The hospitality experience has evolved: from ancient inns, to hotels, and now to Airbnb. In this article, I investigate:
- How hospitality has evolved through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (food, shelter, and person).
- How Airbnb is getting it better than most lodging from the 21st century, and how they can continue to improve their authentic guest experience.
When venturing to a new area, the traveler has three essential needs that she needs to address. These needs are the primary driver of most lodging experiences:
- The food & drink — for the psychological nourishment of the body.
- The shelter — for safety and protection from the elements.
- The person (host)— for love, belonging, guidance, and care.
Biblical hospitality & opening up the home
Imagine riding a horse down a road in early Roman times. It’s getting late when you enter a small village. You knock on a door; you ask to stay the night. The person takes you into their home and cooks a meal for you. You rest, thank them, and continue the journey.
In this example, you encounter the three components of a hospitality experience:
- The person — It’s their home, their food, their family, their town. They invite you in. They represent the most significant interaction you have with the area.
- The shelter — The person takes you into their home.
- The food & drink —The host cooks a meal for you. It’s likely a local recipe with food grown and raised in the town (maybe at their place).
This was the original hospitality experience.
Holiday Inn & the standardization of the modern hotel
Fast forward a few years….
In 1952, Kemmons Wilson started the Holiday Inn after being disappointed by the poor quality and inconsistent roadside accommodations that he witnessed during a family road trip. As an extreme example (in the Roman example), when you knock on the door, you have no clue what’s on the other side of it — it could be great, or it could be very scary.
The Holiday Inn was amazingly successful. As the motorways of America rapidly grew, so did the need for a trusted, consistent experience during road trips. Following the success of the Holiday Inn, hotel chains became an increasingly popular site along roads — and then cities. For the next 50 years, hotel chains dominate the landscape.
- Person: Brands replaced the mom & pop operators of the inns. Corporations trained service workers who commuted to the location to put on a smile for a paycheck.
- Shelter: Developers built square boxes that resembled very large and bastardized houses. The structures represented a overarching American structure but lacked integration with local architecture.
- Food: A continental breakfast was served to maintain the illusion of a bed an breakfast while cutting costs.
Boutique hotels & local flavor
At the height of hotel standardization in the 1980s, two hotel brands in California pushed back — Kimpton Hotels (by Bill Kimpton in 1981) & Joi de Vivre (by Chip Conley in 1987).
- Person: These hotels hired for passion of service and trained for skill. Employees felt strongly about the type of guest experience they were delivering.
- Shelter: The hotels did their best to represent the area and brought regional art, styles, and materials into its design.
- Food: The food went away (eat at a local place!) or was ran by a completely separate entity (Kimpton Restaurants and Kimpton Hotels are different companies).
Beyond the three points of traditional hospitality that I highlight above, Chip Conley (Joi de Vivre) introduced two new levels to the hospitality experience (explained in Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow).
4. Esteem: Accepted and valued by others. Coming into a community and feeling like you are part of it.
5. Self-actualization: The need to realize one’s full potential — both as an employee at the hotel and as a guest. This meant bringing in local activities such as collaborating with bands, painting with artisits, and learning about regional wines during tastings in the lobby.
Airbnb & a welcoming home
Airbnb’s concept is to open up one’s home (latent room supply) to guests as a higher-end alternative to Couchsurfing. Since 2007, fueled by a strong online distribution system, Airbnb has grown significantly among those looking for an alternative traveling experience.
Besides being cheaper than a hotel room, a big reason for Airbnb’s growth is because of the authentic hospitality that comes from the people and shelter:
- Person: While hotels hire employees to represent the property, owners represent themselves — making a stronger connection between the service style and the person delivering it. The host becomes the brand, creating an authentic hospitality experience.
- Shelter: A real home means guests see the inside of a local’s world — the art, photographs with friends and family, books, and layout of the house and how that influences daily social interactions. The home is in a zoned residential area, which allows guests to stay where people really live — not a business park, financial district, or tourist trap.
- Food: While Airbnb = Air Bed & Breakfast, only a hand full of my visits included breakfast. This leads me into my next section — suggestions for improvement.
How to increasing the authenticity of the Airbnb travel experience 1. People: The person needs to be on property (or very near). No VRBO or HomeAway cross-listings. Without the person, Airbnb becomes a vacation rental. When I’m traveling to a faraway place, I want to be in close contact with my host to learn about their way of living and to share experiences and suggestions. If I want to be alone, I’ll still book an entire home with Airbnb, but I like when the host lives next door — to call in case something happens or to greet me upon arrival. 2. Shelter: I want to stay in a real home. I’ve booked inns, re-purposed apartment buildings, and mini-resorts through Airbnb. While some of the experiences were good, I felt like Airbnb served as a channel experience like Expedia or Kayak and not as an end-to-end service experience. This erodes the brand and marginalizes their value proposition. 3. Food: It’s called Air Bed & Breakfast, but only a hand full of my hosts have served breakfast — what’s going on? (Food permit issues?). This is a big opportunity for Airbnb to create an immersive experience. Beyond just breakfast, perhaps a neighborhood network of Airbnbs can co-host a dinner with multiple hosts and guest coming together at a single location for a feast. 4. Esteem: Hosts become a local guide for their guests. Guest now feel like they belong in the wider community. Instead of sight-seeing, hosts can tell stories of their lives through the places around them: stories that guests can connect with and not of kings who died 400 years ago. 5. Self-actualization: Guests participate in new life opportunities — either through job shadowing a host (or close network) or by taking classes. Right now, there is a big growth in experiential travel such as cooking classes in Northern Italy or tango lessons in Buenos Aires. I suggest one step further: shadowing print makers in Kyoto, subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, surfers in California (even investment bankers in New York City?).