The Sharing Economy Goes To Work

Will expense accounts go the way of three-martini lunches in corporate America? Uber and Airbnb, the poster startups of the sharing economy, both announced programs targeting business professionals this week that will utilize the software of expense management company Concur to allow users to charge their room and car service fees to the company tab.

Airbnb says that nearly 10% of its users are already business travelers. “We know Airbnb isn’t for every road warrior, but for larger groups, longer stays, and relocations, Airbnb offers inspired spaces in memorable places to make the most of any type of travel,” said Chip Conley, Airbnb’s head of global hospitality, in a release on Monday.

“The corporate segment is the backbone of the hospitality industry, where hotels in major cities rely on business travel for two-thirds or more of their revenue, consultants say,” report the Wall Street Journal’s Douglas MacMillan and Craig Karmin. But they also point out that “large companies tend to establish relationships with specific hotel brands, where they can negotiate better rates and control blocks of rooms for large parties. For these customers, predictability trumps novelty, and a reliable Wi-Fi connection is worth more than a cool location.”

“Since integrating Airbnb into our travel options, the feedback has been terrific,” Ralph Colunga, senior director of global travel, meetings and expense at Salesforce, testified in the release. “Our employees now have a service for booking everything from a one-day trip to a six-month relocation.”

A post on the Uber blog yesterday revealed that companies such as Tesla Motors and Gilt have been testing a program which “helps administrators, team leads and small business owners by providing trip information in place of receipts and helps employees by connecting with the same safe, reliable Uber ride they are used to without the hassle of having to file expenses.” 

It includes testimonials from the chief operating officers of Deutsche Bank and Salesforce.com and the chief administrative officer of Barclays Americas. 

Airbnb and Uber, both based in San Francisco, are not incidentally the “two most highly valued private companies in startup land,” according to Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen, “with Airbnb’s price tag at $10 billion and Uber’s reaching $18.2 billion.”

Wohlsen goes on to point out that the companies are “following the path through the back door” of corporate America that was blazed by Apple. 

“People who bought iPhones as their personal devices began bringing them to work and using them in spite of whatever hardware corporate IT supplied,” he writes. “Eventually, companies had to acknowledge that the happiest, most productive workers were those who could use the tools they liked best.” 

Apps in the cloud such as Evernote and Dropbox have employed a similar strategy.

“In some ways, though, the new focus is a risky maneuver for both Uber and Airbnb,” cautions Mike Isaac in the New York Times. “Regulators have grown increasingly interested in how the services have upended the hospitality and transportation industries, and how these services may aid drivers and home-owners in breaking state laws.”

They are also being treated as unwelcome guests in other countries. 

“Taxi drivers across Europe have gone on strike this summer to protest Uber,” reports Lauren Frayer for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and police in Spain are ticketing drivers suspected of using the app. Meanwhile, the country’s “powerful hotel lobby is angry” about Airbnb and have apparently riled up local authorities “to enforce,” from Airbnb’s public policy director’s point of view, “old rules that were designed for really a different time.”

In a Guardian commentary yesterday, Dean Baker maintained that the “sharing economy,” which admittedly “facilitates the use of underutilized resources,” is ultimately bad for society. Taxes don’t get collected. Personal safety is an issue. 

“In their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law,” Baker wrote.

Jigish Avalani, Concur’s senior SVP for platform services, had a different take of what the “sharing economy” means in a piece by the [Toronto] Globe and Mail’s David Hains, referring to it “as the ‘consumerization of IT’ to serve end users in industries such as travel.”

“It’s the desire for the individual to want to be able to consume in a fashion that really makes it easier for them as travelers,” Avalani said.

What will they want next? Transparent pricing, on-time flights and no waiting on lines?

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