What is hospitality? How do you define it, and more importantly, how do you deliver it?
Those are two questions at the heart of the multi-billion-dollar hospitality industry as a whole, and two questions Chip Conley has tried to answer in his work at Airbnb.
“In the three-and-a-half years I’ve been there, I’ve been trying to define hospitality for our company,” he said on stage at the Skift Global Forum in New York City. He later noted, “When I arrived [at Airbnb], they didn’t have hospitality standards.”
Crediting famed restauranteur Danny Meyer, Conley said, “Service is defined as a technique that’s offered, usually from a manual. It’s from the head. Hospitality is something that gives the person who receives it a feeling, and it usually comes from the heart. It’s generosity of spirit that comes from the heart. It’s an open heart approach to the service as you welcome people into your homes.”
As head of global hospitality and strategy for Airbnb and as a boutique hotelier (he founded Joie de Vivre Hotels and still owns 14 hotels), Conley is transforming how the $30-billion tech platform approaches hospitality, primarily by adapting what he’s learned as a hotelier.
And here’s the thing: As reluctant both the hotel industry and Airbnb might be to acknowledge each other’s similarities, their shared roots in hospitality can’t be denied.
“I just think, as a boutique hotelier, Airbnb is just a logical global extension of what the boutique hotel was,” he said. As Airbnb continues to grow, it has to “get better at the standard set — how you deliver something.”
Conley acknowledged that as Airbnb grows, it must, in its own way, adhere to standards of service and hospitality. But there’s one difference, he said. “I don’t think boutique hotels or Airbnb can ever be as consistent as chain hotels. I think we try to create dependability.”
Hospitality Through Trust and the Five Senses
So how does Airbnb deliver “dependability” and how can hotels cultivate it as well?
Conley said that he advises Airbnb hosts to think about the accuracy of their listings — whether or not the listings match people’s experiences. He said he has hosts to list three things people love about the listing and two things people don’t love about it within the first two paragraphs in their listing description.
“Being that specific and candid, that whole transparency creates trust,” he said. “At the end of the day, Airbnb is a platform of trust.”
By contrast, there are things hotels can teach Airbnb, too. Conley also noted he tells Airbnb hosts to try to come up with at least five adjectives that describe their listings, as well as to think about stimulating guests’ five senses, both ideas he implements at his own hotels.
“The personality of the hotel should feel like your perfect habitat,” he explained. “Make sure the amenities, services, and décor fit that. Within five minutes of checking into the hotel, we think about how your five senses are stimulated in a positive way.”
“We are literally teaching that technique to 1.5 million hosts,” he said. “How do you take the idea of democratizing hospitality and allow your hosts to take it up a notch and deliver an experience that’s maybe even better than what you’d get in a fine hotel?”
The Feedback Loop
Being up front and transparent to guests about what they can expect and delivering that message is just one part of crating trust and delivering hospitality.
The other part, Conley said, involves the feedback loop. “Generally speaking, our hotel guests, they don’t give us direct feedback,” he said. “Maybe only 2 to 10 percent give us feedback and that goes to general headquarters and maybe the staff sees it, but it’s never personalized. How does the front desk hotel clerk know what impact they have on the guests?”
By contrast, 70 to 75 percent of Airbnb hosts and guests review one another within 14 days and the Airbnb guest satisfaction survey, based on a net promoter score used by the hotel industry, is 50 percent higher than the hotel industry. “It’s almost like instantaneous feedback so the person who can make the difference knows,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why Airbnb continues to grow.”
Knowing How to Use Data
Knowing how to communicate with guests, whether directly or indirectly, as well as gathering their feedback leads to the crux of what will define true hospitality going forward: how to use data.
Earlier at the Skift Global Forum, former Starwood CEO Frits van Paasschen had a similar message for the hospitality industry: it’s not necessarily how much data you have but what kind of data it is and how you use it.
Conley spoke about the emergence, 25 years ago, of the revenue manager and how “it was sort of curious to us old school hotel people.” Today, he said, the revenue manager of yesteryear is the data scientist.
“Where hotels are way behind is data science,” Conley said. “Data scientists represent what revenue managers represented 25 years ago. If you have a lot of data scientists, you’re both able to find the right customer for you. This is a huge differentiator in the long term: personalization and customization.” Later, he added, “We need to get really smart around data science. It helps us personalize choices.”
Conley’s observations around data science speak to larger projects that Airbnb is currently working on, especially as it prepares the debut of its upcoming Airbnb Trips app, and as it continually refines its platform to match the right hosts/listings with the right guests. Airbnb’s “Business Travel Ready” are another example of how the platform is enabling guests to find the right listings that meet their specific needs.
He hinted that the company will reveal more of its work in helping “people make more connections” at the company’s annual conference for hosts, the Airbnb Open, taking place in November in Los Angeles.
All the data available won’t necessarily help a hotel deliver authenticity, however. “You can’t manufacture authenticity. You can’t franchise it either. Our hosts are delivering authenticity,” Conley said.
What About Technology?
Is technology an enabler of great hospitality or a roadblock to it? Conley said he thinks it can be both especially when you consider the preponderance of apps, tech features, and digital investments that both Airbnb and hotels are making.
“My gut-level reaction is, this is the hospitality business,” he said. “If your concierge is an app, if your front desk doesn’t exist because you check in on phone, if your maid is a robot, if your guide is Oculus Rift, we’ve created a no human connection hospitality experience,” he said.
“Great technology enhances human connections as opposed to the opposite. I don’t think hospitality is on the right path in terms of gadgets.”
He added, however, “On the other side, things that help create more efficient experiences that do not replace the ability to have communication are great ideas. I do think some of those are good ideas.”
One tech solution he thinks that would be especially welcome for Airbnb? Digital locks.
What Airbnb Can Learn from Hotels
“We [Airbnb] can learn the efficient delivery of service on a consistent basis,” Conley said. “The hotel industry has built itself on that. It has done a great job of teaching us that.”
Can Hotels and Airbnb Learn to Work Together?
Conley certainly thinks so.
He said that The Standard and Bunkhouse hotels were his “favorite hotel group right now” and added, “We’re not here to replace that.”
He even suggested, “Maybe, over time, there can be a time for Airbnb to collaborate more with hotels.” (Although not as another distribution channel for them.) Conley noted the example of Room Mate Hotels’ Be Mate properties, which are homes located near Room Mate properties. Guests who stay at Be Mate listings can have access to the public spaces and some of the services that the hotels provide.” A similar partnership was piloted by Hyatt and onefinestay in 2015.
And although Airbnb is often thought of as a disruptor or even a threat to hotels, Conley said it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Just as timeshares and boutique hotels disrupted the hotel industry when they emerged, so too has Airbnb.
“These were all typically started by someone outside of the industry by a pioneer or series of pioneers,” he said. “At first, the industry ignored it, ridiculed it, or sometimes fought it. Over time, when people realized there was an unmet need that disruption was addressing, all of a sudden, the big brands jumped on the bandwagon … It’s a long-term trend that meets an unmet need.”
That’s why Ian Schrager, one of the pioneers of the boutique hotel movement, now works for Marriott. It’s why InterContinental Hotels Group bought Kimpton. It’s why nearly every big brand is involved in the timeshare business.
The only difference today, compared to the past? This time, the hotels might not be able to buy the disruptor as they have before.
“Airbnb’s value is to a level, now, where I don’t think they can buy us,” Conley said.