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The short-term rental and outdoor sectors are having their defining moments. As airlines and hotels battle government restrictions and, in some cases, unimaginable losses, Skift switched its attention to the highly fragmented but important industries over two days with a dedicated summit.
Coinciding with the Airbnb IPO, the short-term rental behemoth could have dominated discussions. But rather than casting a shadow over the summit, what turned out to be a record-breaking listing is rather a reminder of how crucial tourism will be to people, and governments, in the years of healing ahead.
Respect Your Elders — And Let’s Work Together
Part of Airbnb’s success was down to some sage advice. Chip Conley, its strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership, shared his take on life at the startup in its early days at the summit.
Hotel trade groups didn’t like what they saw as an unregulated competitor seizing market share, Conley recollected. So leaders of some of the world’s largest hotel companies were brought in for open discussions.
“Part of the reason we did this is you can’t hate up close — that was one of our premises,” said Conley, who founded the Modern Elder Company, added. “We will be perceived as the bad guy, but what we wanted to do is share information with these companies.”
Covid-19 has also softened some of the hostilities between cities and short-term rental players. Experts speaking during the “Regulating the Short-Term Rental Economy: What’s Working and What’s Not” panel expressed hope for crafting short-term regulations that work for all involved: the city, the public sector, the tourism industry, and communities.
The lesson to be learned? Collaboration is more important than ever before for these two sectors to grow sustainably
Spend, Spend, Spend
Speakers were keen to point out that the outdoor sector isn’t a pandemic one-night stand. Business did (relatively) well during lockdowns for many players, and for many reasons: there’s less risk of catching Covid-19 in the big wide open, more scope to meet family and friends, and most hotels were closed anyway.
But it stands to blossom into a long-term relationship. Take a look at the below slide by Jessica Turner, executive director of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, during her “Mapping the Outdoor Recreation Landscape and the Opportunities Ahead” presentation at the summit.
Those record numbers of purchases of things like RVs, boats, bikes, fishing equipment can translate into years of use, she said.
Taking it a step further, all those shiny new RVs will navigate their way into a larger ecosystem. With a peer-to-peer marketplace, RVShare allows owners to rent their vehicles out. Its CEO, Jon Gray, said a similar thing happened around 2005 when the recession prompted people to buy smaller properties they could holiday in themselves in the future and rent out in the long term.
The same could happen with RVs, he said, and they’re an attractive proposition because owners can drive them directly to campgrounds and set them up for renters. And over time, renting them out soon covers the cost of buying them.
RVs also make attractive mobile offices — but campground owners need to make sure their Wi-Fi is up to scratch. It used to be about getting off the grid, but that won’t apply to the upcoming work-from-anywhere generation.
Turner also pointed to benefits like health awareness (think of all that vitamin D), while the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act on July 22 bodes well for ongoing, and serious, promotion of the sector.
The Overtourism Threat Hasn’t Gone Away, it Just Looks Different
Don’t be fooled by those serene images of Venice’s deserted canals and reports of fish returning to cleaner waters. The tourists have gone, and things may stay quiet for some time, but there’s a risk some destinations will cause damage in a rush to claw back business.
G Adventures‘ founder highlighted it’s not just the hordes crowding around iconic landmarks or attractions; overtourism can mean even small groups impacting an environment.
“Overtourism is a buzzword, and it implies a mass amount of tourists who want to see some of the most iconic places in the world,” said Bruce Poon Tip. “But it’s a much deeper issue, overtourism.”
Overtourism could also threaten desert ecosystems and expose sacred Indigenous sites to inadvertent (in most cases) damage, a trio of experts discussed on Thursday. Education, and co-management, where a site is overseen both by the federal and tribal government, need to be explored.
The takeaway: don’t rebuild to just the way things were at the end of 2019.
Aggregation of the Great Outdoors Starts Now
How do we take the inherently offline and physical experience of the outdoors online? Several speakers explored the tension between helping people escape from their glowing screens while at the same time using digital tech to make experiences more accessible.
Hipcamp was in many respects the most consequential company represented on Thursday that related to this theme. Some people try to tag Hipcamp as an “Expedia for camping,” but it does much more than take offline camping listing online.
The startup aims to “create parks”, with teams chasing landowners, such as ranchers and vintners, to persuade them to make their property available to campers for the first time, said founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio. Her teams also run workshops on how to provide positive experiences. They also build digital tools to guide guests in being good stewards of the lands they visit, such as with practices to prevent accidental wildfires.
Other parts of the outdoors are coming online and getting professionalized, too. Private equity firms and other investors are exploring different potential investments in the sector, said Matt Gaghen, CEO of Under Canvas, which is backed by KSL Capital.
Gray from RVShare, which announced a $100 million funding round in October, said he expected more professionalization of the segment’s marketing and aggregation.
The supply is diversifying, too.
“As more people get outdoors, they’re going to try to pair it with interests they pursue elsewhere,” said JamieRose Briones of resort developer Luxury Frontiers. Briones cited a potential market for outings themed around kite surfing, gardening, and gastronomy.
This Pandemic has Exposed New Traveler Profiles and Markets to Serve
The severity of the crisis took many people by surprise. It also swept away preconceptions of what typical customers look like.
The short-term rental sector, in particular, supported a diverse range of customers during the pandemic, most notably supporting frontline health workers. They even stayed in RVs outside their own homes to avoid spreading the virus to their families.
Looking further ahead and past the work-from-anywhere generation, “the spectrum has gotten a lot richer,” according to Sanjay Banker of Sonder. “Perhaps they were always there; the pandemic just opened our eyes … we found all these new use cases, and they aren’t going away,,” he said.
Travelers will also want to see more, in light of recent social movements. In 2015, only 40 percent of new campers in the U.S. were non-white, while that percentage rose to 50 percent by 2019, said Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Early signs point to the trend continuing.
Better marketing may be helping to diversify the outdoor audience. Many content marketers have become more conscious about including different traveler types when they create and distribute their articles and videos about outdoor experiences, said Curtis Kopf, the chief digital officer at REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.). REI is North America’s second-largest publisher of outdoor-related content after National Geographic.
Len Necefer, the founder of NativesOutdoors, said he had helped to create videos of him and others skiing. Booking site Hipcamp introduced last month an overlay of data that lets people booking campsites see the campsites mapped against Indigenous territories.
During the “Why Cities and Business Travel Are Still Viable Markets” panel, another urban-orientated provider of short-term rentals dispelled the myth that longer stays will be limited to nature parks or rural retreats. Even now, in Latin America, Casai co-founder Maricarmen Herrerias said properties were hovering around the 80 percent occupancy mark.
People have also enjoyed the amenities of cities for thousands of years, Banker noted.
The moral here is that the pandemic has shaken up the typical traveler profile. The onus is now on companies in these sectors to set their brands apart by building great products and building trust.
—Additional reporting by Senior Travel Tech Editor Sean O’Neill