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How the sharing economy is bettering the travel and hospitality customer experience

In a very short time, the sharing economy has changed how customers rent office space, find parking, ride bikes and book travel accommodations.

Companies like Airbnb and Lyft have served as disrupters to “traditional” travel and hospitality options like hotels and car-rental agencies, with newspaper headlines often pitting them against each other as if it were a death match. The truth is, however, that it’s actually an opportunity for both to learn from one another, all in the name of better customer experience.

Changing customer needs

Sharing economy companies have been quick to tune into the evolving needs of customers. More and more consumers are looking for sustainability, ease of use, cost effectiveness, and perhaps the most sought after feature: unique, personalized and authentic experiences.

Take Turo, for example. The San Francisco-based peer-to-peer car-sharing company allows customers to rent any car they want, from a Nissan hatchback to a Lamborghini. The car owners often deliver the vehicle themselves and can share suggestions for driving routes and stops along the way. “The typical, traditional car-rental experience is much more cookie-cutter,” says Trevor Humphrey, a director of customer support at Turo. “This is much more personal.”

It’s similar to how Airbnb upended travel accommodations by allowing guests not just to live like locals, but to choose temporary homes that reflect the distinct experience they want. Airbnb has recently taken this one step further through the recently launched Airbnb Experiences, a service which turns regular people into tour guides.

Speed of service

In today’s on-demand world, customers want authentic experiences and they want them now. “It’s the speed that counts more with the digitalization of the exchange and the relation with the customer,” says Marco Viviani, public relations director of Communauto, a Montreal-based car-sharing company. Since Cammunauto’s inception in 1994, the world’s relationship with computers has evolved dramatically, and companies have had to evolve with the boom in digital tools. Keyless unlocking, integration with multiple transport apps and one-way car-sharing are some of the ways Communauto has modernized its service.

With new types of sharing economy companies entering the scene almost daily, companies like Communauto and ZipCar aren’t just competing against car ownership anymore, but also a wider array of car-sharing options. Someone who wants to do an IKEA run may use a ZipCar, while opting for an Uber or Lyft to bring their cat to the vet. The ease of use and on-demand nature of the latter services have transformed customer expectations of what a good service should deliver, and all travel and hospitality companies must keep pace, or risk being left behind.

Adapting to the sharing economy

Traditional travel and hospitality companies have taken learnings from the sharing economy and started applying them to their own approach to personalization and digitalization. “If you look at how hotels are combating [the sharing economy], they are trying to bring the local experience into their hotels,” says James Geneau, the director of marketing at Benbria, a hospitality engagement app that enables guests to quickly communicate with hotel staff.

Geneau points to how hotels, for example, localize their restaurants with beers on tap from nearby breweries. He also notes how major hotel chains are introducing “sub-chains,” like Hyatt’s Unbound Collection or Marriott’s Autograph Collection, which try and create their own individual identity and branding. “All of those are about keeping the unique experience in each location and not creating uniformity across all their properties,” adds Geneau.

Susie Grynol, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, says that desire to create unique experiences also drills down to the smaller aspects of a customer’s stay. “The range and quality of amenities continues to improve. Each stay becomes more personalized, from pillow preference to express check out, as hotels seek to understand what’s important to a guest,” she says.

What the sharing economy can learn

While traditional travel and hospitality companies are learning from, and adapting to, their disrupters, there is an opportunity for sharing economy companies to do the same. “One of the learning curves for the sharing economy is, how do you manage a bad experience properly? How do you respond other than simply giving them a refund?” asks Geneau. “[Hotels] have had the equipment and the skill set to manage those bad experiences quickly, and to resolve them to the guests’ satisfaction, a lot longer.”

The sharing economy would do well to consider how to use its service models to help customers in a similar way. Companies seeking to merge the Airbnb-type experience with hotel-level service are starting to pop up. For example, Sonder is a vacation property rental start-up which hires a local concierge to attend to guests’ on-location needs. This kind of concierge service helps to professionalize the sharing economy and speed up customer support.

The customer wins

The long-term success of sharing-economy companies doesn’t mean the failure of more traditional companies. Rather, the relationship between disrupter and disrupted can be far more symbiotic in nature, with each group learning from the other — in turn upping the overall customer experience.

“What both entities are doing in different ways is offering a guest experience that is tailored to the needs of that specific voyage,” says Grynol. “The lesson is that all businesses, hotels included, need to be laser-focused on continuous improvements, with the guest experience at the center, in order to thrive in a competitive market.”

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