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?).
John grew up in the tourism industry (father founded Grand European Tours). He went to a hotel school, worked in hotel tech, and now exclusively stays in Airbnbs.