Two of the largest sharing economy platforms, Airbnb and Uber, have set their sights on a very lucrative industry: corporate travel. With Airbnb’s third-party booking options and “Business Travel Ready” properties (which have Wi-Fi, mostly 5-star ratings, and 24-hour check-in), many of the concerns travel managers originally had with sharing economy accommodations are now being addressed. Uber, the most popular ground transportation option, has also adapted for corporate travel with Uber for Business, which ensures that only in-policy trips are billed to the corporate account. While many are still wary about sharing economy platforms—particularly in terms of traveler safety—it’s important to determine how a company is going to handle these providers. At the risk of not being prepared for the force that is the sharing economy, travel managers might consider these steps toward implementation:
1. Apples to Apples Comparisons: Factor in Rewards Programs and Negotiated Travel Rates
In order to determine how the sharing economy should fit into a company’s policies, make sure all things are equal. In other words, as an Advito white paper on the sharing economy and corporate travel advises, make sure you are examining your travel program’s negotiated rates rather than advertised prices on websites when comparing prices. Private Airbnb rooms can seem quite cheap, but negotiated hotel rates can offer significant savings as well. You will also want to consider the benefits your company or corporate travel clients receive from rewards programs. The loyalty perks that accompany frequent travel may matter significantly to clients, so you may need to weigh these perks with the perks travelers believe they are getting with room sharing.
Also, if some of your travelers begin to use Airbnb accommodations, reduced numbers could affect your TMC’s negotiated rates with preferred hotel chains. Shapse Jakob, Director of Business Development & Legal Counsel for Travgroup.com, tells us that some TMCs are concerned about this “loss in buying power and revenue” when implementing sharing economy providers, but he suggests that “Travgoup feels that such loss is minimal compared to the value that could be provided to clients in some cases by Airbnb and the like.” At the same time, Jakob says most of their corporate clients still prefer hotels and resorts for the “social and business networking opportunities.” Jakob seems to suggest that value to the client is what really matters, and by weighing all factors (including rewards programs and amenities), you can use these considerations to drive policy decisions.
When possible, work directly with sharing economy suppliers. They may be able to clue you in to unique features or even offer you discounts, especially at a time when they are gearing their services more towards corporate clients.
2. Traveler Education: Keep Travelers Informed About Sharing Economy Policies & Train on Leveraging Associated Tools
Making sure that your travelers understand how sharing economy options fit into the company’s overall travel policy is extremely important. You might make a decision that only Airbnb “Business Travel Ready” properties can be booked, for example, which requires that hosts cannot cancel within seven days of the booking date. This keeps travel buyers from scrambling at the last minute to book a new place at a potentially higher price, but it also helps travelers feel organized and taken care of. With ground transportation, you may need to set a policy about surge pricing. Some TMCs may decide to allow Uber, for example, but opt for cabs when surge pricing is in effect. What’s important is that you set expectations and make the policies accessible for travelers (or you make sure to set those policies up within the app, as Uber allows).
It’s also important that travelers understand how to use the apps or booking tools necessary for adopting sharing economy providers. TMCs or in-house travel managers can host training sessions and teach travelers the ins and outs of these tools. A few items to cover might include:
• Telling travelers to always input their final destination into Uber so the driver will not take them on a more costly route
• Informing travelers about the different ride levels, which often vary by city (UberPool, UberX, UberT), and discussing which ones they should and should not use
• Showing travelers how to use filters and examine reviews on the home-rental site to find the place that’s right for them, if you choose to let travelers book their own room, or showing them how to sign up under the corporate account
• Telling travelers how to link accommodations purchases to the company account for expense reporting
Whether in memos, emails, or training, make sure travelers know the pros and cons of sharing economy platforms; ensure that travelers know which suppliers they can use; and if you are booking for travelers, make sure you get a sense of their preferences.
3. Duty of Care: Foregrounding Safety
Paying careful attention to travelers’ safety is not a new concern for travel managers, but it is perhaps even more important when venturing into the sharing economy. A US-based lawyer, Matthew Daus, spoke about Uber and the sharing economy at the Institute of Travel Management conference, stating, “If there is an accident, a third party can sue you because you allowed people to use services that deviate from your duty-of-care policies.” Daus’ warning is important for travel managers to heed, in the sense that they need to carefully craft policies for safety concerns.
So, what can you do? Jim Hutton, the Chief Security Officer of On Call International, offers advice on adapting policies for the sharing economy, advising to “Read the listings carefully. When using these services, it’s important to check the fine print. Does an apartment only allow a certain number of guests? Or, a listing may have great amenities, but is located in an unsafe area. When participating in a sharing economy service, it is even more important to perform due diligence before booking.” Also, by working with sharing economy providers directly, you can talk to them about your duty of care obligations and see what they can do to help.
Doing your due diligence circles back to traveler safety, too. For instance, Hutton suggests that travelers use the “Share my ETA” option in the Uber app to check in with a travel manager or co-worker during travels—something you can easily inform employees about during training. Make travelers aware of the risks associated with sharing economy options that you may adopt, and even consider asking them to sign something to that effect.
4. Traveler Satisfaction: Make Choices Based on Ease of Use for Travelers
Traveler satisfaction is often under-rated, especially when a TMC works with a large company and has little contact with the actual travelers. Yet, studies show that paying more attention to travelers’ satisfaction can improve travel policy compliance. When considering the right sharing economy choices for a company and how to integrate those choices into travel policies, make sure to consider ease of use for travelers. One factor to consider is integration with the company’s other digital tools. For instance, Uber and Airbnb integrate with Concur; so, if your company already uses Concur, it might make your travelers’ lives easier to select Uber and Airbnb as your preferred sharing economy options. Not only will this help your travelers stay organized, but it streamlines the process for you as well. If you make this decision, you might also need to input in your policies the providers that travelers cannot use.
Another factor to consider is the amenities at hotels versus sharing economy properties. Some employees want gyms, early check-ins, vending machines, room service. Not all alternatives offer these amenities. Airbnb’s Business Travel Ready properties do allow 24-hour check-in and other perks, but before making a decision about how Airbnb or other options fit into corporate policy, find out what travelers want. Why not take a few minutes to create an online survey or take more time to conduct focus groups to figure out travelers’ must-haves? This may seem time-intensive, but it will help you make decisions travelers will be happy with.
Advito suggests asking travelers some of the following questions:
• How happy are you with existing conventional suppliers?
• Have you used sharing economy services for work or privately, and what are the pros/cons?
• Are there specific markets where sharing economy providers could solve a problem for you that traditional suppliers do not?
5. Proceed With Caution: Don’t Fully Transition—Yet.
Many of the sharing economy providers face legal challenges, such as recent legislation that would make it illegal for Airbnb hosts to advertise some short-term rentals violating New York City’s rules that disallow rentals for less than 30 days. It’s important to stay up-to-date on sharing economy providers, as these legal battles could leave your travelers without a place to stay. Consider making the sharing economy an option, but try to avoid making it the only option. Even if you have decided that the sharing economy is the absolute best choice for saving money, try to avoid forcing it.
Jakob tells us of the approach at Travgroup.com: “We try to offer Airbnb options when traditional hotel models are not comparable in value or under a specific case-by-case basis, as there’s still additional safety and reliability offered by our reliable hotel and transportation suppliers.” For now, this model seems appropriate—leaving room for sharing economy options and making sure they’re covered in policies, but not losing focus on the safety and reliability of your TMC’s preferred vendors. In terms of the sharing economy, it’s important that TMCs and companies see travel policies as living texts, continuing to adapt them to coming trends—whether it’s in the service of embracing sharing economy trends or protecting travelers from safety issues.
6. Shop Around: Emerging Sharing Economy Options
Media coverage tends to focus on Airbnb and Uber (and sometimes Lyft), arguably the largest players in the sharing economy—especially in relationship to travel. While these options are typically the most popular, there are other sharing economy options to be aware of:
• SafeHer – Launching this fall, SafeHer is a Boston-based ride-sharing app that is only for women. Its primary focus is on safety, with proprietary background checks that will purportedly do a better job of protecting women against sexual assault than other ride-sharing services.
• FlightCar – As a car owner, travelers can drive their own car to the airport, list the car for someone to rent during their trip, make some money, and return home to a clean car. This service can also be used by a business traveler to rent a local person’s car at a reasonable price.
• VRBO – Mostly for vacation rentals, this site, which suggests that you can rent a home for half the price of a hotel, does offer home rentals that are advertised to be great for business travelers, too. These properties might be excellent for corporate retreats or long-term business travel.
• 9flats.com – Business travelers can book short-term rentals through this site. Its top cities include London, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome, making it useful for international travel. Some business travelers like that you are able to stay in areas of a city where it would be difficult to find hotels.
• DriveNow – BMW’s car-sharing app, DriveNow, is a free-floating service that allows vehicles to be picked up and left anywhere within a designated operating area. Business travelers can choose between a wide variety of BMWs using an app.
• Car2Go – A car-sharing app, Car2Go, allows a business traveler to grab a car to drive to a meeting without having to return the car to the original location. Priced at $0.41 per minute, it’s affordable, and the app, which helps users locate the nearest car, is user-friendly.
These are just a few of the options out there. Some might offer great benefits, whereas others may pose safety concerns. What’s important is to know your travelers, think about how these services could solve genuine problems (or save money), research safety features, and determine what services you may need to exclude for reimbursement. For example, other providers that are sometimes listed under the category of the sharing economy are services such as Washio—premium dry cleaning and laundry delivery—and TaskRabbit, which offers moving help, cleaning services, and errand-running, among other services. You might consider what you will not compensate for and specify those items in policies for clarity and to protect your travelers.
The sharing economy has disrupted personal travel, and it could be on the verge of doing so with corporate travel. Those involved in creating travel policies need to acknowledge this shift in travel and carefully consider the place of the sharing economy in travel policies. Continue to monitor service changes, as the established platforms are certainly trying to keep up with the demands of corporate travel, offering the amenities and on-demand services business travelers expect. Continue to consider if your guidelines or restrictions need to be adapted as sharing economy services change.