Can travel agents share in the sharing economy? There is tremendous buzz around lodging sharing companies like Airbnb and HomeAway and ride-sharing services like Uber as they grow exponentially and enjoy market valuations that are several times those of established lodging and car rental companies.
For now, any threat from these companies to established suppliers remains minimal, judging by results from Travel Weekly's Consumer Trends survey. Nearly two-thirds of travelers surveyed had not even heard of sharing-economy companies, and only 8% had ever used them. (Read more from the Consumer Trends survey here.)
But that is likely to change with word-of-mouth, advertising and publicity, both good and bad, as municipalities, neighborhoods and residents struggle with these operations. At issue are lodging taxes, insurance issues, zoning laws, rental laws and neighborhood integrity.
Younger and more affluent respondents were more likely to be aware of and have used such services, according to a recent report from PhoCusWright titled "Share This! Private Accommodation & The Rise of the New Gen Renter." The report said almost a third of all travelers who rent private homes, apartments or rooms fall into the category of "new gen renters," defined as being between the ages of 18 and 34.
One proof that sharing is quickly catching on is that it has grabbed the attention of (and in some cases raised concern among) giants in hospitality.
Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, said recently in a TV interview that sharing-economy lodging services can "do some things we can't do. Something like 10% of their business in New York is people trying out neighborhoods."
On the car rental side of the equation, Avis bought Zipcar, a car-sharing company, in 2013.
Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research, said that his company's own survey of 5,000 travelers revealed that 14% had rented a home, condo or apartment through an online site, up from 12% the previous year. But Harteveldt pointed out that use of the sharing services is slightly higher among 18- to 23-year-olds, who are less likely to book a traditional hotel anyway.
For a growing number of people, Harteveldt said, "home and car sharing are replacing traditional providers. They are seeing a more authentic and distinct type of experience, and home-sharing services like Airbnb and HomeAway offer something appealing, affordable and relevant."
The challenge for sharing services, he said, is to figure out how to sell through travel agents.
"They would be foolish if they ignored that channel," Harteveldt said. "A travel agent selling four or more nights is a sweet spot for home sharing. It would be perfectly logical for an agent to say, 'I'll search Airbnb and other sites and charge a service fee for that.'"
From the consumer's point of view, he said, "Agents might be providing a valuable service, because there are occasions when travelers use a site and show up to find that the promised apartment or home does not exist."
On the other hand, Harteveldt does not see much of a role for agents in car sharing, saying, "These are last-minute decisions. Perhaps there could be referral fees for referring clients to Uber or other services."
The bottom line, he said, is that "the sharing economy is very much here. The question is, where does it grow from here? Will Airbnb buy a hotel company or a hotel ownership group? When you have valuations like that, anything is possible."
Although Harteveldt is skeptical about the possibility of sharing aircraft, that model does seem to be emerging. Uber itself offers UberChopper, a service that flies from Manhattan to the beach areas of Long Island and the New Jersey shore.
And Linear Air offers seasonal service on popular routes where individual seats can be purchased. Even if only one person buys a seat on a plane, according to Peter Schmidt, president, the plane will complete the flight.
"The first person to buy a seat sets the schedule," Schmidt said.
Conceding that most attempts to share empty seats on airlines "have failed miserably," Schmidt asserted, "We're taking a different approach by focusing on routes where there is proven demand, and we take the risk that only one seat will be sold." (Linear Air's planes have up to seven seats.)
"We work with travel agents as a key strategy to expand awareness and adoption," Schmidt said. "It's exactly the kind of product where you need someone with expertise. We work with Tzell Travel [part of Travel Leaders] regularly."
To read the Consumer Trends report, click here.