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Weighing the Pros and Cons of Sharing Economy

Sharing economy, gig economy, collaborative consumption: Whatever the term, sharing services now cover everything from housing and transportation to event venues, temporary labor, food and even decorations.

While the sharing economy has been around for more than a decade, it hasn’t yet fully infiltrated the meetings industry, where planners and organizations have only intermittently adopted various tech-driven, resource-sharing services.

Safety is an issue when it comes to using sharing economy suppliers, along with concern about the consistency of available services — and that means “organizations are not using sharing economy services in any significant number,” according to American Express Meetings and Events’ 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast.

The report found that only 28% of North American respondents have explicit language in their meetings management policy regarding the use of sharing economy suppliers.

Whether it’s home-sharing services like Airbnb and VRBO, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft or event-sharing platforms like Spacebase and Showslice, the sharing economy still presents a lot of opportunity for planners — and a fair amount of risk.

Act of Sharing

The sharing economy burst onto the scene over a decade ago, with Airbnb launching in 2008, followed by Uber in 2009 and Lyft in 2012. Since then, countless platforms have set out to provide users with cars, bikes, office space, temp workers, on-demand delivery, event venues, convention services and even food.

Spacebase, LiquidSpace and Impact Hub give planners easy access to a range of unique venues and office locations for hourly or daily rentals. London-based Showslice allows event organizers to share event infrastructure costs and services such as logistics, setups, production, staging and labor in the days following confirmed — and unrelated — events.

While sharing apps may be relatively new, the act of sharing among planners isn’t.

The general practice of sharing “has been happening at events for years,” said Shawna McKinley, principal at Clear Current Consulting in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “Planners already share everything from AV to rented furnishings and decor.”

Planners often engineer their own co-sharing arrangements by working with traditional vendors. McKinley once worked with two convention planners with similar conference and exhibit programs that were held back-to-back at the same convention center. The planners opted to hire the same decorator and AV companies and cooperated to set up their plenary and exhibit halls in a similar way, thus eliminating the need to reconfigure setups between events.

“Not only did it save both money, it also reduced waste,” she said.

Platforms like Showslice further facilitate those connections by “building a bridge between confirmed events” to share infrastructure, save money and reduce waste, McKinley said.

Planners often do the same thing for food and beverage, said Gary Schirmacher, CEO of Total Hospitality Industry Solutions. Planners ask the venue what meals other events will be eating and ask for a discount to serve the same meal. Hotels even took that idea to the next level by offering a “lunch of the day.”

Flexibility and Freedom

Debbie Friedman-Hueller, manager of meeting and event operations for Land O’Lakes, began using ridesharing services for events about five years ago. Managing ground transportation is “super challenging” with last-minute changes from individual attendees, whether it’s 20 or 2,000, so “when Uber and Lyft came on board, it was fantastic,” she said.

“From my own perspective, it frees me up as the meeting planner to focus more on the attendee experience and delivering content than some of those periphery logistics,” she said. While logistics are important, “if you can shift some of that to attendees, we can really go back to being event strategists versus logistics coordinators.”

Ridesharing can also save the company money and give individual travelers more latitude, she said.

Uber for Business allows organizers to set parameters like travel dates, dollar amounts and pickup and drop-off locations. Friedman-Hueller gives each attendee two vouchers — for rides to and from the event — but also provides airport shuttles on the back end to avoid having 75 Uber drivers come to the hotel at the same time.

“You’re only charged for what they use, so if somebody uses the shuttle to go back, we’re only charged for the one voucher,” she said.

Rideshare services also provide a level of flexibility and convenience that planners “didn’t have before,” Schirmacher said.

“If I’m an exhibitor and having 200 people at an off-site event, I can give them all the Uber code, and boom, they can get there if they want,” he said.

After the pandemic hit, Friedman-Hueller also turned to Uber Eats to enhance her virtual events. She used the local food-delivery service to re-create the experience of a lunch buffet at a national sales meeting. Each attendee received an Uber Eats voucher, along with a how-to video, to order lunch from a restaurant of their choice on the day of the meeting. For people in areas without Uber Eats, Postmastes or DoorDash, the event provided virtual Visa gift cards so they could have lunch delivered. Then attendees gathered in small Zoom breakouts to eat lunch together.

“That was a great way to replicate the experience — just very socially distant,” Friedman-Hueller said.

Sharing Consequences

Sharing services often come with unintended consequences. For one, house-sharing services like Airbnb could erode a planner’s buying power if attendees book short-term rentals instead of buying in the hotel block. Schirmacher hasn’t seen many planners or organizations embrace Airbnb as a lodging option, but “they know their people are using it, and they’re upset that it’s not going in the block.”

“There’s no benefit to a planner, typically, to use Airbnb or VRBO,” he said.

If more guests book out of traditional hotel blocks, planners risk paying for attrition. If the block size shrinks, hotels become less likely to provide complimentary event space, discounts on food and beverage, and other concessions.

In some cities or counties where local lodging tax may not apply to Airbnb rentals, CVBs may not be in a position to help planners, or CVB-provided services may have been cut due to lower tax revenue.

That’s one example of why “it’s also important for planners to be mindful of the bigger-picture impacts sharing services can have on communities, and whether or not their use aligns with personal and organizational values,” McKinley said.

For example, ridesharing was once touted as an environmentally responsible alternative to driving, but recent studies show that ridesharing increases both traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.

‘Protecting Your People’

Sharing services present their own set of risks, from liability to reliability.

Planners must think about “protecting your people,” something a contract with a legitimate destination management company or transportation vendor does, Schirmacher said.

If a planner rents space in somebody’s office building, do they have insurance? Is there security? “There are a lot of questions you have to ask; whereas, if you’re renting space at a hotel, you have that trust,” he said. “If something screws up, they’re going to make it right.”

Safety is a concern, as is reliability. One night, Schirmacher booked a Lyft to the airport the next morning, only to have the driver cancel on him midsnowstorm “because they can.”

“One of the bigger negatives is the question of who’s accountable?” he said. “Where’s the accountability if someone has a bad experience?”

The only challenge Friedman-Hueller has encountered with sharing services is onboarding attendees to make sure they download the app, set it up and know how to use it before their arrival.

Planners should always share best practices and include a disclaimer of liability if attendees opt to use services that are not contracted, booked or endorsed by organizers, McKinley said. As an added courtesy, organizers could also provide basic FAQs on their registration or travel site about sharing services and what to know before using them.