Some of the biggest challenges in the convention industry could potentially be less challenging if more conference organizers started incorporating Airbnb into their room blocks.

That was one of the central themes of a panel at the IMEX Frankfurt meetings industry trade show last week, called: “How Can We Work With the Sharing Economy.” During the session, which Skift co-moderated, the audience supplied questions to panel members via a digital participation tool provided by Abbit Meeting Innovation.

Meeting planners have long looked sideways at sharing companies. Our panel was a platform to begin a more comprehensive and nuanced conversation around the value proposition of sharing companies selling group accommodations, venues, transportation, and dining.

First, here are a few of the growing challenges facing conference organizers and convention destinations today. Airbnb has the potential to impact all of these:

  1. The rising cost of meeting venues, hotels, food and beverage, transportation, and travel in general.
  2. Conference owners of voluntary events are unsure how to make their programs seem more necessary and less discretionary to more attendees, especially with the rise of more industry events across every business sector.
  3. Associations are having more and more difficulty attracting younger members due to cost and outdated engagement strategy.
  4. Organizers are tasking convention bureaus more often to help drive higher attendance to conferences.
  5. The meetings industry continually needs to advocate for the value of face-to-face meetings as being greater than the value of virtual meetings on digital platforms.

For IMEX Frankfurt, I paid $61 nightly for five nights in a full apartment Airbnb listing. It’s located in a residential neighborhood near Goethe University and popular restaurants/bars, about a 30-minute walk from the Messe Frankfurt convention center.

Meanwhile, the large hotels around the convention center increase their rates during the week of IMEX Frankfurt due to high compression, with many attendees paying north of $300 nightly.

I probably wouldn’t have attended IMEX Frankfurt if it wasn’t for Airbnb’s rate options. Many of the same exhibitors at IMEX Frankfurt in the spring are at IMEX America in Las Vegas in the fall, so the Germany event is somewhat discretionary. In effect, Airbnb was the deciding factor between the face-to-face and virtual meeting experience.

I wouldn’t have attended South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin in February either, when hotel prices jump exponentially, without the availability of a room-sharing platform like Airbnb.

Therefore, IMEX, SXSW and other innovative business events are enjoying increasing attendance because of Airbnb, even if only incrementally for now.

Meaning, the sharing economy is helping drive the knowledge economy.

Driving Attendance

I also discussed at IMEX how some destination marketing bureaus, which are based in cities that have negotiated bed tax payments with Airbnb, are developing content programs with the room-sharing company.

San Francisco Travel, for example, hosts the The Airbnb San Francisco Local List. The content was crowdsourced from Airbnb hosts, who recommended their favorite local restaurants and bars. This is smart on multiple fronts. It increases visitation and economic impact into communities without a significant hotel inventory. For the traveler, it opens up a destination to new discoveries and experiences verified by the people who know them best.

Revisiting the five meetings industry challenges above, here’s how the sharing economy is impacting each one of them:

  1. Peer-to-peer room listings can significantly lower the cost of meetings for attendees, although it’s important to note that room-sharing companies cater to all budgets.
  2. The room-sharing economy can shift a delegate’s decision to attend a live meeting that they might have deemed non-essential previously due to budget considerations.
  3. If associations promote peer-to-peer room listings to younger members, as well as older, it’s a way for organizations to appear more relevant with current travel trends, especially relating to the rise in demand for more localized travel.
  4. Convention bureaus — but only those in cities where room-sharing companies pay into the local bed tax — can develop content programs with those companies to help drive increased attendance at conferences. An Airbnb neighborhood guide fits well in a conference swag bag.
  5. Peer-to-peer room listings drive more face-to-face meetings, among younger people especially, due to more conference attendance based on lower overall pricing. That’s how planners should position room-sharing platforms to their audience. Midway through interviewing Don Welsh, CEO of Destination Marketing Association International, at IMEX Frankfurt, I told him, “We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it wasn’t for Airbnb.”

IMEX Audience Questions About Airbnb

Abbit supplied Skift with a list of questions and comments provided by the audience during our IMEX sharing economy panel. Here are some of those, relating to both Airbnb specifically and the sharing economy in general, followed by additional commentary from Skift.

Regulations, Risk & Insurance: There were a lot of questions about regulations and insurance concerns, which apply more to planners working in the corporate market.

One audience member wrote, “Working for a pharmaceutical company. We would never use it.”

Others said:

  • “Insurance is an important aspect for corporates. Makes it more safe.”
  • “Very important that it is insured for a meeting planner, especially for corporate travel.”
  • “I can’t ask for a health and safety evacuation plan in someone’s home.”

Airbnb launched its Business Travel Ready initiative last year to counter some of those concerns. However, while all sharing companies offer different levels of insurance, it’s safe to say that many companies won’t even look at room-sharing options for employees due to extensive duty-of-care, regulatory, and insurance requirements, at least in the near future.

For groups with more manageable liability issues, one audience member offered this suggestion: “We need more testimonial cases. Once you have the management board booking, you’ll see adoption across the whole company.”

Another added, “Clients don’t yet have enough information to make a judgement.”

This attendee adopted a surprisingly complacent tone, suggesting, “The use, or lack of use, of the sharing economy is a question of habit. It can be easier to book a hotel, you know what you’re getting.”

Trust & Safety: Several people commented on security fears associated with the room-sharing experience, especially for single female travelers.

“Personal safety is an issue for women with Airbnb,” wrote one audience member. “Airbnb recommendations mean a lot for women travelers, knowing that they’re safe,” said another. One simply wrote: “Security is a big issue.”

To date, over 70 million people have booked Airbnb. It’s more likely that conference attendees will choose to book a room-sharing company on business after they’ve tried it for personal trips, when they have a certain level of comfort with the experience.

Some planners seem to feel “a natural sense of unreliability or lack of trust. It’s all so new.”

Overall, that “Lack of awareness — too scared to try it” sentiment, as one planner wrote, illustrates the need for more industry education.

Demand is growing, and as the number of people booking peer-to-peer accommodations for leisure travel grows, and more travelers understand the experience, the number of people booking peer-to-peer at conferences will grow.

Perception issues around security seem to be a big hurdle for Airbnb to scale more quickly among mainstream female users, even with the peer-to-peer rating system in place. Like the Business Travel Ready campaign, is there an opportunity for a Female Business Traveler Listings initiative, with specific assurances such as an in-person welcome by the owner?

Logistics, Consistency & User Experience: Exactly how Airbnb works at the most basic level, and why so many people like it, appear to be a question for some meeting planners.

One audience member submitted: “If meeting planners have large groups staying in Airbnbs across a city, the logistics can be tough with people scattered across a wide area.” Someone else wrote: “It’s a challenge to guarantee the standard when booking different Airbnbs for a group.”

Room type consistency is important for some groups, and the big hotel groups are happy to promote that as part of their guest delivery. But one of the main reasons that people book Airbnb is based on the ability to personalize the travel experience. I personally always look for a balcony. Someone else might like a big kitchen or work-out space with natural light.

The consistency question becomes moot when attendees choose their own space on a first-come, first-serve basis among listings incorporated into a room block.

“Can you really compare on a 1-to-1 basis the sharing economy options with traditional options currently available?” asked one member of the audience. That question shows the level of education that the industry has an opportunity to provide for room-sharing to grow in popularity.

Likewise another comment said: “The meetings industry is diverse and fragmented. Will the Sharing Economy unify it?”

It’s going to do just the opposite because this is about an unbundling of meeting design strategy to provide a more personalized meeting and learning experience.

The User Experience: Airbnb is not just for Millennials. The highest growth rate for Airbnb is among Baby Boomers, but misperceptions still exist around that apparently.

One IMEX attendee wrote, “The generation who is making most business decisions is not yet open to this change and trying out new providers.”

A few audience members commented on the perception that room-sharing companies offer a more local connection with people in the destination. One said: “There is the potential to lose the human touch at a hotel. Airbnbs are meant to be friendly, but experience varies.”

Another wrote: “The Sharing Economy only works because it brings the human-to-human connection back.”

Many times guests will never meet the Airbnb hosts face-to-face, which some people prefer, but they will be surrounded by locals at places like the fantastic Vaivai restaurant or Matildas Kitchen cafe in Frankfurt, which you’re typically not going to find close to the convention center hotels.

Photo Credit: This Airbnb apartment listing during IMEX Frankfurt cost $61 per night. Skift