As travel websites get bigger, booking a decent hotel room gets harder
If you’re booking a holiday or long-awaited getaway, it can be fun to browse options for hours, comparing and contrasting pools and rooftop views. But if you’re a frequent traveler, booking a business trip, or embarking on an impromptu city break to make use of credit card miles, the glut of options on major booking platforms can be a hindrance to a swift booking process.
That’s one of the reasons sites like HotelTonight have grown in popularity. Their list of vetted hotel options—suited for hotel snobs and designed-focused millennials alike—feels less overwhelming than websites like Booking.com or Hotels.com. (HotelTonight, which made its name offering last-minute hotel deals, expanded in 2017 to allow users to book up to three months in advance of a stay.) You might find three options in your price range and desired area, rather than thirty—meaning you can theoretically book a hotel you feel good about in ten minutes, rather than spending an hour tirelessly switching between tabs.
But the days of curated booking sites with intentionally limited choice seem to be going out of style. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported last week that Airbnb had been in talks with HotelTonight about an acquisition ahead of their long-awaited IPO. Talks had reportedly stalled, and HotelTonight said it does not comment on such rumors. However, Airbnb’s interest in adding HotelTonight’s inventory of “boutique, independent, and/or distinctive hotels” reflects the belief that more options are always better for the traveler. But is that true?
By way of example, Airbnb, the platform once known most for booking spare rooms in a local’s home, now offers everything from tree houses and “Airspace” lofts to sweet little B&Bs, bare bones guest houses, and boutique hotels. Last week, the company reported that the number of hotel rooms available to book on its platform grew 152% in 2018. (These listings include resorts, hostels, and traditional bed and breakfasts; the only hold out, so far, is mass market hotel chains, but even that’s a “never say never” situation.)
But it’s hard to gauge whether that wide range of options, offered all in once place, is actually good for the traveler trying to efficiently find a suitable place to stay. And indeed, if a theoretical acquisition of a company like HotelTonight meant its vetted hotels were folded into the sea of diverse accommodation types already offered by Airbnb, then HotelTonight’s unique offering would effectively be lost.
It’s true that Airbnb has improved its filtering options, allowing you to choose from 15 property types, from hostels and villas to hotels and chalets. But that step comes several clicks after you’ve entered your location, dates, and whether you want an “experience” or accommodation. It’s also not included in another, more prominent filter called “home type” which lets you choose between a private room, shared room, or an entire property. It seems fair to assume that new users may never even find Airbnb’s hotel-specific offerings, given all the choice.
Meanwhile, rivals like Expedia (which owns HomeAway) and Booking.com are furthering their stake in the homeshare market, further blurring the line between where to go to find a hotel versus a rented apartment. While good user experience design and proper filtering can arguably fix the problem of too much choice, the brand identities of these massive companies may become harder to clarify.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, Airbnb’s acquisition of a company like HotelTonight could be a move to woo investors ahead of their long-awaited IPO. Adding more hotel properties—particularly the type favored by the prized millennial travel market—might help boost the company’s valuation. But is even more choice always good for frequent travelers who already know what they want? Not necessarily.
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