Have app, will travel like a local – hopefully
While on their honeymoon in Hoi An in central Vietnam last month, Sharadhi Gadagkar and Kunal Patel didn’t bother a hotel concierge with questions about things to do. Instead, the couple signed up for their first Airbnb experience, a tour organized by SecretEATS, during which they hit five locations serving original cocktails, including a spiked iced coffee in the wood-planked loft of a designer boutique. It was a perfectly tipsy three hours with two other guests and two guides.
“We love booking these types of experiences,” said Gadagkar. “They give you a unique perspective on the local culture that’s much harder to get on our own.”
The push to get travelers to book tours and activities through mobile apps and websites has never been more vigorous. The majority of these day trips, unlike hotels and flights, are still booked offline, representing the next major growth opportunity for online travel companies. Players large and small are racing to aggregate existing group tours, activities and attractions – from river cruises in Chicago to “Sound of Music” tours in the Alps.
These tech companies, a mix of established businesses and startups, also are developing more personalized, local “experiences,” like a butchery class at a London gastro pub or a tour of Buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City.
Recent advances in technology for booking and buying activities and tours, as well as travel envy spawned by social media, have accelerated the growth. Investors are plowing money into the sector in record amounts, like the $484 million round of funding that Berlin-based aggregator GetYourGuide announced in May.
“There is a real unique leap, more of a quantum leap being made in the experience space,” said Jamie Wong, founder and chief executive of San Francisco-based Vayable, which has been offering urban experiences hosted by locals since 2011. “It’s a pretty massive pie and it’s growing far faster than hotels or car rentals.”
The so-called experience economy and shift to buying memories rather than things has been tracked since the late 1990s. In truth, all travel is an experience, but the branding and marketing of “experiential travel” has been one of the top tourism trends in recent years.
Typically, these excursions would be found through a hotel front desk or a local tourism office. But tourists, especially screen-dependent millennials, are increasingly turning to their phones for instant booking.
Operators of tours booked online can be the same ones used by local tour offices. But when they’re not, deciphering which guide to choose, or even which site, can be tricky.
Even so, tourists like Zeena Bacchus and Felix Eke, who were traveling in Southeast Asia last month, prefer an in-person transaction. Bacchus, 29, a nurse practitioner from Pennsylvania, used online booking platforms TripAdvisor and Klook to get an idea of things to do when in Hoi An. But they arranged sightseeing through a local tourism office, figuring they could negotiate a better price and establish trust in person.
“I’ve just found that when traveling in other countries, I can tell a local tour company exactly what I want and see if they can work out my activities for the amount of days I have,” Bacchus said.
Gadagkar and Patel, San Francisco-based tech workers, are sold on online experiences. Besides their Airbnb cocktail adventure, they booked wine, rafting and cycling tours in New Zealand last year through TripAdvisor and its Viator business.