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Technology is Moving Us Closer to a Perfect Market

I have two very different travel profiles. When I travel on business, I usually stick with the big chains, like Hilton or Starwood. The experience is less important to me than predictability. I’m not there for pleasure; I’m there to sleep. And, because I travel on business a lot (or used to), I have status with them. If something goes wrong, I can wave my Platinum or Diamond guest card around and act like a jerk until it gets fixed.

But, if I’m traveling for pleasure, I almost never stay in a chain hotel. In fact, more and more, I stay in a vacation rental house or apartment. It’s a little less predictable than your average Sheraton or Hampton Inn, but it’s almost always a better value. For example, if I were planning a last minute get away to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend, I’d be shelling out just under $400 for a fairly average hotel room at the Hilton by Union Square. But for about the same price, I could get an entire 4 bedroom house that sleeps 8 just two blocks from Golden Gate park. And that was with just a quick search on AirBnB.com. I could probably find a better deal with the investment of a few minutes of my time.

perfect_market_1Travel is just one of the markets that technology has made more perfect. And when I say “perfect” I use the term in its economic sense. A perfect market has perfect competition, which means that the barriers of entry have been lowered and most of the transactional costs have been eliminated. The increased competition lowers prices to a sustainable minimum. At that point, the market enters a state called the Pareto Optimal, which means that nothing can be changed without it negatively impacting some market participants and positively impacting others.

Whether a perfect market is a good thing or not depends on your perspective. If you’re a long-term participant in the market and your goal is to make the biggest profit possible, a perfect market is the last thing you want. If you’re a new entrant to the market, it’s a much rosier story – any shifts that take the market closer to a Pareto Optimal will probably be to your benefit. And if you’re a customer, you’re in the best position of all. Perfect markets lead inevitably to better value.

Since the advent of VRBO.com and, more recently, AirBnB.com, the travel marketplace has moved noticeably closer to being perfect. Sites like these, along with travel review aggregators like TripAdvisor.com, have significantly reduced the transaction costs of the travel industry. The first wave was the reduction of search costs. Property owners were able to publish listings in a directory that made it easy to search and filter options. Then, the publishing of reviews gave us the confidence we needed to stray beyond the predictably safe territory of the big chains.

But, more recently, a second wave has further reduced transaction costs independent vacation property owners. I was recently talking to a cousin who rents his flat in Dublin through AirBnB, which takes all the headaches of vacation property management away in return for a cut of the action. He was up and running almost immediately and has had no problem renting his flat during the weeks he makes it available. He found the barriers to entry to be essentially zero. A cottage industry of property managers and key exchange services has sprung up around the AirBnB model.

What technology has done to the travel industry is essentially turned it into a Long Tail business model. As Chris Anderson pointed out in his book, Long Tail markets need scale free networks. Scale free networks only work when transaction costs are eliminated and entry into the market is free of friction. When this happen, the Power Law distribution still stays in place but the tail becomes longer . The Long Tail of Tourism now includes millions of individually owned vacation properties. For example, AirBnB has almost 800 rentals available in Dublin alone. According to Booking.com, that’s about 7 times the total number of hotels in the city.

Another thing that happens is, over time, the Tail becomes fatter. More business moves from the head to the tail. The Pareto Principle states that in Power Law distributions, 20 % of the businesses get 80% of the business. Online, the ratio is closer to 72/28.

These shifts in the market are more than just interesting discussion topics for economists. They mark a fundamental change in the rules of the game. Markets that are moving towards perfection remove the advantages of size and incumbency and reward nimbleness and adaptability. They also, at least in this instance, make life more interesting for customers.