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The Shared Experience

It’s hard to escape the sharing economy these days. What started out as a simple but innovative business model – using a smart phone app to hook up with an empty ride or an extra bedroom in a strange city – has turned into worldwide phenomenon. In travel as with so many other areas, the concept behind peer-to-peer access is changing the way things work, and business travel is not immune from its revolutionary impact.  

While it’s anybody’s guess where this movement will eventually lead, significant growth seems certain. Pricewaterhouse-Coopers has estimated that by 2025, the five main sectors of the streaming economy (peer-to-peer finance, online staffing, peer-to-peer accommodation, car sharing and music and video streaming) could generate global revenues of $335 billion.

Obviously the trends in ride sharing and accommodations are of primary interest for corporate travelers. In the ride sharing sector alone, as recently as March, Uber reports corporate users traveling more than six million miles a week using Uber for Business. And on-demand services in such areas as private aviation are fast catching on.

Even the terminology continues to evolve. The sharing economy has also been called the on-demand economy, the collaborative economy and the gig economy, among other terms, and different descriptions of its sectors have also emerged. Last year the US Department of Commerce issued a report on what it has labeled “digital matching firms.”

The government has proposed that this definition be used for companies that use IT systems to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions, rely on user-based rating systems for quality control, offer workers flexibility in deciding their typical working hours, and rely on the workers using their own tools and assets in providing service.

The Business Side

Whatever this new economic elephant in the room is called, such options are bringing increasing interest from business travelers. In response, providers such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are taking steps to make their services attractive to managed travel programs. “They are tailoring their products to meet business needs,” says Miriam Moscovici, director of emerging technologies at BCD Travel.  “All have launched new programs in recognition of what managed travel programs want.”

Typical are the recent measures taken by headliner Uber, which operates in more than 400 cities and 70 countries. To appeal to the corporate sector, Uber has fielded features that handle everything from controlling employee access to establishing guidelines on when and where employees may travel. For policy clients, trips are automatically billed to the company along with details such as cost, expense code, vehicle type and route.

Other helpful features include monthly billing and the option to purchase rides for guests to corporate events. Guest passes can be customized with date, time and a promo code.

Another pioneer in ground transportation, Lyft, reports that it has been securing partnerships with leaders in their spaces such as Airbnb, CareMore, Intuit and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. According to expense software provider Certify, the use of Lyft in the corporate travel space has increased substantially, more than doubling Uber’s growth rate among business travelers in 2016.

All told, ridesharing now accounts for over half (52 percent) of the total ground transportation category, and Lyft is viewing enterprise as a significant growth channel. To better connect with this growing market the company has introduced “business profiles,” giving travelers a separate profile so they can receive ride receipts in their work inbox and switch between personal and business payment methods depending on the situation.

The company’s mobility solutions include the option to schedule a ride up to 24 hours in advance as well as automatic expensing through integration with expense management systems. In addition, a dashboard dubbed Concierge allows travel organizers to request rides on behalf of passengers.

Positive Experiences

Of course ground transportation is only part of the new scene, with increasing numbers of business travelers checking out alternatives to traditional hotel stays.

Jean Noel Lau Keng Lun, senior director global product marketing for travel management company Egencia, says that the use of alternative lodging has become a fact of life for business as well as personal travel. “People have come to like and use it for their personal life,” he says. “When it’s convenient for them in the corporate space, they will use it for business travel.”

The entire travel sector is an increasingly fluid one, he notes. New providers are emerging while at the same time, more established players are strengthening their positions through partnerships and acquisitions. For example Egencia has added Uber and Citymapper to its Tripnavigator app to simplify the process of arranging ground transportation. That strategic move followed the late 2015 acquisition of HomeAway by Egencia’s parent company, Expedia, greatly increasing its number of lodging properties.

At Airbnb, a special marketing focus is being placed on business travelers as more companies are incorporating alternative lodging into their corporate travel programs. At least part of the impetus seems to be positive experiences with Airbnb in leisure travel that are leading business travelers to explore new options. The blending of personal and professional interests is another contributing factor.

“People are combining business trips with weekend stays and extending trips to experience a destination like a local,” says Lex Bayer, Airbnb’s head of global payments and business development. Company studies show that the average stay on Airbnb for Business is nearly six business days, which often includes at least one weekend day.

Last November, the company introduced Business Travel Ready listings to meet the specific needs of road warriors. These listings feature laptop workspaces and guaranteed 24-hour check-in. They also offer business-friendly amenities such as hangars, irons and hair dryers. Thus far companies from 35 countries have signed up, Bayer reports.

Airbnb has also worked with major companies including Google, Salesforce and Morgan Stanley to develop new corporate travel programs. In promoting its offerings, Airbnb touts potential cost savings, enhanced social interaction, larger accommodations for teams and comfortable lodging for long term stays.

Hang On for the Ride

Throughout the sharing economy, horizons continue to shift. Lyft is expanding into transportation experiences for recruiting teams, event managers, hospitality services and healthcare companies.

Other companies of various sizes are offering services that may attract business travelers as well as vacationers. With Getaround, car owners in five western and mid-western cities rent out their vehicles as an alternative to the usual car rental or other ground transportation. Miami’s miRide, launched in 2015, promotes itself as affordable alternative to traditional black car options. And for those interested in checking out electric cars, the Blue Indy car-share service in Indianapolis offers yet another option.

Beyond travel, a widening array of offerers are launching in areas ranging from lending to talent sharing. In a surprise outcome, Certify’s 2016 report found that classified advertising wunderkind Craigslist accounted for more corporate travel spend in Q4 than even WiFi. Companies are using the online marketplace to gain access to a larger pool of candidates when businesses need to hire new talent.

As companies continue to embrace more of the sharing economy, both travelers and travel managers may need to adjust to seemingly minor differences that still merit consideration, Lau Keng Lun says. For example, a traveler can check in at a hotel at virtually any time. But when renting a house or an apartment, it may be necessary to meet someone at a pre-arranged time to pick up a key.

A more crucial consideration is duty of care, he adds. With traditional hotel stays, it may be easier to reach travelers in the event the unexpected happens, or at least determine the circumstances at hand. But this can’t be assumed with non-traditional accommodations.

He notes that despite such challenges, at least some elements of the sharing economy will be embraced by travelers. “It all boils down to thinking of it in the larger context of company culture,” he says. “How can it be useful?”

Moscovici notes that as new companies emerge or existing ones improve their services, appeal to business travelers may be inevitable. “When a player comes into this arena, travelers will vote with their feet,” she says. However the exciting part is finding new ways to accommodate what might have been problematic in the past. “The old approach of reserving six hotel rooms and a cocktail room might change to renting a Georgian mansion,” she says. “And these options are going to continue to expand.”

Such changes can make sense for more than just social reasons, she adds. “There may be cases where an Airbnb apartment is appropriate for an executive who needs to have sensitive meetings,” she says. “Or such a rental might be more effective in an inventory-poor city, where it would otherwise be too expensive for a team of workers to attend.”

Whether with lodging, transportation or other aspects of corporate life, the changing scene is sure to bring both challenges and opportunities for business travel. Although the future remains uncertain, at least some of the approaches offered through the sharing economy seem to be a sure bet for any traveler.  

By Mark Rowh