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Experiential travel: 5 lessons hotel marketers can learn from Airbnb

People travel differently than they did 20 years ago. They share and consume travel information digitally, and they’re looking for unique experiences. That's why hotel chains are scared. They’re worried that customers will flock to short-term rental site Airbnb and book their stay in someone’s apartment, instead of reserving a room at hotel properties.

The concern is prompting the industry to wage war against the popular website. Hotels are urging cities to file lawsuits against Airbnb for conducting what some say is an illegal business that violates certain real estate laws.

Arguments aside, hotels can take some valuable advice from Airbnb’s success to create the experiences and emotional connections that travelers crave.

First, some background information: Airbnb, which is valued at $10 billion and has more than 500,000 hosts around the world, lets users list their residential properties as short-term rentals. Potential visitors request to book the property, and the two parties agree on travel details.

Here are five lessons that hotel marketers can learn from Airbnb to bring their businesses up to speed with trends in travel.

1. Customers want experiential travel.

When customers book their stay through Airbnb, they often have access to neighborhoods where hotels aren't an option. Some hosts reportedly cook meals for guests, leave recommendations for local spots and even show visitors around town.

Hotels are beginning to recognize that customers value these uniquely local experiences. “Our facility is no longer the destination,” one hotel executive tells AdWeek. “Now we are a portal to the community around us.”

Hotel Indigo caught onto the demand for local experiences earlier this year. The boutique chain of 55 hotels rolled out touchscreens that list the staff’s favorite neighborhood attractions and restaurants. Individual hotels also host local events where they invite neighbors — and sometimes their pets — to spend time at the hotel over a cocktail, for example.

2. Content management matters.

People could simply list their short-term apartment on Craigslist, but the experience wouldn't necessarily be enjoyable for renters or visitors. Airbnb has taken steps to engage users through relevant content. It publishes Airbnb Neighborhoods, guidebooks that break down the most visited cities by neighborhood and provides location-specific travel tips. In the same window, users see available housing options in each neighborhood.

The site also emphasizes visual content, encouraging hosts to upload quality photos of their properties to listings. In fact, if hosts are worried about having lackluster images, they can request that one of Airbnb’s 3,000 freelance photographers take pictures of their housing for free.

Hilton Hotels and Resorts took a different but entertaining approach to content. In a partnership with satirical publication The Onion, the company developed the Urgent Vacation Care Center, a site where users answer a series of questions to "diagnose" symptoms that can be cured with a vacation. Commuteritis—suffering from excessive amounts of commuting — is one example.

3. Social elements can add trust.

Airbnb integrates Facebook data, meaning users can view a visitor or owner’s profile. The feature also lets them see if they share common friends. This adds an extra layer of security for both parties, who likely want more information before booking a trip.

Hotels might consider adding similar features that show visitors which friends have stayed at the location, or let friends vouch for room quality or customer service à la Yelp, for example.

4. Personalization is key.

Airbnb lets owners and visitors coordinate incredibly personalized experiences. If a traveler’s plane lands at 9 a.m., he can ask the host to have the apartment available an hour later, for example. While it’s up to the owner to respond, the capability shows that there doesn't have to be a one-size-fits all approach for travel. Maybe hotels don’t have to stick to noon checkout in every case, or they could recommend local activities based on visitors’ stated interests on social media.

5. Data drives business.

Airbnb analyzes data from all sides of its business, both from people looking for a place to stay and from those renting out spaces. “We are looking at where people are searching [for a place to stay] and failing, and where hosts are not getting booked,” Riley Newman, head of data science at Airbnb, said at a conference earlier this year. Newman and his colleagues use that data to make decisions about all kinds of problems, from pricing to whether the photos that a host posts are engaging.

Hotel marketers have access to a wealth of data about their customers, from loyalty program engagement to ‘likes’ on Facebook.

While Airbnb’s fate in courtrooms remains uncertain, the platform’s popularity highlights innovative ways for hotel marketers to engage with experience-hungry travelers.

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