Is Airbnb Competing With Travel Advisors?

Via a new pact with the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) this month, home-stay provider Airbnb opened a new front in its campaign targeting travelers who might otherwise opt for traditional hotel or resort accommodations.

The Airbnb-CTO marketing initiative will promote 18 Caribbean countries, with online profiles of each nation, including current travel protocols. Airbnb clients will also receive electronic newsletters highlighting traveler activities in each country.

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The information will also be featured in an online Airbnb “Discover the Caribbean” section, with links to each country’s tourism website.

“With the Caribbean continuing to re-open, we’re helping to usher in the safe return of travel to this wonderful region,” said Carlos Munoz, Airbnb’s policy manager for Central America and the Caribbean. “We’re also excited to promote the important economic impact driven by hosting on Airbnb.”

“The partnership will help [CTO] promote the region responsibly by providing our members with a platform to showcase their destinations while at the same time highlighting the health safety measures that each has implemented,” said Neil Walters, the group’s acting secretary general.

However, while it ostensibly offers Caribbean travelers expanded options, the Airbnb-CTO pact, like most plans offered up by the home-stay giant, mostly leaves travel advisors cold, as Airbnb does not offer agent commissions.

Pineapple Beach Club Antigua
Antigua and Barbuda is among 18 Caribbean nations profiled online via an Airbnb-CTO partnership. (Photo by Brian Major)

“The CTO is trying to help boost tourism, but at the same time, they are slapping travel agents in face because Airbnb is not agent friendly,” said Jennifer Donszecz, president of VIP Vacations. “Travel agents have been actively selling the Caribbean during this crisis and one would have thought the CTO would recommend travel agents before partnering with Airbnb.”

Caribbean Competition

Moreover, many advisors view the company’s business model as a long-term threat, competing directly with advisors for consumer clients and vacation accommodations bookings.

While CTO has no formal ties to advisors, agents book a significant percentage of Caribbean vacations. Cognizant of this, CTO has sought to engage advisors through a variety of promotions in recent years. Yet that hasn’t led many advisors to view the new partnership fondly.

“Of course advisors are [losing clients to Airbnb] and they will be in increasing numbers,” said Richard Turen, managing director and owner of luxury travel agency Churchill and Turen, Ltd.

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Turen raised a point mentioned frequently by advisors contacted by TravelPulse: Airbnb’s quality control standards are frequently inconsistent.

“They don’t perform quality control on their locations,” said Edouard Jean, owner of New York-based Massive Travels. “I hear so many stories where people went to the property or the house and it was not what was presented online.”

Said Turen, “One recent study showed that Uber car back seats contained significantly more bacteria than the average public toilet. What would be the outcome, I wonder, if a similar study involved unregistered, unregulated private apartments and residences rented out to anyone willing to pay?”

Added Jean, “They don’t work with travel agents and I don’t know if I’d work with them because they don’t vet their properties. You want your clients to have good experiences. You don’t want these kinds of problems.”

In addition to CTO, Airbnb has formed partnerships with travel groups including U.S. destination marketing organization Brand USA and VISITFLORIDA, the state’s marketing group. Some advisors say the competition is not for travel clients, but for reservations.

“Losing business to these new partnerships remains to be seen,” said Claire Schroeder, an Atlanta-based independent contractor for Elevations Travel. “Hotels and resorts have better protocols in place for maintaining the cleanliness standards needed at this time.”

“But I have lost business in the past to Airbnb,” Schroeder said, “especially in expensive cities such as New York, London, Rome and Paris. I have had clients have a great Airbnb experience and then experience a really challenging situation with [Airbnb] with little help for the problems encountered.”

COVID-19 Impact

In fact, some advisors say the COVID-19 pandemic may give Airbnb an edge over traditional hotels and resorts.

“I am not losing clients to Airbnb but yes, I am losing bookings to them,” said Holly Lombardo of Comprehensive Travel Planning Services. “Especially in light of COVID-19 where travelers remain drawn to a home-away-from-home reunion with friends and family.”

Like other advisors, Lombardo also emphasized a lack of quality control with Airbnb accommodations. “When clients ask me if I work with companies like Airbnb I politely explain I do not,” she said.

“Aside from the fact there is no compensation, there is no way I can qualify these rentals for quality and service should something go awry,” Lombardo said. “I just cannot put myself in a position where I cannot fully stand behind who I refer to my valued clients.”

Lombardo also pointed out that issues surrounding changes and cancellations, so crucial in this era of pandemic-impacted closures, represent another area of potential concern for travelers who book Airbnb accommodations.

“A personal friend of mine had a $7,000 [Airbnb] booking last April for a rental in Florida,” said Lombardo. “Due to COVID, legally they could not travel to Florida, and the owner refused to refund their $7,000. They exhausted every avenue and the owner gave them a future stay to be used in six months,” she said. “They lost it all.”

Stephen Scott
“We need to find a way to do the same thing in a collective way ourselves.” said Stephen Scott, Travel Hub 365. (Courtesy Travel Hub 365)

Some travel advisors say the solution lies in seeking equal footing with Airbnb. “We need to find a way to do the same thing in a collective way ourselves,” said Stephen Scott, founder and CEO of Travel Hub 365. “Our agency is developing our own travel app and website for the direct consumer called the Odyssey Travel App.”

Said Scott, “We understand that sometimes travelers book online, and sometimes they book with an advisor. The messaging has to come through from all areas, and we should encourage it from every booking channel.”

In fact, some advisors see little reason for concern. “I think this will have limited appeal so it doesn’t concern me at all,” said Cal Chensey of Bucket List Travel and Tours. “I believe that most clients still want the resort experience with restaurants and activities,” he said.

“It might be attractive to people for the next few months, but once everyone has the vaccines, this niche market won’t affect our business.”

Claudette Covey contributed to this report.

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