At the end of September this year, the Family Travel Association is hosting its first annual Summit at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. Over the course of two full days, an assembly of industry executives and family travel experts will expand upon topics essential to a rounded understanding of the challenges we face today with family travel and the efforts we can make as an industry moving forward. In anticipation of that, we will count down the 12 weeks leading up to the Summit by spotlighting 12 core family travel topics to the public. Each week, we will publish an introductory essay written by an authority on the topic, which will open it up for public discussion. Following the Summit, we will initiate a 12-month process of digging much deeper into each of these topics, one per month. By the time we gather for the next Family Travel Association Summit in September 2016, we expect to have a much more powerful grasp of what’s at play in family travel.
TOPIC 10: The Sharing Economy Welcomes the Family Traveler
My wife and I are avid travelers and we share our wanderlust with our children. Like millions around the globe, we have gladly embraced the so-called Sharing Economy, as it provides us with new ways of traveling that are transforming our journeys in ways we never thought possible. Our family motto, “Share Everything,” even hangs from the wall in my son’s bedroom.
What Is the Sharing Economy?
While the terminology may be new – the phrase was coined only recently – at its core the Sharing Economy is as old as commerce. At HomeExchange.com, we use a purist definition of “sharing, not paying”; however, the concept now includes practices that seemingly have little to do with sharing. The media has helped dilute the term, while many companies have “share washed” their brands.
But rather than debate who stands for what, for the purposes of this essay, I’ll include anyone who has put previously idle and generally personal assets to work, typically utilizing technology. The Sharing Economy has turned users into providers, and this is nowhere more apparent than in travel, where apps have enabled the sharing of beds, couches, cars, bikes, meals and more, and transformed companies into industries.
By most accounts, this is just the beginning.
Turning Family Travel on its Head
“Sharing” has increased opportunities to travel but also the demand for travel itself, especially among families.
After all, the Sharing Economy provides numerous benefits that appeal to family travelers, including:
- Affordability – the cost of accommodation and other services starts at free, even for large families, and you can cook like at home;
- Choice – there are options in neighborhoods and remote destinations without mature travel markets;
- Family-friendliness – family-ready accommodation and services are easier to come by, so you can leave the stroller, booster seat and car seat at home;
- Reduced stress – you can eat “at home” and check in and out at your convenience; and
- Enhanced intercultural understanding – when you “live like a local” and interact with a host family, you gain direct knowledge of different types of foods, clothing, culture and more.
In short, the Sharing Economy has allowed families to travel more efficiently, comfortably and cost-effectively. But while saving money is great, the most under-appreciated catalyst behind the Sharing Economy’s growth is the social power of peer-to-peer networks. As families socialize more directly with other families, often with many shared interests, each trip becomes a unique experience that fosters meaningful personal connections.
This is especially appealing to young adult children, who are traveling and spending more during trips that last longer. In fact, the recent growth of this segment has significantly outpaced any other. More than ever, young travelers seek culture, to meet locals and to improve job prospects for their return. “The change in motivation behind traveling is one of the starkest shifts in trends the youth travel sector has seen in the last five years,” says to David Chapman, Director General of the World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation. “People now see travel as an integral part of their future.”
Globalization and Technology Set the Stage
Although travel was already changing due to globalization, what really stimulated the Sharing Economy is technology. The combination of both had already benefited family travelers with more airports, low-cost airlines and routes, and reduced travel times. Increasingly competitive, intuitive and efficient booking services had also facilitated making affordable travel arrangements.
But it’s increasing and improved connectivity, and the consequent new business models, that led to “peering” and allowed us to effectively (but typically not formally) pool our assets and reduce or eliminate the transaction costs of our trips. Now traveling families can swap their homes (and often cars) and pay no more than it costs to eat at home. Families in search of transformative trips find the planning tools within easy grasp. Never before has travel been so diverse and so personal, as local resources around the world are just a click away.
Uncertainty Looms – Regulation
Unfortunately, while the benefits to families and local communities are many, there have also been some unintended consequences. Highly desirable regions, both in high tourist zones and off the beaten path, are seeing large influxes of family travelers, and with it an impact on local cultures, traffic flows and infrastructure. There are also very real issues around health, safety, employment and the impact on regional character that need to be addressed.
What is clear from the numerous controversies around Airbnb and Uber, for example, is that business practices are evolving faster than legislation, and that there is a strong bias behind recent pushes for heavy restrictions and even outright prohibitions, most led by traditional providers that feel threatened and have retained lobbyists. Many legislators are ill-informed and misunderstand or don’t appreciate the positive impact, including on the job market, of innovation and increased efficiency in asset utilization.
Whether the Sharing Economy continues to transform the way in which families travel and interact when we travel will be shaped by the way in which regions respond to change; however, it’s unlikely we’ll see this segment of the economy stalling out anytime soon.
Looking into the Crystal Ball
The peering offered by the Sharing Economy has not only shifted expectations about what people can experience when they travel, it’s shifted the financial benefits of tourism away from large hotel chains and travel companies to travelers themselves.
Historically positioned to move large numbers of people, the mainstream travel industry has often reacted by investing in new “quasi-sharing” marketplaces: booking processes and channels that move their unused inventory, including via partnerships with sharing companies.
Clearly, mainstream industry players understand that one reason sharing companies have excelled is their ability to respond “just in time” to changing needs, just as AirBnB hosts mobilized quickly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There needs to be a lot more flexibility than in the past with hotel rooms, rental cars and services being offered on a “shareable” and adaptable basis.
Whether you buy into the merits of the Sharing Economy or view it as hype, the new choices it’s creating are being embraced by consumers and will continue to push family travel forward.
Tell us how you feel about the Sharing Economy – whether you see it as friend or foe. The Family Travel Association is determined to identify both the ways in which it can be turned to traveling family’s best interests and the pitfalls to be avoided.
Please share your feelings in the comments below or, for more interaction, on the Outbounding discussion board prepared specifically for us. And stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more articles about core family travel topics.
Jim Pickell is the President of HomeExchange.com, an advisor, angel investor and frequent guest lecturer. He previously founded several companies, including OpenEnglish.com, Latin America’s leading online language school, and served as the Senior Vice President of SONY Connect in Los Angeles. He started his career as an attorney focused on mergers and acquisitions. Pickell’s lifelong wanderlust has taken him to more than 35 countries.
For more essays in our FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel series, click on the topics below.
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