Over the holidays, I got to catch up with my brother about his new job, which requires a good deal of travel. He mentioned that he recently spent the week in San Francisco—a place I’ve yet to visit.

“Oh man, that must’ve been fun!” I said, hoping for some good tips when I finally make the trip.

“Eh, not really,” he said with a shrug. “I was outside the city with no way of getting around. I pretty much just stayed in the hotel and ate all my meals at the mall across the street for a week.”

That’s not an uncommon complaint for many business travelers. Hotels in the city are expensive, so you’re often out in the ‘burbs. Not only that, but if you’re staying in the same hotel where your business is taking place, you may not ever step beyond the lobby to experience the city you traveled so far to get to.

But a new trend—one that began in the leisure travel world—is starting to take hold that could shake up the business travel industry in a big way.

It all comes down to two things: flexibility and experience.

 

Don’t Sleep Where You Meet

If you’ve kept up with the travel industry at all in recent years, you’ve probably heard a certain word thrown around quite a bit—experience.

Airbnb wants you to “live like a local.” Airlines want the flight to your destination to be the most memorable part of your trip. Cruise lines are taking experiential retail to the high seas.

The world of business travel isn’t immune to these changes. Events and conferences are constantly pushing the envelope to offer the most creative experiences, and services that allow for more flexibility and choice are gaining a stronger foothold in the business travel world every day.

That demand for flexibility and experience is also shaking up the accommodations aspect of business travel as well. 20% of business travelers used Airbnb for a work trip in 2017. Their motivations aren’t that different from vacationers—they’re looking for better experiences, increased flexibility, and more value. And those benefits can outweigh the slight inconvenience of staying beyond the four walls of the conference hotel.

For some travelers, like Cara Hogan, rentals-by-owner are an attractive option because of their distance from the conference center. Hogan, a content strategist for software company Zaius, has attended Dreamforce, the annual mega-conference hosted by SalesForce in San Francisco, several times. Her Airbnb accommodation allowed her to escape the hectic conference scene to relax and catch her breath.

“Because it’s Dreamforce, you could be at a party, a networking event, some sort of something 24/7. There’s always something going on,” says Hogan. “But if you do that for a whole week, you will die.

 

Dreamforce | Hotel | Airbnb

Escaping the craziness of conferences like Dreamforce can offer a chance to relax. (photo by JD Lasica, CC BY 2.0)

 

Airbnb is hoping more business travelers will help propel growth, and they’re making it easier than ever for companies to book accommodations. In 2017, they introduced a special booking tool for companies, allowing users to sort listings certified as “Business Travel Ready,” guaranteeing amenities like Wi-Fi, a desk, and all the toiletries one might usually find in a hotel. Last year, more than 250,000 companies had signed up—up from just 250 two years prior.

With her rented space just a short pedicab ride away, Hogan says she was able to escape from the conference and recharge in a quiet space, without feeling like she needed to participate in every last event and opportunity.

“It was just relaxing to not be in that intensity 24/7, and take a step back and feel a little more normal.”

 

More Choice for Business Travelers

Even business travelers who aren’t staying in Airbnbs are still pushing for flexibility and choice from their employers when it comes to accommodations. While many employers traditionally may have wanted their workers staying in the conference hotel to rack up as many networking opportunities as possible, some are giving the choice to their workers, who may choose a different hotel based on location or rewards programs.

Holly Simmons, Director of Consulting Services for Tampa-based Revenue Management Solutions, is a Marriott and Starwood rewards member. She usually stays at hotels for business travel, but is choosy about which chains she stays at, in order to rack up more points. “If (my event) is at a hotel that is neither a Starwood or Marriott property, then I won’t stay at that hotel. I’ll stay at the nearest Starwood or Marriott,” says Simmons. “It helps me build up my personal points, and I get the perks too, like early check-in and late check-out.”

In her experience, Simmons says the costs for her employer are usually comparable, even with discount rates that conferences often negotiate with their recommended hotel. And with most of her trips located in located in major metropolitan areas, her preferred chains are often just a short walk or Uber ride away.

And staying away from the conference hotel has another benefit: “you can go to the gym and know you’re not going to run into clients!”

 

Increased Spending Will Bring Increased Investment

This preference from business travelers follows a larger trend—the so-called “experience economy.” Consulting firm McKinsey and Company predicts this sector to grow even faster as more investment capital flows towards experience providers. Tradeshows and conference are already in an arms race to offer the most engaging experiences for business travelers, and accommodations don’t seem to be far behind.

“We spend so much time behind screens that companies are striving to create opportunities for face-to-face connections with shared experiences,” says Convene’s Steve Sackman. “Meetings and events give companies the chance to create those experiences—whether for an internal company meeting where co-workers get to share experiences or in creative, inspiring environments with their customers.”

And more events bring more travelers, all eager for a quiet place to rest and relax—maybe in the cozy apartment next door to you.