The Flip-phone Factor
I am not known as an early adopter. Not long ago, while I was teaching a journalism class at the University of Arizona, my Motorola flip-phone buzzed, and titters ensued when I took it out. The class wag piped up.
“Where do you put the crank for that thing?” he asked.
I’m not always a Luddite, mind you. I’ve written six books and more than 900 newspaper columns on a computer, and each of my classes publishes websites showcasing their digital multimedia work. And I intend to get an iPhone one of these days—as soon as I master typing on a keyboard that has the dimensions of a Snickers bar.
I’m also becoming a bit more familiar with Airbnb and its ilk. In recent years, many travelers I know have been raving about that company and its competitors, like Tripping and HomeAway. I’m getting the idea.
Actually, I used a distant antecedent of Airbnb back when Jimmy Carter was president, on a trip to Italy where I rented villas in Taormina, Sicily and Lake Bracciano, northwest of Rome. Both were resort properties with extra room for guests, and both were less expensive and more convenient than good hotels in the same area.
Then last fall, on a business and leisure trip my wife and I made to Rome, I finally tried Airbnb. Encouraged by glowing reports from friends who had often been eschewing hotels for home and apartment rentals abroad, we’d searched online and (warily, I’ll admit) found an apartment for a week on a cobblestoned street near Santa Maria Maggiore, an easy walk to the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Termini train station.
The spacious one-bedroom included a modern kitchen and a second-floor terrace that overlooked a quiet courtyard. The Wi-Fi was fast, there was a supermarket right across the street, and the kitchen had an espresso maker.
Airbnb, founded in 2007 and now valued by some analysts at $30 billion as the company contemplates an IPO, is the behemoth in these kinds of rentals, with 52 million nights booked in 2016, more than double its 2015 total, according to UBS. While some cities in the U.S. are increasing regulations on “home-sharing” rentals, Airbnb is also making major inroads abroad. “Half of our business is now in Europe,” says the company’s cofounder and chief strategy officer, Nathan Blecharczyk.
In the U.S., incidentally, the hotel industry’s trade group, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, is trying to trim the sails of Airbnb and its like. The association’s internal strategy plan, reported in April by the New York Times, talks of lobbying for more state and local restrictions and promoting a “national narrative” on “the need for common-sense regulations on short-term rentals.”
Not that the hotel industry is languishing, by the way. Marriott International, the largest global hotel chain, reported $365 million in profit for the first quarter of 2017, an increase of 67 percent over last year’s first quarter. (That was before Marriott bought Starwood Hotels later in the year.) Revenue per available room, a key hotel metric, “exceeded our expectations in North America and Europe,” Arne Sorenson, the chief executive, told Wall Street analysts in May.
“The overall message is that the U.S. hotel industry continues to break demand records,” says Jan Freitag, vice president at the industry research firm STR.
Nevertheless, a survey by Morgan Stanley Research earlier this year found that “adoption” of Airbnb among travelers is growing steadily, both in the U.S. and abroad—though the company still accounts for less than 5 percent of total lodging demand. In the survey of more than 4,000 travelers in the U.S. and Europe, 49 percent said they had replaced at least one traditional hotel stay with an Airbnb booking in 2016.
That’s me—but I still haven’t tried Airbnb-type accommodations in the U.S. Last March, on a five-day business trip to New York, I stayed at an excellent Hilton Garden Inn near Times Square. It didn’t give me much incentive to switch.
However, I have had incentives to embrace ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which have wreaked havoc with traditional taxi businesses in major cities around the world.
On one of the mornings I was in New York, there wasn’t a yellow cab to be seen when I had to get from Rockefeller Center over to 10th Avenue on short notice, as snow swirled in a biting wind.
“Get an Uber,” a doorman at 30 Rock advised me.
I was too embarrassed to tell him that I was one of the few people in New York City who could not do that.
The flip-phone, you see.