Once again it is consumer behavior that is driving change in online travel -- this time for vacation rental bookings and instantly confirmable online bookings. OK, Expedia's acquisition of HomeAway and Airbnb's goal to curb racism on its platform are also pushing things in the instantly bookable direction. When companies are sluggish in adapting to consumer trends, as HomeAway was to a certain extent in its standalone incarnation, they suffer.
The tide seems to be shifting in the vacation-rental arena as instantly confirmable bookings — as opposed to giving owners or property managers 24 hours or more to decide — is finally gaining momentum.
That’s the view of Michael Endelman, who heads Airbnb’s vacation rental efforts in North America, and others, about the burgeoning instant booking trend in vacation rentals.
“Instant booking has not been as tough a sell for us as it once was,” says Endelman, who says Airbnb is making it a priority to increase its current roster of 500,000 vacation rental listings out of some 2 million listings overall.
It used to be that instantly confirmable bookings was a key differentiator among major vacation rental players: Airbnb was doing it and the Priceline Group’s Booking.com unit insisted upon it while HomeAway and its brands and others countered that vacation rentals are different than hotels and owners want the time to vet prospective guests before accepting bookings and welcoming strangers into their homes.
There are a several factors bolstering the instantly confirmable bookings trend: Online consumers don’t want to be bothered with an inordinate wait; online travel giant Expedia acquired HomeAway, and Airbnb has set a goal to have 1 million instantly bookable listings, driven by its efforts to combat racism on its platform and its overall DNA, by January 2017.
When Guests Search for Instantly Bookable Properties
Both Airbnb and HomeAway have filters to enable users to search for instantly bookable listings, and HomeAway tells Skift that it now has 150,000 instantly bookable vacation rentals out of 1 million-plus listings.
Other online bookable listings on HomeAway, give hosts 24 hours to decide on whether to accept the reservation.
HomeAway’s number of instantly bookable listings will undoubtedly rise in the future as Expedia Inc. is poised to place HomeAway’s and VRBO’s vacation rental supply on Expedia.com and sister company Hotels.com.
It isn’t just among the biggest players where instant booking for vacation rentals is taking hold. T.J. Clark, co-founder and CEO of Turnkey Vacation Rentals, says “more than half of our bookings are instant bookings, which we like and encourage.”
There have been isolated sightings of HomeAway testing the removal of phone numbers from some listings to encourage online bookings, or perhaps their absence was merely a glitch.
Some Owners Still Don’t Like It
While there is no doubt that the instant booking trending is picking up momentum, there are still vehement opponents, especially among some individual owners and smaller property management companies.
“You get a very vocal minority [objecting to instant booking], which gives the sense that everyone is in revolt,” says Andrew McConnell, CEO of Rented.com. “In reality, inertia is a powerful force — people are already tied into the major platforms — and that is where the rental demand is. Plus, consumers prefer it, and they are the real customers after all.”
Laura Puckett, a property manager at Luxury Rentals in Naples, Florida, says she doesn’t see instant booking as a natural change but “it is more that certain flows of bookings are being damned so that the tides are being forced to flow in a desired direction against their will.”
In other words, Puckett, who frequently talks to other vacation rental professionals, says owners and managers have seen a dramatic drop-off in vacation-rental leads from HomeAway since it instituted a booking fee for travelers early in 2016, and many owners turned to generate demand through Airbnb, where instant bookings are emphasized.
“Many are going to Airbnb to fill the gap until a new HomeAway emerges as a clear option,” Puckett says. “They feel that at least Airbnb has been honest about their fees. This may be why Airbnb is seeing a recent surge but I’m not sure it will be sustainable if a new competitor emerges.”
Airbnb has long charged a fee to guests and hosts; HomeAway and TripAdvisor do likewise, and Booking.com, meanwhile, is among the holdouts that do not charge vacation rental guests a booking fee.
Endelman of Airbnb says hosts of apartments and vacation rentals can establishment a number of guest requirements and house rules to vet guests for instant bookings, ranging from insisting on a verified ID, positive reviews, prior Airbnb bookings and limits on smoking and visitors, to engender trust.
As a rule, instantly bookable listings on Airbnb tend to drive greater demand and get attractive placements because consumers want instantly bookable properties.
Vacation Rentals Are an Airbnb Priority
Endelman says Airbnb is making a concerted effort globally to increase its supply of vacation rentals, and the mix of owners versus property managers as hosts varies widely by region.
Airbnb, though, is not currently doing any vacation-rental specific marketing, he says.
There are some differences, including stricter cancellation policies and higher host fees in Airbnb policies regarding vacation rentals versus other property types, Endelman points out.
The more stringent cancellation policies were necessary because some vacation rental destinations, such as Nantucket, Massachusetts, for example, might have short, peak seasons where a cancelled stay could be an overwhelming financial hit for an owner, Endelman says.
Airbnb has numerous vacation rental teams, depending on the destination, working on upping the company’s supply in vacation rentals.
Asked about competitive threats, Endelman is nonchalant, claiming he doesn’t pay much attention to what HomeAway/Expedia, Priceline/Booking.com and TripAdvisor/Flipkey are doing in the vacation rental arena, and he argues that the global demand that Airbnb can generate is among its differentiators.
Booking.com, though, would make a similar argument.
But will the presence of corporate-managed vacation rentals — as opposed to individually owned units — on Airbnb crimp the local experience and interaction with hosts that many Airbnb guests covet?
Endelman says he doesn’t think it will and adds that property managers on Airbnb average only about 10 properties each so there continues to be ample means for host-guest interaction.
What’s clear is that the major alternative-accommodations platforms are changing: They are trending toward enabling instantly confirmable bookings, and these sites are becoming a lot more similar than they are different as their lodging makeup converges.
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Photo credit: Listings for Airbnb, who says instant booking is going mainstream, in the Boulder, Colorado area. Airbnb