Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

I can't recall seeing a tour operator brochure or destination website featuring a high-resolution photo of a group of unsmiling tourists huddled under an awning, waiting for a downpour to ease up. But we've all witnessed or been a cast member of that scene.

While travelers may take note of rainy seasons/dry seasons during early stages of trip planning, as the journey approaches, they begin to experience what tour operators call "day-of uncertainty." Everything from concerns about weather to doubts about what they'll be in the mood to do on a given day can become a barrier for local attractions and excursion operators to secure deposits or prepaid commitments.

Although this is seen as a challenge to much of the industry, Airbnb saw it as opportunity when it launched Experiences, a platform that gives their home-share hosts and others the chance to make money guiding guests and visitors in their hometowns, even on short notice.

And now Airbnb is giving tour operators days, weeks and months of uncertainty as it moves aggressively to provide amateur guides for vacationers.

At SXSW earlier this month, I had breakfast with Riccardo Ulivi, who is leading that effort for Airbnb in North and South America.

The concept, he said, originated with home-share hosts.

Riccardo Ulivi, right, head of Airbnb’s Experiences initiative in North and South America, signed up for the “Eat with your Egyptian Family” listing in Sheikh Zayed City, about 30 minutes from downtown Cairo. The host told Ulivi he created the experience to expose his young daughters to different cultures and people from around the world.
Riccardo Ulivi, right, head of Airbnb’s Experiences initiative in North and South America, signed up for the “Eat with your Egyptian Family” listing in Sheikh Zayed City, about 30 minutes from downtown Cairo. The host told Ulivi he created the experience to expose his young daughters to different cultures and people from around the world.

"They said they were already doing cooking workshops, hiking with their guests and giving advice about where to go and what to do," he said. "And they saw it as an opportunity to expand their relationship with us."

Unlike the home-share business, Experiences is being somewhat selective about who can use its platform.

"We've had 100,000 hosts apply, and over 20,000 were accepted," Ulivi said.

His focus, he continued, is on the value of the experience. He wants offerings that will showcase the community, e.g., fashion in New York, architecture in Tokyo, nature in Seattle.

Airbnb provides guidance on pricing, on crafting host bios and on what makes a good experience. "Unprecedented access" is favored, and it takes pride in offering "a unique set of personalities" as hosts. Ulivi said he had convinced a roommate who was struggling as a hat designer to give up his supplemental job in a restaurant to become an Experiences guide.

The Art of Hatmaking has become a success, he said. Guests meet at the roommate's studio, where he explains the creative process, demonstrates hat-making equipment and shows guests fabrics and materials. They also have the option of helping him design their own hat, which he completes and sells to them.

The challenges that Experiences represents for tour operators are as great or greater than what home-sharing poses for hotels. The number of offerings -- 30,000, and counting -- dwarves what even the largest tour operator can assemble. Tour operations work on notoriously thin margins; platform-based Experiences adds very little expense as it scales up. It doesn't take much up-front work to launch each Experiences tour. There's incredible diversification of activities and saturating geographic reach.

Airbnb had purchased HotelTonight a few days earlier, which provided it with access to distressed hotel inventory. Would Ulivi consider listing distressed legacy escorted tours on his platform?

"We have been approached by large tour operators," Ulivi said. "We've talked with almost everyone, and we'll work with a brand that can give us access to a community. For instance, we work with the World Surf League, which connects us to world-class surfing around the world."

He continued, "We don't shy away from the existing tour industry, but we also feel we're the antidote to mass tourism. We don't want to do business with double-decker bus tours, just as we want to stay away from 'Brad,' who wants to offer photography tours of the Manhattan skyline but doesn't know how to use a digital single-lens reflex camera."

Airbnb maintains that it doesn't compete with hotels as much as it offers a new form of accommodations. Similarly, Ulivi said, "We don't compete with tour operators. This isn't a turf war. We're not trying to steal from the double-decker bus companies. We're creating an entirely new experience."

Still, if I were a tour operator, my antennae would be up, examining the model as both a threat and a source of learning. I doubt a traditional tour operator would do well trying to imitate Experiences; hotels have not had a great deal of success trying to mimic home-sharing. But there are certainly elements of what it's doing that could be incorporated into traditional tours.

While maintaining a stance of noncompetition during our conversation, Ulivi also suggested that days of uncertainty could lie ahead for other sectors of the legacy travel industry.

Airbnb, he said, "just hired a head of global transportation, formerly with Virgin. We're rethinking the entire transportation element of a trip. We could just partner with a car rental company, but we want to revolutionize everything. We want to think of every step. I see a world where we're part of the entire journey. That's our vision."

Correction: According to Airbnb, more than 20,000 hosts have been accepted to the Experiences platform.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI