Hotels are often outings that we set aside time for, usually with plans to stay the night or several nights. For the longest time, the hotel business model dictated that a room should be booked for a minimum of one night’s stay, so it wasn’t like we had much choice.
But Flow, a “platform for space”, now makes hourly booking services for 3 to 5-star hotels possible. The Hong Kong-based company noticed there were two types of hotel guests who almost never stay in their rooms for the full day, like young locals looking for intimacy or parties, and short-haul travellers from neighbouring cities.
For those short-stay users, the earlier-mentioned fixed duration of stay at traditional hotels is inflexible and costly.
“So, we thought—why can’t users enjoy high-end hotel experiences and, at the same time, only pay for the exact hours they just need?” said Eric Lai, the co-founder and director of operations at Flow.
Moving into Malaysia
After analysing the Hong Kong hotel market, the Flow app was launched in the metropolis in early 2018. The application was then launched in Singapore and KL late last year as the company believed the two areas shared similarities with Hong Kong.
The pandemic also increased the interest in weekend daycations at hotels as international borders remained closed. From Flow’s market research, KL has over 400 3 to 5-star hotels, an opportunity that they hope to capitalise on as they grow in Malaysia.
For now, they offer about 30 hotel listings in the city. Across Hong Kong, Singapore, and KL, however, they have facilitated over 200,000 room bookings, bringing in US$10 million more total booking volume to hotel partners.
In Hong Kong, Flow offers three categories: Rest, Work, and Meet. Work refers to a hot desk while Meet means meeting rooms. However, only Rest is available in KL currently.
“We do plan to launch the same in KL where there are also many co-workspaces,” Eric assured. During our interview, he shared that Flow intends to expand their service to adjacent cities like Penang and Johor.
In the bigger picture, the Flow team is eyeing opportunities beyond the hotel realm. “We will also venture into other services that have synergy with our hotel bookings, such as dining, local events, and happenings that will fulfil other needs for the locals,” he said.
Ideal for hybrid workers on the move
While the appeal of Flow is self-explanatory for those seeking daycations, it’s interesting to view its service from the perspective of remote workers.
We’re in the age of hybrid working now where remote working is no longer a luxury, but a norm. To that end, we seek out cafes and coworking spaces, but they all miss a specific element: true privacy.
And that is where hotel rooms can come in to fill the gap. You get the room and its privacy to yourself (no sharing of toilets, need we say more?), a variety of workspaces—from the bed to the dining table to the actual work desk, and the hotel amenities such as the pool and gym, to boot. All this within a day, and you can return to your own comfy bed at night.
Expectedly, the cost of booking a hotel room for several hours will still run you over RM100 at a higher-end hotel, but as Flow has shown, there is a market willing to pay the price.
On the hotel’s end, Flow provides a web-based portal for hoteliers to manage their preferred timeslots and prices, which are in turn listed on the Flow website and app in real-time. 5 to 8-hour timeslots for guests are usually offered, but these can be adjusted based on the hotel’s operations.
“Most of our hotels price sessions at least 30% lower than traditional overnight prices,” Eric shared. “If the room can sell two sessions in a day, that already results in 40% more revenue.”
Flow charges a booking fee to hotels for each transaction to cover credit card fees, platform development, and marketing, though the exact percentage was not disclosed.
The platform helps drive sales for hotels through online ads and social media features, sometimes via joint promotions with the hotels.
“We also have our membership system in place and we often update our members through emails and app notifications on new hotels and latest offerings,” Eric said.
Going with the flow
Since the app is already live in Malaysia, I decided to check it out for myself. After swiping through a short introduction, I’m greeted by the home page of the app.
Clicking on Explore, I’m prompted to search for a place to Rest. As Eric mentioned, Work and Meet will only be offered in the future.
A list of hotels both familiar and new are listed when I click into Rest. I’m not sure how the listings are sorted because they don’t seem to be alphabetical or based on the price. And though Flow’s focus is on 3 to 5-star hotels, I noticed a 2-star hotel being listed too.
Since the rooms being listed are empty ones that the hotel wants to fill, most, if not all, of the listings offer “Instant Confirmation”. There is also a discount percentage shown to point out how much lower the listed price is compared to booking the room for a traditional nightly stay, ranging from as low as 20% up to 58% (the highest discount I saw so far).
A “Free Cancellation” bubble can be found on certain listings too, which is beneficial for remote workers with flexible schedules.
In each listing, there is an about section as well as an area showcasing the property amenities in useful little icons. Underneath that, I can choose my date and duration of stay, which is fixed by the hotel.
I’m then prompted to choose the room type and am offered two payment options—prepaying online or paying at the hotel. The check-in and check-out times are listed clearly in the booking details.
A few things I enjoy about the app are its friendly user interface and the fact that I don’t need to set up a whole account to explore options. I would enjoy it better if the listings also housed a section where I can read customers’ feedback, not just about the hotel itself but about the Flow booking process too.
Flowing into the future
Hotels have taken a major hit during the pandemic, and something like Flow could help the travel economy recover. There is still plenty of room for Flow to grow, particularly with the daycation crowd.
In order to attract more of the remote working crowd, Flow would have to grow their variety of hotels. For the most part, this crowd would be working from home, a coworking space, or a cafe, but the ability to work from a hotel room would be a welcome change once or twice a month.
But because what the remote working crowd seeks is a change of scenery every so often, it’s likely they will want to hop between hotels instead of staying at the same one repeatedly.
If Flow can satisfy this desire, remote working from hotel rooms may become common culture the way that working in coworking spaces and cafes have.