Hotel or vacation rental? New site says: How about both?

When Sandra Sabatini booked a short-term rental apartment in Vancouver this summer, she got more than she bargained for.

Sabatini’s $80-per-night accommodations, which she describes as “beautifully decorated and spare” were part of a lodging industry experiment that launches today. Sonder is a startup that is trying to combine the reliability of a hotel with the authenticity of a rental. In a sense, it may have already succeeded.

The site, named for the German word for “special,” has been testing its concept for the last several months through Airbnb and other online booking sites. It aims to find a space between hotels, with their standardized list of amenities and services, and home rentals, which can offer more privacy and space and, often, lower cost.

Sonder describes its units, such as the one Sabatini booked, as “hometels” and requires each apartment to pass a rigorous 237-point inspection before joining its collection.

The Sonder idea isn’t necessarily new. The $29 billion-a-year private accommodation market has struggled with its uneven accommodations for as long as rooms have been rented. Professionally-managed rentals and at least one other startup have tried to address the inconsistency that travelers can encounter between properties. And while Sonder represents one of the most organized efforts to date to fix the problem, some guests already seem to be thinking differently about their accommodations. It’s an idea that may be of benefit to you when you look for lodging options during the upcoming holiday travel season.

“Like being at home, only better”

“Sonder’s premise is that there’s no need to choose between the dependability and security offered by the known hotel brands, and the better value, the larger space, and the character of a short-term rental,” explains Francis Davison, Sonder’s co-founder and CEO. “You can have both.”

And both is what Sabatini says she received in Vancouver.

The unit came with everything she would want in an apartment, such as modern appliances, but was as well maintained as a hotel.

“It was like being at home, only better,” says Sabatini, a writer who lives in Guelph, Canada. “No clutter, no repairs. Everything works, everything is clean and it is all at your disposal. No calling up the front desk, no noise from wedding receptions or partying teenagers. It was lovely.”

She didn’t have to call the front desk, but if she had to, Sonder offers a 24/7 concierge service for its guests. But it also addresses some of the rental industry’s shortcomings by ensuring each bathroom is fully stocked with hotel-like amenities, such as shampoo, conditioner, soap, and body lotion. Sonder’s kitchens include a minimum complement of pots, pans, plates, and place settings, plus a microwave, stove, and coffee pot.

The units also come with fast, reliable Wi-Fi with speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and at no extra charge.

A “mainstreaming” trend

What’s happening behind the scenes—and how can you benefit from it on your next vacation?

Douglas Quinby, a vice president for research at the travel industry research firm Phocuswright, says Sonder is part of a trend toward the mainstreaming of alternative accommodation.

Increasingly, travelers will be able to easily compare a Hyatt, a Hilton, an independent hotel, and Joe’s apartment, all in one search display, he predicts.

“This is already happening—more and more, travelers are cross-shopping all forms of accommodation,” he says. “Travelers don’t think in our industry silos, and the travel industry needs to make it easier for travelers to find the best accommodation for them.”

In other words, travelers already aren’t really differentiating between hotels and rentals. Instead, they’re focusing on the amenities and services they receive with their accommodations. Travel agencies and online sites are following suit.

Leisure travel opportunity

That more or less describes how Alejandro Liberman felt when he rented a Sonder apartment in Boston this summer through Airbnb while the company was still in test mode. “The apartment was beautiful, spacious, light, and nicely decorated,” says Liberman, a geologist from Buenos Aires.

He paid $1,055 for a week, which came to about $176 a night, plus an $80 cleaning fee and $94 service charge. But, he adds, “any three star hotel room would cost that or more.” (Both Liberman and Sabatini say they’d stay in a Sonder apartment again.)

Sonder isn’t alone in this new crossover market. Another company, Oasis Collections (its motto: “Home Meets Hotel”) is vying for guests who want the best of both worlds. Initially, they’re targeting corporate travelers, which may be a big opportunity for leisure travelers who are looking for a hotel-like experience. After all, Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks—the busiest for leisure travel—are slow times for business travel.

Sonder will offer more than 500 hometels in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, San Diego, and Vancouver. It plans to open inventory in Miami, New York, San Francisco and Toronto by the end of the year. But the real growth isn’t something you’ll be able to track in a spreadsheet. Quinby says the effect of Sonder and Oasis on the lodging industry could be profound. More rentals will embrace standards—and more travelers could cross over and try a hometel.

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