A technology that combines wireless locks with noise and smoke monitors would seem to be a welcome innovation for the traditional hospitality industry. And it may well be. But among the first to exploit it are Chinese entrepreneurs hoping to disrupt established hospitality operations, overturn traditional distribution models and make obsolete the cornerstones of modern global hotel companies: branding and management contracts.
The upstarts position themselves as part of the collaborative economy (also known as the sharing economy), a movement that has gotten off to a slow start in China because of cultural reluctance to share with strangers, according to C.C. Zhuang, CEO of Qunar, China's largest Internet retailer.
But Zhuang told attendees of last month's World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit that perceptions about alternative home-rental models are changing, thanks to Chinese entrepreneurs who buy apartments and, using the wireless lock technology, provide PINs to transient renters.
The guests never have to interact with owners or vice versa, though apartment owners can use the same technology to monitor and enforce restrictions on smoking and noise levels.
Hoteliers aren't alone in being challenged by radical thinking, encouraged by both the sharing economy and technology. When I recently asked a class in Cornell's School of Hotel Administration to come up with marketing plans for new travel retailing models, one student proposed something that, in essence, disintermediates receptive tour operators: She suggested that advisers plug in to the collaborative economy and build a network of expert and passionate nonprofessional local guides.
Disintermediation and model disruption have been a central concern of travel counselors and the GDSs for decades, but we appear to be entering an era in which suppliers who have spent decades building consumer-direct strategies are discovering that the consumer they built systems for are finding alternative models attractive.
In hospitality, the collaborative economy has grown in a short time to the size of a successful new entrant: The combined bookings of Airbnb and Homeaway, the two largest home-rental companies, are about equal to the inventory of the long-established InterContinental Hotels Group.
Airbnb, Homeaway, the ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber and other companies tap into an interesting, often unrecognized asset: They leverage common brand equity in the terms "collaborative economy" and "sharing economy." This pan-industry positioning has appeal for many travelers who pride themselves on being part of a cutting-edge, even revolutionary travel movement.
And everyone wants in, including legacy brands.
In comments during a panel discussion at WTTC, Hertz International Group President Michel Taride said that "car rental" is really "car sharing." Hertz has an hourly on-demand product called Hertz 24/7, but Taride seemed to suggest that the entire company was a pioneer in the share economy.
It's reminiscent of when companies began appending dot-com at the end of their names, including the retail consortium Vacation.com, which, for many years, appeared to have little technological differentiation from other consortia.
But regardless of whether an Internet wannabe company could actually live up to its forward-looking positioning at the time, almost every travel retailer does have a Web presence today. It might be a little early to state that most travel companies will ultimately have a collaborative aspect, but I'm of the belief that they will.
This isn't to suggest to that impersonal, wirelessly locked apartments will become the choice of current frequent-stay guests of Mandarin Oriental, but rather that Mandarin and other luxe brands might, as my Cornell student suggested, begin to use local amateur-but-knowledgeable guides, or make arrangements with local residents who are exceptional cooks and who are willing to allow guests to have traditional meals in their homes.
As long as the demand for travel is strong and the economic picture is bright, the collaborative economy will grow side-by-side with traditional models, albeit at a faster pace, if only because it is starting from a smaller base.
And, as I started with China, I'll end there.
Shao Qiwei, chairman of the China National Tourism Administration, began his summit address by welcoming "ministers and entrepreneurs" and spoke of using technology to convert a "conventional service industry to a modern service industry." He was speaking specifically of China, but took it further, talking about the "intelligentization of global tourism."
The word "intelligentization" may be the invention of a creative translator, but we all know what it means: Prepare for yet another New World Order.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.