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BUSINESS SERVICES

Welcome to the Future of Business Travel

The sharing economy is going from boho to white collar, and elbowing its way into your expense reports. Here's why that actually matters.
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There are ways we work today that would have given a last-century HR manager a nervous twitch. There's employee collaboration, file-sharing, and general chit-chat, over less-than secure cloud services. There's employee adoption of new third-party services such as Expensify and Yammer that, once they've Trojan Horsed their way into a company's workflow, are impossible to extract. There's BYOD. 

If you think this is a problem, I'm part of the problem.

In addition to, well, all of the above, I've repeatedly booked lodgings on Airbnb for business travel. Beyond basic math and logic, I didn't really think about it: It was less costly than a nice--or even medium-nice--hotel, more central, and more comfortable for me as a working traveler (free WiFi; ample coffee). It just made sense. I've hailed for short work travel non-cab car services--Uber, Lyft, and the like--when it was logical to do so. My editors do the same. (Based on the responses we got to a Facebook post inquiring, many of you do the same as well.)

The sharing economy, with all its not-so-business-friendly regulatory hassles and insurance issues, is now just part of the way we travel--both for pleasure and for business. But beginning this week, it's trying to look a little less bohemian, and a little more business-casual.

This week, both Airbnb and Uber set up booths at a conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center that's hosted by a massive travel organization, the Global Business Travel Association. If there's an activity diametrically opposed to the act of "disruptive innovation," it might be staffing booths 1251 and 2725 for a week at a buttoned-up convention expected to draw 7,000 attendees.

Oddly, this highly corporate booth-sitting is not the most corporate thing both these startups have done this week. They've also both announced official partnerships with expense-management software company Concur (which, coincidentally, is right over at booth 1725, and which already has 20,000 corporate clients).

For Uber, it's part of the Uber for Business campaign it kicked off July 29, which allows business travelers to directly submit Uber trips to a company account, rather than having to expense them. Airbnb did a similar press blitz Monday, launching Business Travel on Airbnb. From the company's blog:

Nearly 10 percent of Airbnb’s customers travel for business already and we’ve heard from traveler feedback that a dedicated site that caters to business travelers’ needs has been high on their wishlist.

Another sharing-economy company, TaskRabbit, has also tried out the "for business" concept, helping pair temporary workers with companies in need of a quick labor boost. 

It makes perfect sense for these super fast-growing companies: The corporate sector absolutely is crucial to the hospitality industry. Hotels in big cities rely on business travel for approximately two-thirds of their revenue. What's more, business travelers tend to be creatures of habit, becoming repeat visitors to favored haunts. They also spend more than folks traveling on their own dime. All that business travel adds up to $1.21 trillion in annual revenue, according to the GBTA.

Cutting into hotels' business-travel revenue could mean big profits for Airbnb and its ilk. Corporate travel was only 8 percent of Airbnb's bookings last year, one of its managers told the Wall Street Journal.

There are obvious hurdles in convincing large corporate clients to bank on a startup that's faced such regulatory hurdles in the largest city in the United States that it has purchased billboards in public transit brashly proclaiming "New Yorkers agree: Airbnb is great for New York City." (Because New Yorkers just adore being told what to think.)

It's smart for these companies to broaden their arsenal for getting into corporate travel. They've gone the Trojan Horse way already, sneaking into other startups' and established companies' expense reports, and now are entering through the gates, with partnerships with Concur and Salesforce.

Whether this new strategy will actually help these peer-to-peer marketplaces overcome their existing issues with regulators remains an open question. Certainly, they have lobbying strength already, but once their services become indispensible to large companies, they will have a whole host of new, strong-armed allies. (For starters, consider the fact that that more than two-thirds of the biggest companies in America use Concur.) 

Corporate and boring? Not exactly. This next few months--in which we'll learn which companies adopt the sharing economy's proposition--could determine the future of the hospitality industry as we know it.

Last updated: Jul 30, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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