Trade Shows and EventsExecutives from Airbnb, Marriott International, TripAdvisor see ‘enough travel out there for all our customers.’

Travel leaders discuss efforts to expand role in customer travel at World Tourism Conference

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Left to right: TripAdvisor’s Sarah Matthews, Marriott International’s Rajeev Menon, Airbnb’s Brent Thomas, Malaysian Association of Hotels’ Cheah Swee Hee and moderator John Bell.

Marriott and Airbnb don’t just want to provide places for travellers to stay and TripAdvisor wants to be much more than a place for travellers to get tips and reviews for their trips. That was one of the key takeaways explored during a lively panel discussion on the “Sharing Economy – A New Reality?” that was the centrepiece of the second day of the World Tourism Conference, held at Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Gathering executives from brands — and sometime competitors — Marriott, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, as well as the Malaysian Association of Hotels, the event kicked off with a sense of tension.

“We are going to tread on toes this morning,” warned moderator John Bell, a BBC presenter and travel writer, as he welcomed the panelists on stage. “Do you think they’re all friends? I suspect not.”

But while the conversation didn’t shy away from touchy topics around regulation and competition, the speakers largely sought to find common ground and emphasised the opportunities presented by the changing demands of travellers.

“The future of travel is secure for decades to come,” said Rajeev Menon, chief operating officer of Asia Pacific excluding China (APEC), Marriott International, kicking off the conversation on an optimistic note. He described the company’s major new initiatives since merging with Starwood, leveraging new technology to meet demands of more connected travellers — and its efforts to play a growing role in its customer’s travel planning.

“As a company, we launched mobile check-in, mobile chat. Today, before you even show up at the hotel you can order room service and walk straight to the room without seeing the front desk,” he said, citing Marriott’s partnership with Alibaba Group to better serve the Chinese market, setting up a storefront site that allows Chinese customers to pay after their trip through Post Post Pay. It now counts 6M members through the partnership.

He emphasised how Marriott’s loyalty programme, Bonvoy, launched August last year, was designed to go “beyond points” and be centered instead on providing one-of-a-kind experiences. Marriott opened the doors to about 2,000 luxury homes in 100 countries to its customers as part of Homes & Villas by Marriott International.

“My Airbnb friend is going to say, ‘why are you moving into our space?’” joked Mr Menon. “We see lots of our Marriott Bonvoy members travelling around the world and they are travelling sometimes with extended families and want to experience something beyond a hotel guest room or suite.”

That “Airbnb friend” was Brent Thomas, regional policy director for Asia Pacific, Airbnb. And like Mr Menon, he described his company’s ambitions to get a greater mindshare of its customers, to become an “end-to-end travel platform that combines not only where you stay but also what you do and how you get there, all in one place.”

He discussed how over the past decade, the sharing economy has gone “from a niche part of the economy to the mainstream” and is forecast to reach global sharing economy revenues of $335B. Airbnb now boasts 6M listings in 100,000 cities, with 4M people staying at an Airbnb listing on a single night — the service’s biggest night yet — earlier this month. He talked about the company’s acquisition of HotelTonight and, earlier this month, Urbandoor. But as he discussed these ambitions, Mr Thomas struck a conciliatory tone.

“One of the surprises for many about Airbnb is just how closely we are working with hotels and many hospitality providers,” he said. He also discussed the company’s efforts to collaborate more with local governments, pointing to its more than 500 agreements covering everything from tourism promotion to taxation and more.

Cheah Swee Hee, advisor and immediate past president of Malaysian Association of Hotels, also expressed a general optimism about the diversifying landscape of hospitality options brought about by the sharing economy. But he stressed that “there must be line drawn between residences and commercial businesses” and “We have to regulate — some form of regulation.”

Airbnb’s Thomas didn’t disagree, and urged a “sliding scale” in terms of regulation that would reflect the increasingly diverse accommodation options.

“Marriott’s just put homesharing stock on their company — that’s not likely to be regulated the same way their hotels are. We’ve got hotels on our platform that aren’t likely to be regulated the same way a small home is,” said Mr Thomas. “The devil is in the details, but I think conceptually we agree and want to work toward similar ends.”

Greater Role in the Travel-Booking Journey

Sarah Matthews, head of destination marketing for Asia Pacific, TripAdvisor, agreed that the hospitality was far from a zero-sum competition and, “there’s enough travel out there for all our customers to have choices.” But, as with Marriott and Airbnb, the company is looking to be the go-to option for a growing amount of these travel choices, according to her.

Last October, the company launched the new TripAdvisor, with a personal travel feed, social interactions where users can more easily save ideas and plan trips, share stories, and follow others and getting alerts when close to the places you save. Ms Matthews pointed to findings from her company that 49% of travellers say TripAdvisor has inspired them to visit a destination they had not thought of previously. “Technology provides you with that information so you can customise that experience… If you have a consumer who is engaged with you and loves you, they keep coming back.”

She backed up these assertions with findings from recent TripAdvisor research: 71% of users said they read reviews frequently or always before making a decision on where to stay, dine or experience and 88% believe that reading reviews before making a decision is very or fairly important. The fastest-growing experiences cited by respondents were family-friendly travel (which saw 204% growth compared to the year before), classes/workshops (+90%), wellness experiences (+69%), cultural/themed experiences (+65%) and outdoor activities (+56%).

Seeing the expansion and diversification of these brands as they work to serve a more diverse base of travelers seeking a wider range of experiences and accommodations, Mr Menon made the point that “scale matters.”

“For us, when you look at the number of rooms and new hotels we open or Homes & Villas, it offers a convergence,” he said. “It’s not only about creating experience, but loyalty.”

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