"Initially, I was scared to death of the sharing economy," Pleasant Holidays CEO Jack Richards told delegates listening to a supplier panel during the AAA national conference last week in Orlando. But like so many relationships, it turned out to be a lot more complicated than he imagined it would be.
So much so, in fact, that he soon ran out of hands when discussing it.
"On one hand, Uber had taken a lot of the airport rental-car business," he said. "We saw a lot of decline because customers don't want to pay parking fees of $35 to $45 a day at hotels.
"On the other hand, there's lodging. In Hawaii during spring break, Airbnb represented 30% of the total occupancy, which first looked like a threat to me. But then I took a step back and saw what's going on in New York City. There are thousands of Airbnb rooms there, and it's opened up hotel inventory for us. As a direct result of Airbnb's presence, it's become more of a buyer's market.
"On the other hand, [people who stay at Airbnb properties] occupy a lot of air seats, coming into Hawaii, coming into Mexico. That's a concern. But then again, since they're staying in Airbnb, I have more hotel rooms."
He concluded, "I've come to think of it as kind of neutral. I'm less concerned as time goes on."
Richards said all this on a supplier panel I was moderating. Also sitting onstage were AmaWaterways CEO Rudi Schreiner, Hilton senior vice president of transient sales and distribution Kelly Phillips and Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International's senior vice president for sales, trade support and service.
I thought reaction to the sharing economy might be a little less ambiguous for Phillips, but she said there's not a feeling at Hilton that Airbnb is a threat.
"We're not naive,"she said. "We know there are places [where it affects our business], but I think it's comparing apples to oranges. One is a place to lay your head, and with the other you get a full range of hospitality experience, delivered authentically."
As with Pleasant Holidays, there are aspects of the sharing economy that are clear wins for Hilton. The hotelier has a "fantastic" partnership with Uber, she said, via the Hilton app. Guests can "access places where [Uber] drops people off and picks people up, so if a guest is in a city and is looking for local nightlife or restaurants, based on our relationship with Uber we can tell that guest, thru the app, where the most popular hot spots are."
And Freed noted that, similar to Richards' observation, Uber has become a popular way for people to save on parking at their homeport, since the fare is likely to be less costly than parking.
But Freed doesn't believe that many cruisers who have flown into a departure city are staying at an Airbnb.
"They come early and stay at a Hilton," she said.
Schreiner, too, doubts that his clients are using Airbnb on pre- or post-visits.
"We have an upscale clientele looking for good, high-quality service," he said. "I know my son used Airbnb in Budapest, and he told me, 'Never again.'"
Listening to all of this, I was reminded that the term "sharing economy" is, of course, a misnomer. With Airbnb for example, people share their homes in the same sense that their guests share their disposable income.
However, in the river cruise sector, according to Schreiner, some true sharing is going on, but within the supplier community.
He said AmaWaterways began using key cards to monitor every entry and exit from the ship in order to enhance security. When Avalon's managing director, Patrick Clark, asked about his success with the system, Schreiner said he was happy to share details with his competitor.
Similarly, he is working cooperatively with UniWorld, sharing Ama's WiFi access when in port cities.
Freed discussed yet another aspect of "share": market share. She challenged the travel professionals in the audience to step up and maintain their channel's share of distribution.
"When we know our capacity might be growing 8% to 10% in one year, and a travel partner says they can only increase 3%, that presents a big challenge to us," she said. "If the distribution system isn't thinking big enough to grow at the rates we need them to grow, that leaves us having to think about how to fill that capacity."
Freed said the line is "not interested in growing our direct business. That's business that just falls in our lap. We're placing our bets [on retailers] guiding consumers to make the right decisions, and want to continue to, but we need [you] to want to grow in a bigger way."
And finally, there was one other aspect of sharing that was discussed: the sharing that goes on in social media. In response to my question about whether it would make sense for an agency to deploy full-time "field agents" who might report on destinations while on the road, there was general consensus that social media already fills that role.
"I'm not sure why everybody wants to share what their meal looks like," Phillips said.