How Software Companies Can Help Meeting Planners Leverage the Sharing Economy

In the past month or two, it's been hard to pick up an event-industry magazine that doesn't have an article on the so-called "Sharing Economy." Mentions of short-term alternative lodging companies like Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway are burning up the pages. While most meeting planners aren't yet affected or haven't considered the ramifications to their hotel room blocks, it's likely they will within the next twelve months. Software companies may offer them a way to get ahead of the demand curve sooner rather than later.

The fact that companies like Airbnb have popped up (or that the founders have become billionaires in the blink of an eye) isn't what's driving the meetings industry to pay attention to the emerging trend of conference attendees staying in private apartments, homes or even bedrooms. For some conferences, there just aren't enough rooms to go around—the IT industry is feeling particularly vulnerable. Millennials are attracted to alternative accommodations and "bleisure," the term coined to describe the practice of adding vacation time to a business trip, is a real thing.

The hotel room block has played a key role in the structure of citywide conferences and meetings for decades. Keeping attendees in close proximity to official hotels (which are in turn located near the convention center) helps boost attendance at conference sessions, trade shows and other planned activities. Room block guarantees at host hotels are the prime leverage that planners have to secure the discounts and amenities they need to underwrite the costs of the meeting.

With evidence that the traditional room block may be in jeopardy, some planners have begun to think beyond the obvious ramifications of attendees staying off the grid—attrition penalties and fewer amenities—to what else might be affected as more visitors leave the fold. With potentially less people staying in the official hotels, shuttle transportation needs could change. As some guests hole up in apartments with kitchens, they might opt out of official dinners and evening networking events, a practice that could wreak havoc on food and beverage numbers.

Software companies—registration and housing providers in particular—can have a role to play should the trend toward peer-to-peer sharing networks like Airbnb and others continue. Although most platform providers have to date shied away from partnerships with online travel companies, such as Expedia or Travelocity because the industry favors working directly with hotels, it could change with these new housing models. Alternative lodging preferences are driven as much by cultural preferences as they are by economics.

As the hub of event data, registration and housing providers are perfectly poised to implement systems that track the accommodation-booking behavior of attendees. Even if software companies don't partner with alternative lodging platforms (either at the behest of the industry or because there is no demand from customers), they can still poll registrants about where they're staying and what types of accommodations they're using to help planners understand how large of an impact Airbnb-type properties are having. Software companies can also benchmark data from across their customer bases to validate the trend for the industry and their clients.

The possible outcomes for event-industry companies impacted by the growing short-term rental pool are hard to predict. In the past, hotels have reacted to opportunities, such as the demand for less expensive, no frills lodging, by expanding their brands to include lower-end options. Perhaps, they will figure out a way to cash in on this trend as well. Until then, planners will need a trusted resource to guide them and software companies have the technical expertise (Airbnb is, after all, a software company) and industry knowledge to broker a solution. At the very least, planners should have a conversation with their registration and housing contractors to understand what's possible.

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