Accommodation platforms in Germany and their usability
Author(s): Dominik Pins, Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT
Case study type: Airbnb and Alternatives
Keywords: accommodation platforms, Airbnb, Wimdu, Gloveler, Booking, usability
Accommodations platforms like Airbnb, Wimdu, Gloveler, Booking and many more offer private accommodations to tourists and passengers in transit. In Germany like in almost every other country, the trend for sharing private rooms, couches or whole apartments goes back a long way. Guesthouses and rooms have a long tradition and in the past, people could get an affordable place to sleep in almost every town and even small villages that did not offer any hotels in the vicinity.
Digitalization of the accommodation search
With the Internet, finding accommodation for holidays or short stays has become much easier, because travelers can find and book accommodation in advance. Alternative services to hotels and professional guesthouses started in the beginning of the 21st century with communities such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb, probably among the most prominent examples for sharing economy platforms. Whereas the Couchsurfing concept facilitates sharing based on trust and without fees, Airbnb is based on a commercial model.
Accommodation often offers cultural proximity and exchange
For travelers – whether alone or in groups – private accommodations often offer an interesting alternative to hotels. They give the opportunity to get to know the country and its people better and are often more attractive in terms of price. Platforms like Airbnb offer rooms or accommodations where the owner / provider is usually present. In addition, holiday cottages and apartments currently not occupied by the owner or provider are attractive because of their often less touristic location. A sustainable and conscious consumption also leads to an acting according to sharing economy principle in holiday planning. In this way, the sharing of accommodations preventing the need of new purchases and already existing resources can be optimally used. In addition to this, it is also the personal contact to the owner of the accommodation, that gives some benefits like insider information of the city or surrounded areas.
Business concept and its impact
Most of the mentioned platforms work in a pretty similar way. They all provide web-based portals and often apps where users can advertise their house, apartment room or even a couch. Visitors can search the catalogue based on certain criteria such as location, fees, ratings or special needs such as Internet connection. The platforms acts as a mediator for booking stays, providing communication channels between landlords and guests, and provide means for payment.
In general, the platform is usually free for those who are looking for accommodation. The platforms are funding themselves by taking a share of the accommodation costs. Because of that, most platforms do not allow direct communication between both parties to ensure processing via the platform. These includes also the offered payment methods.
In Germany, the sharing economy of accommodations is often criticized for contributing negatively towards the general lack of affordable housing, especially in urban areas. For landlords, it is often more profitable to offer their habitations for short term tourists in comparison to long-term renting (especially because the German renting laws are highly regulated in comparison). It’s hard to assess the impact of this effect because official statistics for overnight stays only take cases into account where a whole apartment or house is rented, while renting of rooms, beds or couches are often not covered. Furthermore, it’s hard to distinguish between private and professional offers. However, a study of the GBI AG, a property development company, assumes that in 2015 every 11th city traveler used Airbnb and co.
Aims and approach of our Study
In our study, we analyzed eleven portals for accommodations in Germany regarding their usability. The aim was to understand how the different platforms differ in terms of their effectivity, efficiency and regarding user satisfaction from the perspective of tourists searching for accommodation.
The study was undertaken in June 2019. The selection of the examined platforms was based on a study of Stiftung Warentest (09/2015) where 21 German accommodation and hotel platforms were tested regarding different topics. Out of them, we chose those websites that offer private accommodations and holiday cottages or flats in Germany: Airbnb, Wimdu, Gloveler, Housetrip, Fewo-direkt, booking, tourist-online, e-domizil. Casamundo and Holidayinsider.
The requirements for the analysis were based on interviews with typical user groups. For this study, we asked families, couples, groups of friends and single travelers how they plan their vacation and especially their way of looking for and choosing an accommodation. With the interviews, we were able to identify 37 user requirements and clustered them into eight dimensions: planning, location and surrounding of an accommodation, exclusion criteria (assessment and hygiene), type and room division, furnishing, equipment, price transparency and organization and services.
The inspection was made in two steps. At first, we checked if the requirement can be fulfilled (effectivity) and if so, we tested in a second step if there exist limitations in conducting the requirement like redundancies or lacks of self-description (efficiency). This way for every requirement, the platforms could reach up to 2 points.
The study found that most platforms suffer from a lack of consistency in the description of accommodation, which makes it cumbersome for users to find the required information. Typical examples are redundancies (or mismatches) of provided information. Furthermore, the platforms often use terms that need further explanation or are ambiguous, e.g. “bathroom” vs. “family bathroom” vs. “separate bathroom”, especially when all terms are listed for one accommodation. Another critical finding was that some types of information are missing in some accommodation descriptions, while they are available in others. This frustrates users as it makes decision-making more difficult.
Another critical finding is the lack of possibility to contact the owners directly. Some of the investigated platforms only provide access to a service hotline of the platform if there are questions. The users get the contact information of the owner only after the booking has been completed. There are also issues with the transparency of costs, because optional fees will often not be included in the price listing and usually have to be paid in cash upon arrival.
The third general problem is the input of data because in some cases the platform deviate from commonly used practices. For example, in one example users cannot directly type in the date of start and end of his journey. Instead, they have to enter the duration of the trip and if necessary, calculate it beforehand. Another platform does not understand German umlauts (ä, ö, ü) in entered destinations. Some platforms also listed hotels or fully booked accommodations even if they were supposed to be filtered out.
Our study showed several areas where share economy platforms make it hard for their users to find the desired information. Even in non-professional contexts, consistence and order of presented information is important – especially when it comes to costs and fees. Our study provides clues about common pitfalls and issues that platforms could use to improve their usability.