Skift Take

The big question on everyone's mind is what will happen if and when the market takes another downturn. And if it does, who will have the upper hand? Airbnb? The online travel agencies? Or the hotels?

In just eight years, San Francisco-based Airbnb has made much more than a name for itself.

Now valued at an estimated $25.5 billion and growing every day in terms of its inventory and global reach, it’s on the minds of both hoteliers and online travel agencies, and respective investors.

While there’s been plenty of debate about whether or not Airbnb is having a negative impact on the hotel industry, there hasn’t been nearly as much conversation about whether or not Airbnb is impacting online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia or, even though the platform arguably shares many similarities to those sites in terms of its use as a distribution channel. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Airbnb will become the next great hotel distribution channel.

A new report from 7Park Data, a mobile app data miner, examined Airbnb’s impact on OTAs by capturing mobile app usage across 2 million mobile devices in more than 75 countries around the world. It also identified some 200,000 frequent travelers in the U.S., looking at Airbnb users (those who used Airbnb in the last half of 2014), OTA loyalists (those who did not use Airbnb by that time), and travelers who use both OTAs and Airbnb.

What 7Park Data found is that although Airbnb is definitely growing by leaps and bounds, it’s actually having a minimal impact on OTAs. Essentially, Airbnb spending consists mostly of incremental travel spend, suggesting that Airbnb is allowing these frequent travelers to take trips they might not have otherwise.

In 2015, Airbnb users spent 2% less on OTAs compared to other frequent travelers and per capita OTA spending among Airbnb users was 4% lower in the first quarter of 2016 compared to other travelers. Among Airbnb users, total travel spend is roughly 100% higher, too.

The 7Park Data report, “The Growth of Airbnb and Its Impact on the Online Travel Industry,” supports findings from a report released by PiperJaffray earlier this year. That report estimated that Airbnb’s adverse impact on hotel bookings made through OTAs will be only 5.3%, or 90 basis points per year, from 2016 to 2020.

“People who spend on Airbnb subsequently spend more on Airbnb; if you take a vacation on Airbnb this year, you are pretty likely to take another Airbnb vacation in the next year,” said Byrne Hobart, lead Internet analyst for 7Park Data. “But this doesn’t mean you’re likely to stop using or decrease your usage of a traditional OTA.”

Airbnb’s Potential Impact on Hotels

Likewise, for now, the same may hold true for Airbnb’s impact on hotels. 7Park Data’s analysis of Airbnb’s impact on OTAs seems to parallel a finding from a February Goldman Sachs survey that compared consumers’ preferences for Airbnb and hotels. The Goldman Sachs study found that, of consumers who’ve stayed in peer-to-peer lodging within the last five years, 36% prefer peer-to-peer lodgings, 40% prefer hotels, and 24% have no preference between the two.

While news reports of this survey seemed to suggest that once someone stays in an Airbnb, they prefer Airbnb over hotels, more consumers still preferred hotels over peer-to-peer lodgings, or had no preference. So just because someone has stayed in an Airbnb or similar short-term rental, doesn’t mean they are likely to stop staying in a hotel, or decrease their number of hotel stays.

A CBRE Hotels report looked at Airbnb’s impact on the lodging industry and found that Airbnb’s impact varies from city to city. In some cities like New York, for example, there is one Airbnb listing for every five hotel rooms, although the unit growth of Airbnb in the city seems to be slowing. The report also showed that Airbnb can be more adaptive and responsive to demand — opening up more supply during major events and holidays. Outside of top markets like New York, however, the report said, “it appears that Airbnb is having a minimal impact … there are only 15 markets where Airbnb generates more than 2% or more of hotel revenue.”

Likewise, a new study from the Pew Research Center suggests that the majority of Americans (89%) have never used sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, or VRBO, suggesting there’s still more growth potential left for Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms to get more market share.

What About Airbnb’s Ability to Scale?

Although Airbnb doesn’t seem to be adversely impacting hotels or OTAs at the moment, the big question is whether or not Airbnb’s growth and scale eventually will enable it to do just that. In April, for instance, analysts from Cowen Group, Inc. predicted a billion room nights per year in Airbnb’s future by 2025.

In North America, Airbnb is expanding rapidly, and outpacing the growth of both hotels and its competitor, HomeAway. 7Park Data noted that since 2015, Airbnb has added 229,000 rooms, while hotel inventory added 139,000 rooms in the same period, and HomeAway added 39,000. Of the 6.4 million rooms available in North America, hotels represent 87% of the inventory, but only 34% of inventory growth.

7Park Data also found that while the number of Airbnb bookings continues to grow, year over year, the rate of that growth is slowing a bit, most likely because of “challenges associated with maintaining incredibly high growth rates.”

The number of monthly active users using Airbnb’s app from the fourth quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2016 has also doubled, and while it’s not the No. 1 most used travel app (TripAdvisor is), its growth is increasing in the U.Ss., European Union, and Asia.

What Will Happen If the Current Hotel Cycle Goes Down?

This year has already shown signs that the hotel market may be slowing and eventually on its way into a down cycle. CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research found that U.S. hotel revenue growth is slowing, while expenses are rising.

“After five years of strong increases in occupancy, average daily rate, and profits, U.S. hotels reached the top of the current business cycle in 2015,” said R. Mark Woodworth, senior managing director of CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research, in a statement. Woodworth noted that total operating revenues grew just 5.3% from 2014 to 2015 and there was a 4.7% increase in expenses, with just 0.1% inflation.”

“The reality, we believe, is that the industry is going to persist at this vey high level for a protracted period of time unlike what we’ve seen except maybe in the mid-’90s, Woodworth said. “We had all-time high occupancy levels in 2015. Supply and demand will grow pretty much in lock step over the next few years so occupancy stays at a high level.”

Still, if the numbers continue to trend downward in this manner over the next few years, will that give Airbnb an advantage over hotels and the OTAs that sell room nights in those hotels? 7Park Data’s analysis seems to suggest, yes.

“Look at Airbnb’s growth during the Great Recession,” said Hobart. “People who lost their jobs realized they needed another source of income and for some, Airbnb became a source of income for them. That’s less of an issue now, but in the event of another recession, you would have similar supply-side shock. Airbnb gets a bump in inventory whenever there’s a macroshock to the economy.”

He adds, “Airbnb isn’t adverse to cutting their costs because they still make incremental amounts of money from both the hosts and guests. Hotels want to avoid cutting rates. This creates this interesting possibility that even if Airbnb is accretive to travel now, it would be cannibalistic if the market starting shrinking. Airbnb is a fully digital model and the agreements they have are with sole proprietors. With OTAs, they have agreements with hotels. Airbnb has more agility and a more flexible balance sheet than anyone else.”

While Hobart believes hotels will respond to this shift by focusing more on business travelers and meetings business, he thinks OTAs may fare better because of their scale, the fact that they are already building up their vacation rental inventory, and their master of search advertising. “Even though they have less agility overall, they will be able to confirm things faster.”

If anything, 7Park Data’s report, along with others, shows one thing: Airbnb is here to stay. Still, who’s to say the company won’t change its business model to adapt to any major economic changes going forward? Or that the OTAs and hotels won’t either?

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Tags: airbnb, otas

Photo credit: A new report looks at Airbnb's rapid growth and potential impact on online travel agencies. Airbnb / Airbnb

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