Rise of OTAs poses challenges to business travel

As an industry that used to be a tightly controlled relationship between corporate entities and travel bookers, the Internet has blown open the world of business travel unlike most other industries one can think of. With all of the world’s best accommodation deals available at the average workers’ fingertips, the job of finding and booking business travel is increasingly falling to the employee themselves, and the major beneficiaries of this change in the business model are online travel agents (OTAs) like Airbnb and Trivago who are supplying the platforms that make booking so easy. It seems like a win-win scenario: businesses are freed from the administrative burdens of securing bookings themselves, they’re free to find cheaper rates away from locked-in relationships with hotels, and workers are free to choose the accommodation that most suits their wants and needs. But could all this choice be a false friend to business?

Pushing up cost

One of the major benefits of the OTA booking model for business is that, theoretically, it helps reduce cost. The administrative burden of making bookings is lifted from the company themselves, so they can end up spending much less time and cash on business travel, while there is also the potential to find great deals that hotel companies simply can’t match. However, the increasing popularity of this model of business travel has created a supply problem, particularly in the world’s major cities like New York and London, which is pushing up the cost of accommodation on social booking platforms as a new glut of business travellers compete for beds with tourists.

As well as the supply issue, a more surprising problem is that there’s actually too much money pouring into the sector – something for which the business model wasn’t designed. Instead of ad-hoc visits by travellers and tourists, some of the best run and most attractive properties on OTAs are gaining a steady stream of revenue from business travellers that is pushing the rules surrounding letting and tax requirements to the limit in many countries. By turning empty rooms from an occasional revenue earner into a successful business, many Airbnb properties are attracting the attention of the authorities and finding themselves pushed into tighter regulation and higher tax bands – both of which add further to their cost.

The compliance factor

A second problem that has arisen thanks to this new booking model is one of compliance. One of the major advantages of a relationship with a corporate hotel or serviced apartment chain is the knowledge that each unit will be exactly the same wherever in the world it is booked, guaranteeing global mobility and making relocation smooth for the business. However, by outsourcing corporate housing to the OTA and the employee, the business gets much less visibility over exactly what is being booked and how it is being used. From a purely practical perspective, this means that the employer can’t always be sure what facilities are available or how good they are.

Elements of the accommodation such as the technology available can make a big difference – and issues such as unreliable or slow internet connections can have a major impact on the employee’s ability to work remotely. Other compliance issues can be more serious, and can even impact the worker’s safety. Corporate housing in hotels presents a uniform standard, but the sheer variety of accommodation offered through an OTA means there is a patchwork of standards which may or may not meet company policies. Everything from fire regulations to issues around safety in shared accommodation, as well as how check-in and check-out are managed, is different for each property – generating a totally new and burdensome bureaucratic jungle for corporate travel bookers to navigate that almost dwarfs the task of booking that OTAs were supposed to eliminate.

The future

Despite these cost and compliance issues, the sector shows no signs of slowing down: Airbnb boasts a three-fold increase in corporate bookings year on year, which will surely only increase as more companies adopt the social travel model. Rather than pulling back, the sector appears to be changing to accommodate this phenomenon – setting up divisions or whole companies dedicated to servicing the corporate market in parallel to the domestic one. Airbnb Work was set up in 2014 specifically to serve multinational organisations, while other organisations have also sprung up with a model that addresses the concerns that businesses may have – such as those around technology and compliance with corporate rules. A secondary benefit of this change is likely to be an easing of the pressure on supply, as leisure and business travellers once again court different markets.