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Tech Talk

Couch crashing goes legit with Airbnb

12/31/2014

One of the most mouth-watering concepts in technology is that of disruption — when an entrenched way of conducting business is uprooted by an unforeseen new method. It happened repeatedly with memory disks (floppy disk, hard disk, CD-Rom, jump drives and now the cloud) and audio/video storage (a list so long it would take up this entire column). Industry disruption sometimes happens so fast, you might not notice until a field is completely revolutionized. Take for instance the travel industry.Airbnb_Horizontal_Lock_Up_PMS

Looking past air travel, traveling from Des Moines to Mobile, Alabama, 20 years ago required one of two actions: You could either hit the road and hope you find decent motels, or you could call a travel agent and lean on someone whose job it was to know all the ins and outs of Iowa-to-Alabama travel. This narrative played on repeat for decades to all destinations. Then, almost without notice, the Internet turned the entire hospitality industry on its head. Instead of calling airlines, hotels, restaurants and attractions, everything could be investigated and booked through Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline. Shortly after the initial wave of travel websites murdered travel agents’ careers across the globe, review sites such as Yelp and Tripadvisor began digging their grave.

For nearly 15 years, travel websites have been living the good life. In the last decade, Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz have combined for more than $100 billion in travel booking revenue. This spring, Expedia claimed to see more than 260 million unique visitors to its site each month. Alas, all good things must come to an end.

As is almost always the case with disruption, technology and ideological advancements do not simply rise from the ether; they tend to be variations on an existing theme. Travelocity and Expedia took the idea of the brick and mortar travel agency and made it more accessible and competitive online. To the disinterested, travel websites seem perfect — companies are forced to enter a supply vs. demand arena, and informed customers decide where to spend their money. To the unsatisfied, that idea rings false. Not only do websites not supply all travel accommodations available, but it feels like the airlines, hotels, and car rental companies are colluding on prices.

And in a manner of speaking, they are. Hotels don’t sell floors of rooms, whereas airline and car rental prices rise and fall artificially by the hour. So out of pure frustration, it seems a disruption was imminent. While airlines are still relatively safe, Uber and rideshare programs are seriously hurting car rental companies, and earlier this year, two former Expedia employees launched Roomlia, an app that totally negates the current hotel booking roulette game. Instead of booking weeks out from a trip, Roomlia users book rooms seven days or less from their stay. The trick is Roomlia is connected directly to hotel operating systems and provides pricing for rooms that would go unrented otherwise. It helps travelers find a cheap rate late in the game, and hotel chains fill rooms that would otherwise go empty.

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Still, for those tired of hotel booking games, Roomlia isn’t a total gamechanger. Airbnb, on the other hand, completely disregards the established hospitality bureaucracy. For every hotel room and suite left empty in a given city, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of more rooms left untouched in private residences. Airbnb connects travelers with these non-commercial rooms and provides the medium for renting, with many transactions greatly undercutting hotel prices.

While both young, neither Airbnb nor Roomlia have toppled the travel giants. Priceline, Travelocity and Expedia and travel sites continue to thrive. Still, if Roomlia and Airbnb continue to gain traveler recognition, this time next year you might be staying in someone’s guest room instead of a Holiday Inn.CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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