by Deanna Ting | November 01, 2015

In September, Tracy Stuckrath found herself in a bit of a conundrum. Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, president, and chief connecting officer of Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings & Events, was in Baltimore to speak at a local Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) chapter meeting, as well as to attend the Natural Products Expo East trade show, one of the city's largest events.

But there was a problem: the downtown Hilton where she was planning to stay during her speaking engagement was overbooked, so the hotel transferred her to another hotel, albeit one that was 10 miles away, much closer to the airport than the convention center.

Lucky for Stuckrath, however, she had a bit of a contingency plan. "I was planning to spend my last two nights in Baltimore at an Airbnb so I contacted the host and asked if it would be OK for me to come one night earlier and stay for three nights instead," she says.

Her Airbnb accommodation only cost $84 per night and was just a one-mile walk from the center -- a big plus for Stuckrath, an avid health and wellness enthusiast. Her Airbnb host used her own phone to show Stuckrath how to plot a walking route for her morning exercise and to the convention center.

Stuckrath's accommodation situation, and her desire for a more local, personal, and affordable meeting experience aren't uncommon. Thanks to technology, today's attendees have a variety of alternatives available to them -- all right at their fingertips -- and they know how to get what they need from their meeting experience, whether it's from an event app or a service like Airbnb or Uber. What attendees want from that meeting experience is accessibility to unique experiences, seamlessness, affordability, and convenience. To be successful, planners need to -- if they haven't already -- start thinking about how they can adapt their meetings to accommodate these ever-evolving technologies, and ever-growing demands.


The New Meeting Mindset 
Stuckrath isn't the only person to use Airbnb to attend a meeting or event. In fact, the homesharing company has its roots firmly planted in the meetings industry.

In 2007, co-founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were having a hard time paying their rent in San Francisco, so they decided to advertise three air mattresses, breakfast included, to attendees of the nearby Industrial Designers Society of America conference. Three attendees stayed, each paying $80 a night, and Airbedandbreakfast.com was born.

"The history of the company came from this field, and this demand," explains Chip Conley, head of global hospitality and strategy for Airbnb. "When you have these peak periods of demand due to a larger meeting, we can be a great solution for guests coming to town or local hosts who are looking to make a little bit of extra money, and meet people visiting from out of town."   

Airbnb isn't the only sharing economy service that people are using around the world, either. Take ridesharing app Uber, valued at $40 billion. It conducted more than 140 million rides in 2014 and counted more than 8 million users as of last year.

Uber and Airbnb are just two of hundreds of companies that make up collaborative consumption, or the sharing economy, a market PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates will be worth $335 billion in revenue over the next 10 years.

What do Airbnb and Uber have in common, and why does it matter for meetings? They give people access to things that weren't quite as accessible before, facilitated by new technology, and they are changing the ways in which people want to meet right now and into the future.

"Technology has enabled people to get what they need from each other, rather than from centralized institutions," explains Jeremiah Owyang, founder of San Francisco-based Crowd Companies, an innovation council for large organizations seeking to understand the collaborative economy. In this type of economy, he says, we're not just consumers -- we're empowered.  


It's About Access --  and Control 
The popularity of collaborative consumption isn't fueled by sharing alone. It's driven by a desire for value and access, and it's something we seek every day, whether we're in a meeting or not.

"In the sharing economy, this idea of value is changing," adds Sarah Sladek, CEO of Minneapolis-based consulting firm XYZ University, and a generational demographics expert. "It's more about sharing, yes, but it's also about access -- and not necessarily ownership. When you really think about it, your phone, your tablet, and your laptop are not so much about ownership but about achieving access to information, relationships, shopping, and entertainment -- to any essential or task affiliated with everyday life."

Brian Strickland, CASE, Seattle-based director of strategic accounts for Experient, says it's important for planners to try to find ways to include these shared-economy services and technologies into their meetings and events to give attendees a sense of familiarity and accessibility. "We're doing a very difficult thing for people," he explains. "We take them away from their comfort zones -- their friends, family, home, and day-to-day routine -- when they come to our meetings. We're asking [attendees] to trust us and be on board with us. Why wouldn't we give them the technology that they're used to using on a daily basis?"

Likewise, today's attendees aren't content with just being passive. They want to feel involved and to participate actively in the meeting they attend and, to some degree, have a measure of control like they would in using these apps and services.


It's About Convenience and Cost
"Personally, I use as many of those [apps] whenever I can," says Shawna Suckow, CMP, Minneapolis-based chairwoman and founder of SPiN, the Senior Planners Industry Network, and The Hive Network. "They're great for consumers, and they make going to a meeting more convenient, affordable, and accessible. If I can use Uber, I'll always use it over a cab."

Stuckrath isn't just a frequent Airbnb guest. She's also been a host since October 2012 to more than 30 different guests.

"As an attendee, it's cost, first and foremost, that is a deciding factor," Stuckrath says. "Unless I'm sharing a room with someone, I'm using Airbnb. I love hotel rooms, but I also like connecting more personally to the city and to the people who live there."

 

Apps like Uber and Lyft can supplement
transportation at large events

Sladek used Airbnb, for the first time, for an XYZ University team retreat for eight in Minneapolis last month. "It's a very scenic house overlooking the Mississippi River, and we thought it would be really nice to have people traveling from out of state be able to stay there, and it costs less than a hotel. The floor plan was really bright and open, so we knew we could bring in flipcharts and do some creative things in that space without feeling cramped."

When Evelyne White, co-founder and CEO of New York-based group dining site Bookalokal, was launching her company, she says Airbnb helped her tremendously. "When I was traveling, I'd let someone stay over; it was no skin off my back and it was a resource," she says. "I joke that Airbnb was my first investor."

Suckow believes cost and convenience are driving both meeting organizers and attendees to consider using Airbnb, Uber, and the like for meetings and events. "The sharing economy is making everything more convenient and cost-effective. If we, as planners or attendees, can find more convenient alternatives, we'll take them."

Sladek notes that while the sharing economy has its roots in the Millennial generation, all generations are using these services today. "Society as a whole is moving toward that idea of more experiences and collaboration."


It's About the Experience 
For some planners, having an attendee book a room on Airbnb is a major disruptor to the traditional meeting experience. But that's the point: More often than not, today's meeting attendee isn't content with the traditional meeting; they want something more, especially something more personal.

"The interesting thing about these 'disruptors' is that they require people to think about meetings in a different way," says Strickland. "Traditionally, some planners have thought about their meeting as just that: the reason people come to the meeting is to get continuing education unit credits, or because it's an annual convention, or something like that. What we're seeing now is that technology is leveling the playing field, and giving people the opportunity to think about the 'what-if-we-could-do-this' scenario. They expect more from meetings."