The Final Rap Battle: Airbnb or Hotel for Digital Nomads?

July 25, 2022

Hotels actually work out to be cheaper for two people or less (spoiler alert!), but they need to step it up to attract the all-new generation of digital nomads

Here is a very fun list of weird problems that digital nomads & remote professionals experience at hotels:

  1. Having a hotel bed as the background in your Zoom videos and feeling like an unprofessional schmuck who might as well have shown up in a bra 😬
  2. Looking like Poltergeist because there is no natural light in front of your face in literally 100% of the cases (you know the placement of THE DESK)
  3. Having Wifi that operates at the speed of a 103-year-old muffin man—and no, the ethernet cable does not work
  4. Doors that slam five times in the middle of the recording of your podcast 🎤
  5. Screaming children in the next room over who are either jumping on the bed or running through the hallways or who have been planted by some nefarious force to test the limits of human patience
  6. Strange air conditioning gurgles and hiccups that sound awesome in the middle of any call or recording
  7. An echo-echo-echo-echo-echooooo in your audio—especially if you’re someplace with hard floors, like you find often in Spain, Italy, Central America
  8. Seventeen artery-clogging items on the room service menu…and one soup 🍜
  9. No on-site restaurant at all (first world problems, but nevertheless a problem when you’re trying to stay focused and hustle a project out the door)
  10. Haha, plugs. Converter plugs. Ear plugs. Not enough plugs. All the plugs. 🔌
  11. No, but seriously: why do hotels doors always slam???
  12. Oh, and laundry. 👗 There’s always laundry to be done, but it’s always a rigamarole. I’ve either got to send my clothes away with “the service” for $449 million dollars, or I have to lug ‘em over to an unknown laundromat thirteen blocks over and risk diphtheria. (The only hotels with coin-operated machines are usually undesirable chain hotels who throw a Maytag from 1984 down into the basement along with Vecna and a whole nest of spiders.)

Point being: hotels have a lot of catching up to do if they hope to stay relevant.

We’ve got a massive historical shift happening right now, with McKinsey reporting that 35% of Americans now have the option to work remotely 100% of the time—in every part of the country and sector of the economy, including traditionally labeled “blue collar” jobs. 😲 Another 58% report being able to work from home at least one day a week. (Cue: lots and lots of long weekends.) And overall? When people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it.

THIS IS BIG. This is monumental. 💥  Most Americans have been lucky to get a mere two weeks away from the office a year for their entire lives—and now, they never have to go back. Imagine the implications. Humans as a whole are going to start traveling much more than ever—this is inevitable. And once they do? Once they get the taste of that freedom? It’s going to change the world. While being a digital nomad was once a lifestyle choice, characterized by the young, ballsy backpacker on a budget, now it’s going to become the de facto for professionals, too.

It’s already happening. 👀 In Airbnb’s first quarter financial results of 2022, they reported that long-term stays of 28 days or more continue to be their fastest-growing category by trip length compared to 2019. ❗️

WHAT????????????????? The fastest growing category is 28 days+ in an Airbnb?????? In 2018, the fastest growing segment was 3 nights or less. THAT IS SAYING SOMETHING, DARLA. Screaming, in fact. Chiefly, that the shift is already here, but also? ⬇️

Hotels need to start thinking more like Airbnbs in order to survive.

When staying at the typical Airbnb, a lot of “hotel problems” are instantly solved. I’ve got a design-forward space for my Zoom calls that doesn’t make me look like a schmo. There are more windows and way more flattering light. The Wifi is usually legit, because I’m not sharing it with 100 other people. And I can stock the fridge with all the baby spinach I damn well want to…because I have a kitchen! With olive oil. Oh, and did I mention the washing machine? Oh. My. God. There is nothing better than putting your clothes into A WASHING MACHINE and having them come out smelling like delicate little miniature teacup roses. Allll for the price of…well, a hotel room.

But is that right? Is a private Airbnb and a hotel room really comparable?

Well, here’s the kicker.

The math tells us that if you’re traveling in groups of six+, you save a boat load when booking a large Airbnb versus paying for three hotel rooms. But for groups of two or less? Hotels actually come out cheaper per head. (And that’s in SPITE of the fact that the U.S. is seeing the highest average daily room rate ever right now.)

So, let’s review: a private Airbnb is definitely the more expensive option, and yet, they’re still growing at the speed of my chin hairs.

(This isn’t merely a passing trend. Since 2019, Airbnb started booking more rooms than Expedia, and since as early as 2017 they’ve been spanking the hotel industry when it comes to repeat bookings, with 3x – 5x more.)

It’s clear that the kinds of amenities listed above are valuable to travelers—so much so, that they’re willing to pay for them. However, the average hotel is still in a race to the bottom, competing on who can offer the lowest prices….instead of figuring out who can offer the best experience.

By “best,” I don’t mean as it’s traditionally been defined by the hotel industry: white-gloved doormen and stuffy dining rooms. I mean the new best experience: modern amenities optimized for remote professionals & longer stays.

Some ideas:

  • Ring lights & podcast mics available as an add-on (do you know how many times I’ve lugged this stuff through airports???)
  • Styled corners for Zoom calls (instead of that big chair just taking up space)
  • Alternatively, a headboard that unlocks from the bed and can be wheeled out and flipped around to reveal a green screen (I seriously want to manufacture this)
  • Or even taking a conference room or two and turning them into stylish, soundproof miniature work pods that you can reserve when you have to get on a call, give a workshop, or be in a meeting over Zoom
  • Thoughtful design to reduce noise and provide echo prevention (a triple-paned window saved my life in a Mexico City Airbnb—it was incredible the difference from inside the bedroom to the rest of the apartment)
  • Killer WIFI that’s seriously not messing around
  • A mini European washer & dryer combo in place of the useless and exorbitant mini bar
  • An address at the hotel for receiving packages so you can easily mail yourself changes of clothes for different climates
  • Special nomad menu for staying healthy on the road
  • Speaking of health: a really fun and accessible wine or beer subscription during your stay—or at least special rates at the bar for anyone staying a week or longer
  • And, yes: discounted room rates for long-term stays. With morning check-in perks. And other perks, too, like “hang onto my luggage for a week while I go do this side trip—then I’ll be back and will resume my stay and use your hotel as a base.”

As someone who’s been nomadic for 13+ years, I can tell you that I would instantly book at any hotel who even had a fraction of any of these things on offer. It tells me they’re progressive, they’re paying attention, the experience is likely to be awesome, and I won’t regret booking myself there for more than a couple of nights. This past fall we were hanging out in Barcelona, and we booked ourselves for two weeks at a reputable boutique hotel that ended up being less than ideal. The entire time I wished I had just tried it out for a night before committing to the entire stay: and that is the kind of thing one wishes they wouldn’t have to do, particularly when paying premium rates. “Shoulda stayed at an Airbnb,” I kept saying. The only reason we didn’t is because all the good ones were already booked. (Which is a telling anecdote in itself.)

However, there’s an opportunity here. Hotels do have certain advantages that they can—and should—lean into: restaurant-on-site is a big one for me. A cool cocktail lounge where I can chill with a G&T and my laptop and people-watch other travelers. The peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll be able to check-in seamlessly. Certain standards that many hotels employ (a decent bed, for example, and a hot, feisty shower.) And security & safety—that’s a big one.

Yet, there’s still so much to be desired. My advice to hotels who want to stay relevant?

Imagine the average traveler not spending most of their day out, but spending a large chunk of their day in. The room needs to be a destination of its own. How might a hotel change if they were to imagine their guests coming and…not leaving? This one simple thought exercise could be enough to make meaningful change—not only because we (desperately) need it, but because hotels need it, too.

Worst case scenario for me: I’ll have to just look like Poltergeist on my next Zoom call. (Or stay in an Airbnb.) The worst case scenario for hotels, however, I fear may be much greater.

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