Airbnb: Friend or foe to the tours and activities industry?

Airbnb, alongside other vacation rental services, has been elbowing into the tourism world for years.

Until recently, it was seen as a hotel problem. Accommodations were at risk as Airbnb steadily pulled in almost 20% of business and leisure travelers — but the rest of the industry was safe.

Then Airbnb turned its attention to the tour and activity space.

What are Airbnb Experiences?

Late last year, the company launched Airbnb Experiences. In an effort to provide guests with a full travel itinerary, the company encourages “passionate locals” with authentic knowledge of a city to sign up to host experiences. Hosts take guests to the secret spots and unique activities that only an adventurous local knows how to find.

In other words, tours can be a side hustle for anyone with a talent for finding hot spots, or who have an interesting job, skill or hobby.

Airbnb isn’t fooling around with this offer, either.

Experience hosts get access to a $1,000,000 liability coverage program, just like accommodation hosts do. For now, experiences are still rolling out to major cities.

If the trials continue to succeed, we can probably expect them to arrive everywhere the company’s accommodation rentals serve.

What do Airbnb Experiences mean for tour operators?

With the arrival of experiences, everyone’s wondering: Should we be worried? In most cases, probably not. Airbnb Experiences are intimate activities requiring a lot of trust on the part of the guest.

Even travelers who are comfortable with peer-to-peer accommodations and ride sharing may be cautious about exploring a foreign city at the whims of a stranger who answers only to their online reviews.

The issue of trust aside, consider whether experiences overlap with your company’s tour or activity inventory.

Experiences are expected to be truly unique and interactive — opportunities to learn from artisans, local celebrities, scientists, and explorers, for instance. Or traveling the back roads and discovering a city’s most intimate secrets.

Some hosts are using the opportunity to offer straightforward tours and lessons, but for many, it’s a rare chance to share access or talents that don’t have a wide audience. As for the hosts themselves, they’re expected to have a high level of credibility, access, and empathy.

Airbnb prefers that they’re known experts in their fields, whatever those fields may be.

Does that sound like you? If you do offer that sort of experience, and you meet Airbnb’s requirement, this may be an opportunity rather than a cause for concern.

It could be worth crafting a listing, especially for the Airbnb service. Tracking availability for multiple services can be overwhelming if you handle it on paper, but most modern tour reservation systems will allow you to track these bookings even if there is no direct integration with Airbnb yet.

How can Airbnb Rentals drive bookings?

Experiences is an untested product, but vacation rentals are entrenched in many communities. For tour operators, they offer no threat. What they offer instead is opportunity.

Take the story of I Bike Harlem, a company that offers guided historical bike tours that look back at the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance and the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Today, it’s a good fit for Experiences as Bikes and Bites, but when the company launched, it made its own Airbnb opportunities.

Founder Maxine Daniels held receptions for local hosts, building relationships with many of them in the process. She offered brochures and t-shirts for hosts to give away in welcome packages for their guests and built success off that subtle, personal marketing technique.

The arrival of Experiences in no way eliminates that opportunity. Accommodation hosts are unlikely to become experience hosts, as they generally remain offsite and away from their guests. But they do want to give their guests the best possible experience.

After all, that’s how you get the best possible reviews. A robust welcome package with recommendations for local tours is just the thing to make a guest feel at home in a foreign city.

How is pitching hosts different?

Vacation rental hosts aren’t courted by tour providers the way hotel concierges are. Reaching them can be a challenge, but here are some tips on overcoming them.

When reaching out to hosts, make your case easily and personally. Hold a reception for local hosts. Offer free spaces, discounts, or special tours just for hosts. And consider what you can offer hosts who aren’t local but who rent out homes in your area.

Once you have a host’s attention, you need to make a good pitch. Like concierges, hosts rely on their reputations. Unlike concierges, they aren’t directly involved with the booking process.

Ensure their guests can book easily and will enjoy their experience, but don’t go overboard. Perks and commissions aren’t standard in this scenario, but they’re also not unheard of. Take care to guard your own interests when offering referral commissions.

Finally, remember that most vacation rental hosts are incredibly low-volume compared to hotels. If you’re spending a significant amount of time working with hosts who own individual properties, you may be over-investing. Aim to reach many hosts and cultivate superficial — but friendly — relationships. For most, a worthwhile addition to their welcome package may be benefit enough.

Vacation rental companies aren’t always good for local tourism. With cities increasingly considering or implementing regulations and bans, though, they’re motivated to try. Accommodation providers were caught unprepared for the rise of Airbnb and companies like it, so the rest of the travel industry is on high alert. Don’t let that keep you from taking advantage of the very real opportunities these services provide.

As vacation rentals continue to expand, your relationships in their communities will only become more valuable.

Photo by Luiz Hanfilaque

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