The untapped tourists

Mark Brownlee
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Private room rental sites offer fresh marketing opportunities

Traditionally, it wasn’t tricky for tourism operators to track down visitors to the National Capital Region.

Dan Crawford is one of nearly 250 Ottawa residents who rents rooms to tourists using Airbnb

Aside from those visiting friends and family, tourists generally went to one of the dozens of hotels across the city. Museums and other major attractions followed and ensured their pamphlets and other marketing materials were readily available in the lobby.

These days, however, it’s not so simple, as growing numbers of tourists take advantage of websites that connect them with low-cost private lodging options throughout the city.

One of the most popular websites is Airbnb. Would-be hosts list their guest rooms, spare beds and couches on the site, which visitors can book the same way they would a hotel room but at a lower cost.

Airbnb had 247 listings in Ottawa as of early January, most of which surround the downtown core.

With prices ranging from just under $30 to more than $100 per night, using the site can be a bargain for tourists.

But it also creates a challenge for those marketing tourism destinations around the city: how do you find potential visitors if they’re scattered in private homes all over town?

The spokespeople for several popular local tourism destinations – including the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature and the National Gallery of Canada – said they had not yet developed strategies for reaching visitors using the site.

But at least one local Airbnb host believes those attractions are missing out on a chance to connect with tourists.

“There’s a lot of business opportunities that could just focus on Airbnb – especially on the marketing side from local businesses to approach anyone that has a listing on Airbnb in Ottawa,” said Dan Crawford, who has been hosting people at his home close to Bronson Avenue for a little more than a year.

Mr. Crawford said he offers his guests benefits that bigger lodgings don’t, such as recommending the restaurants and other tourist attractions to which he thinks they should go. He added he believes local businesses could attract new customers by offering discounts to Airbnb guests and hosts, similar to those offered to some hotel guests.

Local tourism destinations such as the Museum of Nature offer discounts for those who stay at bed and breakfasts or local hotels. Spokeswoman Elizabeth McCrea said the museum partners with hotels to distribute brochures and vouchers to visitors.

However, the attraction hasn’t made any plans to market using Airbnb, she said.

“I’d have to look at it a lot closer,” said Ms. McCrea.

Alex Wollman, a spokesperson for Airbnb, declined to comment on what sort of initiatives the California-based company is working on to connect business operators with visitors who use the site.

Ottawa Tourism, which helps co-ordinate marketing for tourist attractions in the Ottawa area, did not return calls requesting comment.


Airbnb profile

Founded in 2008, San Francisco-based Airbnb brands itself as an online marketplace that allows travellers to book unique accommodations around the world: “Whether an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month.”

Its website says the site is active in 33,000 cities in 192 countries and has led to more than 10 million overnight stays.

Hosts list their accommodations for free and pay a fee when it is successfully rented. Airbnb sends a professional photographer to take pictures of the property for the listing, a practice it reportedly started after realizing too many would-be hosts were using cellphone cameras to take low-quality pictures that were failing to attract guests. Hosts can learn about and communicate with potential guests before accepting or declining a reservation request and are insured for up to $1 million in damages in many countries.

Guests pay in advance with a credit card through Airbnb and can share a review of the experience after their trip.


No ‘hostelity’

Mr. Crawford, who has been hosting tourists in his home using the lodgings listing site Airbnb for the past year, said he generally gets people who want to pay less on accommodations so they have more money to spend elsewhere in the city.

This is an area traditionally dominated by other low-cost options such as hostels.

But at least one such facility isn’t too worried about the competition.

The Ottawa location for the Hostelling International-Canada chain generally appeals to people who want the unique experience of staying in a building that used to be a jail, said Lauren McCormick, the hostel’s assistant manager.

The building is recognized as a City of Ottawa heritage site because of its historic status as the Carleton County Gaol, according to the website Canada’s Historic Places.

“It’s not so much they come to Ottawa and they just happen to stay in a jail while they’re here. They go out of their way to stay here,” said Ms. McCormick.

She said she wouldn’t expect Airbnb to affect the hostel because of the unique experience it provides to guests.

The hostel offers anywhere from 110 to 120 beds, she said, and is usually full in the summer.

Organizations: Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Nature, National Gallery Hostelling International-Canada Carleton County Gaol

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Bronson Avenue

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Recent comments

  • Kyle McInnes
    January 19, 2013 - 21:05

    It's fun to speculate how Airbnb is going to capitalize on local businesses. It's perhaps holding off on that revenue until it has a proper way of managing it. Maybe start with geotargeted ads and move to a full service dashboard for managing campaigns.