Hotels vs. Airbnb: Has covid-19 disrupted the disrupter?
05/19/2020|6:35:58 PM|New York Times

For years, home sharing has put pressure on hotel rates and occupancy levels. Social distancing, hygiene and refund policies may be the new game changers.

Airbnb, born in 2008, famously disrupted the hotel industry. It stole market share, put pressure on hotel rates, inspired the creation of affordable brands and saw hotels across the spectrum create restaurants, bars and lobbies that channeled the local vibe. Airbnb’s recent layoff of a quarter of its work force indicates the financial strain the company is under. Now the question is: Has Covid-19 disrupted the disrupter?

Nonstandardized terms

The tidal wave of cancellations that came along with Covid-19 suddenly made travelers aware of the wide range of terms in bookings — from no-penalty, last-minute cancellations to full liability even months in advance of a trip.

Most hotels have generous cancellation policies that allow travelers to make changes to their reservations without penalty 24 to 48 hours in advance of arrival.

Given the public health and economic crises, “Job number one for travel brand managers is to be kind,” said Chekitan Dev, a marketing and management communication professor in the hotel school at Cornell University, who believes the industry’s recovery begins with being as lenient as possible with refunds and providing more incentives to book, such as adding upgrades.

Vacation home renters, especially, learned the importance of reading the fine print, which it turned out was anything but standard.

The winner on cancellation terms: hotels.

The fight for refunds

Among vacation rental companies, Airbnb took the side of its guests when it came to cancellations for bookings made before March 14, directing owners to issue refunds even if they were in the penalty window.

The vacation rental company VRBO did the opposite, urging homeowners to make 50 percent refunds or allow guests to postpone for up to a year, but ultimately staying out of disputes.

The winner: Hotels have the edge when it comes to refund policies.

The case for hygiene

When travel is widely permitted, assuming that’s before a vaccine or remedy for Covid-19 is found, every place offering overnight accommodations — from R.V.s and yachts to hotels and rental homes — is going to have to win back the confidence of travelers and encourage them to step outside of their zones of control. One way to do that: Promise you’ll clean like a hospital.

While hotels might have the edge when it comes to state-of-the-art cleaning methods, the shared space endemic to hotels such as elevators and lobbies, might give many travelers pause. “There may be some people who feel a home-share property is better for them from a health standpoint,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “Hotels don’t have this battle in the bag.”

The winner on hygiene: It’s a draw.

The promise of privacy

In the age of social distancing, home rentals are leaning on their promise of privacy.

Denser by design, hotels have to work harder on integrating social-distancing requirements. Luxury hotels are talking about suspending turndown. Marriott guests will wheel their own room-service cart into their rooms. Expect to see hotels take their cues from highly automated hotel concepts like Yotel, an affordable brand that has several locations, including New York City, where guests check in at a lobby terminal that dispenses a key card, and a robot will store your luggage.

“The contactless hotel stay may be considered the new luxury,” Mr. Harteveldt said.

That also means that some of the amenities that distinguish hotels and often draw local followings — including lively bars, celebrated restaurants, rooftop pools — may be a lot less convivial for the time being.

The winner on privacy: home sharing.

Will apartment hotels become the new competitor? To be determined.

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