue to struggle to keep pace with technology as more and more partners come into play and its PMS systems and GDS connectivity partners restrict disruption. As brands were quietly building their platforms, independent hotels were hoping to find stardom on social media platforms, only for the vast majority to fall flat or become a source of embarrassment having posts from several months prior or even years.
While most independent hotels hope to be able to send automated emails and the occasional promotional email, branded hotels have created a platform that recognizes guests from email, to their app, to logging in on the computer and calling their help desk. Accomplishing this is not overly costly, but it is time-consuming and offers limited return on investment for standalone properties.
Ease of booking
Brands have made detailed agreements with online travel agencies like Expedia that stop OTAs from changing their prices. Pricing is consistent across websites, and the benefit of booking direct is clear, as consumers can earn loyalty points and rewards.
Independent hotels continue to be bullied by OTAs, changing prices without consent, offering rates well below direct booking rates if users login and the ease of accruing loyalty at any hotel in the world.
Airbnb offers a terrifying number of options and choices that make deciding on an option, dizzying. Their ideal traveler has enough time to digest all of the options, read through all of the reviews, decide if they think short-term rentals are even allowed in the building they’ll be visiting before clicking on the “book now” button. It’s simply easier to live in a branded box and find the flag that you like closest to the area you want to be in.
Brands have been looking to meet the appetite of consumers seeking experiences through the creation of new and exciting brands as well as creating collections of hotels that are allowed to be special and unique. The creation of Autograph Collection by Marriott and Curio Collection by Hilton, for example, are pinnacles in the industry for boutique flavor with branded benefits.
Many of these hotels were developed by brand hotel investment groups who don’t necessarily understand why these hotels are special and particularly have difficulty in delivering in those special “surprise and delight” moments. They lack the branding thought leadership required for those properties, so therefore independents still maintain an edge in curating a truly unique stay. As they seek better partnerships for those future properties and learn how to better support them, experience leaves the last bastion for independent hotels and Airbnb to truly stand apart from their branded counterparts.
If brands are offering incredible technology, a reliably safe experience, ease of booking with digital check-in and continue to improve their execution of special and unique experiences, they will be on their path to taking market share away from both Airbnb and independent hotels worldwide.