I flew (not a typo) from the U.K. to the US in early July. It was neither a business nor leisure trip but one that I imagine many middle-aged people are overdue for – a journey to see aging parents. If not for them I certainly would not have found myself undertaking what four months ago was my weekly routine but today feels Kafkaesque.
London Heathrow was a shadow of itself without the crowds, noise and energy that we’ve come to expect from one of the world’s most iconic global aviation hubs. Yet the joy of less people has been displaced by a sterile and perfectly ordinary environment where everything remotely human from smiles, to smells to sounds have been spotlessly and hygienically neutralized.
I could just have easily mistaken my flight for a trip in the back of an ambulance with stewards distributing sterile wipes where once they might have been doling out sparkling wine, hell even sparkling water would be a welcome gesture.
Let’s be clear – we didn’t suddenly exchange the Gilded Age nor the Belle Epoque of travel for Covid-19. Flying has been an overwhelmingly less than enjoyable experience for the better part of two decades now. No disrespect to aviation but you turned your backs on hospitality a long time ago. The true sense of hospitality has always been best delivered with two feet firmly planted on the ground and frankly hoteliers are better at it than flyboys.
But hotels are at risk of forgetting their mission and in turn missing out on the opportunity at hand. Hopefully, a quick reminder will help. What is this hospitality you speak of?
the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
Back to my journey. While in San Francisco, I did my duty of socially distancing and booked two nights at a hotel and as a semi-amateur social experiment two nights at an Airbnb.
Much to my dismay the two experiences were hardly distinguishable. The hotel, one of my favorites, was largely empty and all the public spaces were closed and void of life – kind of like staying in an apartment by yourself. Yet it was more what both hotel and Airbnb did than what they didn’t do that shook me and fueled this story.
Sanitation was value proposition # 1. It was promoted on the tv, laminated posters on the wall and the smell of lavender scented Lysol punctuated the entire experience that I can still smell it on my suitcase nearly three weeks later. All human contact was eschewed for, and I quote, “exquisite touchless technology for my peace of mind and health.”
I would have gladly given up a chunk of my peaceful mind for a smile and a drink at the bar, yet I ended up buying a burrito and a bottle of a big California red and devouring both alone in my room – ahem my hotel room.
That’s not hospitality.
I spent the early part of my career in technology in San Francisco and I appreciate the changing dynamics of consumerism and the continuing onslaught of collaborative consumerism: the other economy where consumers swap, barter and sell things to each other via social platforms rather than with a retailer or professional establishment.
I admire what Airbnb has accomplished in such a short time; however, Airbnb is not in the hospitality business.
The sharing economy is not going away. According to PwC, it is expected to generate revenues of up to $335 billion in 2025. But the growth of the sharing economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for our industry. In fact, it’s not even our game – we’re in the experience economy.
As the old adage goes, shit happens. And thanks to Covid-19 it just happened again on a global scale. As hotel companies are all competing with one another for who can be the cleanest. Like flyboys we’re turning our backs on what makes us special – hospitality. It’s not just customer service, it’s the customer experience.
A vacant landlord can’t curate this type of personalisation, but they can clean a room. People are still going to travel to get in touch with not only themselves but with the locals, the environment and even the proprietors and employees. Hospitality serves that higher purpose. Airbnb may get you close to the action, but it doesn’t put you in it the way hoteliers can.
The hospitality industry is on its knees at the moment but like always, we’ll be back. Even two or three years of a pandemic will not change 10,000 years of human inclination to roam, meet, greet and drink.
I like the idea of buying directly from my peers. I’m just not convinced that travelers will get the experience they expect from Joe Schmo as they do from Conrad Hilton.
A brand that simply connects people with accommodations, even well sanitized hygienic ones is not in the business of creating memorable experiences; it’s in the business of e-commerce.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that hospitality can deliver so much more. Don’t screw this up.