BARCELONA, Spain—Mobile World Congress is likely still a boon for Spain's hotel industry but not nearly as much as it would be if the sharing economy had never taken off.
According to Airbnb vp of engineering Mike Curtis, around 30,000 people at the conference used the online booking service during their stay in this Mediterranean coastal city. The show's total attendance is not yet clear, but if it's anything near the 94,000 people who showed up in 2015, that would mean around one-third of attendees stayed in someone else's house, flat or boat.
(UPDATE: 100,000 people attended this year's conference.)
"Airbnb is becoming a much more mainstream thing now," Curtis said, speaking on a panel about the on-demand economy this morning on the final day of the conference. "A couple of years ago, I would attend a conference like this, and everybody would ask what 'Air Boom' was."
A report from Goldman Sachs seems to back that up. A survey of 2,000 people found that once customers try Airbnb, they're only about half as likely to go back to booking a hotel.
Curtis said the majority of hosts use the service on their mobile devices, so mobile is where Airbnb is making the most investment. Bookings are also becoming increasingly last-minute—another reason computerless booking is key.
"It's just an expectation now that you're going to be able to reach in your pocket and book something on Airbnb," he said, "more often than not, instantly."
Dealing with the demand
The company is working on ways to make the booking process and actual offline experience more personal, including real-time communication, improved response times and curated recommendations based on data.
In the past few years, Curtis said the company has made a "huge" investment in its data infrastructure and experimentation tools, allowing everything to be informed by metrics. That means running and tracking dozens or hundreds of experiments, but it doesn't always mean skipping intuition.
"Every [guest] is looking for something different out of their experience," he said. "So one of the things we're looking at a lot is every time you use Airbnb—either as a guest or as a host—we need to be getting smarter about you, so we can get better at matching."
Trust is also foundational to the business, he said. Beyond room photos, phone calls and messages, the Airbnb of the future might also include a virtual reality component. But not yet, he said.
"It seems like a theme of Mobile World Congress this year is virtual reality, so maybe we could do that, too," he said. "It sure would be nice to do a virtual walk-through of a place before you go on ... all things in the future—but I think all of them are relevant and possible."