How WebRTC Could Disrupt the Hospitality Industry

I'm not talking about WebRTC and the telecom industry; I'm talking about rising sharing economy star Airbnb and the hospitality industry.

I am an Airbnb host. If you haven't heard of Airbnb, it's a website and app that allows pretty much anyone to rent out a house, an apartment, a room or even a couch. Many say Airbnb is the future of the hospitality industry. With a reported $10 billion valuation, on par with Hyatt's market capitalization, this may very well be true.

Like Airbnb, WebRTC is also considered a disrupter in its respective industry. This got me thinking; although Airbnb does not publicly use WebRTC today, how will the company take advantage of the technology in the near future? And what will the implications be for the rest of the hospitality industry?

How Might Airbnb Use WebRTC?
WebRTC is an ideal fit for many aspects of the Airbnb process. Before booking, Airbnb recommends you verify yourself to prevent fraud. You do this by providing an official ID or linking to popular social networks and answering some non-public questions. Airbnb could enhance its verification process by using WebRTC to facilitate a short video chat with an Airbnb agent as an additional degree of authentication, perhaps for a small fee to offset the cost of having a human do the work. This could come in handy for those who don't like sharing a lot of details on social networks but want to be verified.

Currently, Airbnb does not let you communicate in real time prior to the acceptance of a reservation. Want to ask a question? You can only do it through text via the application. Airbnb even scans these messages to make sure you are not providing a phone number or other direct means of contact. The company says this is to stop scammers, but realistically it provides a way of preventing guests from using the site for free advertising before negotiating directly and cutting Airbnb's fees out of the process.

Airbnb could allow real-time communication when it is needed while keeping users in-app by adding WebRTC-based calling between hosts and guests. To help the company audit and keep a history of the conversations, it could add text-to-speech translation and recording, as is commonly done in contact centers today.

Once a reservation is booked, both parties can see each other's contact details. This is less than ideal--I don't want someone I am never going to see again to have my phone number forever. Airbnb could use temporary "burner" numbers and forward calls, but it would be much more effective and easy to use WebRTC for in-app calling. An optional video calling feature could be a great help, especially once guests arrive at the host's property.

For example, this summer we had a non-English-speaking guest who had trouble with our door code while we were away on vacation. We would have done anything for a simple way to see exactly what she was doing (which was entering the code wrong) instead of killing valuable vacation time with a frantic foreigner worried that she was going to have to sleep on the street that night.

So Where is WebRTC in Airbnb Today?
As a new Web-based service with its own social network and high demand for frequent communications, Airbnb is the ideal user for WebRTC. So why isn't the company using it? I can only speculate, but I think the main reason is consistent user experience. WebRTC still is not plug-in free for Internet Explorer or Safari. While it is becoming easier to embed WebRTC in iOS and Android apps, you still can't have the same exact feature set in app smartphone and Web browsers without plugins. That being said, it is possible that Airbnb is testing WebRTC and some of these features for a subset of users (just not me).

What About the Rest of the Hospitality Industry?
So what does this mean for the traditional hospitality industry? WebRTC holds a lot of promise as hotels face competition from the growing sharing economy trend. Why not start with simple click-to-call if you need to speak to an agent with any questions while browsing a hotel's website? The agent can see what you are looking at--the exact hotel, the room, etc.--and you can avoid the usual interactive voice response (IVR) maze before spending minutes with the agent telling her about what you are looking at. That not only improves the customer experience but also saves contact center costs by reducing the amount of time the agent needs to spend on the phone. In addition, happy customers buy more, so this will likely also boost telesales. If customers prefer to book online, it is easy to link that data back to the agent so that she gets credit.

How about one-way video from a concierge (Amazon Mayday style) while you are in your hotel room? Rather than go down to the lobby to talk to the concierge, guests could get local travel tips from the comfort of their room through the premium touch of video. Or during off-hours, remotely manned video concierge kiosks could be used to get near the same level of service you get from an in-person experience. If Amazon can differentiate its devices with simple one-way video calling, why can't a hotel?

In many ways, the larger hospitality industry can get as much if not more value out of WebRTC than a startup like Airbnb. So much of hospitality is centered on people and customer communication. WebRTC is an accelerant for person-to-person communication, allowing rich interactions to be embedded in existing processes to speed up and simplify them.

WebRTC may not be ubiquitous yet, but with a growing number of software development kits for iOS, increasing activity from Microsoft, and coming nativity on Android, we are at the bottom of a critical precipice of mass availability of the technology that could happen in a matter of months. Now is the perfect time for the hospitality industry to master this technology before Web-oriented firms like Airbnb catch them off guard again.

Chad Hart is senior director of product marketing for Dialogic where he is responsible for strategy, messaging, and ecosystem development for Dialogic's PowerMedia media processing and WebRTC portfolio. Chad was previously at Oracle/Acme Packet where he most recently focused on WebRTC, OTT communications, and network function virtualization (NFV). His 14 years of experience in the communications industry includes business intelligence, product marketing, product management, analyst relations and as a syndicated industry analyst. Chad is also chief editor of webrtcHacks.com, a blog for WebRTC developers.