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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Stephen Joyce

About the Writer :: Stephen Joyce

Stephen Joyce has been a contributor to tnooz since 2009 and has been working in travel and tourism technology since 1995. Stephen is the CEO of, a cloud based software as a service reservation and booking platform for tour and activity providers.

Stephen is the Past Board Chair of the OpenTravel Alliance and currently sits on the Education Advisory Group for the National Tour Association (NTA).

Stephen is a graduate of Capilano University, a certified commercial pilot, and holds a certificate in IT Management.



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  1. peter syme

    I take the view that Airbnb moving into experiences is a huge benefit for the industry and it builds awareness and provides marketing value paid for by Airbnb. I seriously doubt they will provide a threat to established tour operators as they will find that Airbnb hosts and activity and tour operators are very different beasts in the majority of cases. As has been discussed there is a huge difference between renting a fixed asset like a room or apartment then providing a face to face service when the host in most cases will have another job etc. Providing $1m insurance does go some way to addressing the legal issues but not all in the UK it is a minimum of £5m and most wanting to see £10m. I will view Airbnb being serious about experiences when they hook up supply at scale until then I think they are just experimenting. Obviously, they could scale instantly by doing deals. Airbnb hosts are just a new B&B or guest house as far as I am concerned and we have networked those for decades and the same model works with Airbnb hosts. One thing I noticed as this season slows down for us the in destination business is rapidly moving from host/recommendation to mobile! Be good to catch up at Arival Stephen it has been a while.

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      Thanks for the feedback Peter, always great to read your thoughts. Great ending point about mobile. We are seeing very similar trends away from phone and recommendations to mobile direct. I look forward to catching up at the Arival Event!

  2. Saloni Bajaj

    With the growth in travel and the purpose of travel shifting(Esp for the millennials) from just leisure to exploring, Experiences add a great value, but to a more niche audience.
    Traditional tour plans still hold relevance and probably will continue to do so because a large number of tourists still want to first cover the key tourist spots and who better than the local agents/free walking tours etc to take them through the same.

  3. Bruce Rosard

    Always enjoy reading your posts Stephen and look forward to seeing you at Arival in Vegas next month. I find it interesting that Airbnb isn’t out on the conference circuit talking about Experiences yet. What does that mean? They sure are at just about every travel conference talking about vacation rentals. Hmmm. The biggest question I have on this is that Airbnb is built to scale, and it doesn’t seem that Experiences can really scale – can it?

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      It’s difficult to tell what the long term strategy with Experiences is at the moment. It could be a way to add incremental revenues for hosts or it could just be a way to draw more eyeballs to destinations. In the meantime though I think operators can start to build relationships with vacation rental owners and groups to drive recommendations.

  4. Drew Meyers

    What’s going to prevent guests from bypassing AirBnB and booking the experiences directly? Convenience? Trying to figure out if this is primarily an “traveler engagement with unique experiences” play, or if they actually view it as a critical part of their revenue growth.

    • Bruce Rosard

      Drew – don’t you think that’s the same question you could ask related to vacation rental hosts? Airbnb makes it so easy to stay in their eco-system, I don’t see that changing, do you?

      • Drew Meyers

        I believe vacation rentals and experiences are very different consumer mindsets. The place to stay…has to be booked ahead of time. Experiences do not. In destination activities are something most (not all) travelers figure out once they get there… generally by asking the locals/travelers they meet, business owners, or concierge. Will that dynamic change over time? Maybe, but I don’t think it’ll be soon. Changing that will require scarcity of available great experiences/guides. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to scarcity now in most places. Maybe I’m wrong. Beyond that, why wouldn’t I just figure out who does the art tours, call/email him/her directly, and pay 30% (or whatever the number is) less than I’d pay on Airbnb?

        Seems I need to write a guest post explaining where I believe the transaction model will break down on vacation rentals. It’s going to take time, but it will start to see strains soon… it’s already seeing strains for some scenarios (ie sublets).

        • Stephen Joyce

          Stephen Joyce

          Yes, I agree with you. 80% of the in-destination market is still driven off-line, which is why building relationships with owners can help market “preferred” or “recommended” activities in destination. Imagine a list of recommended things to do provided to you by the vacation rental owner. Could be referral driven, online, phone, or in person. There are a multitude of ways that the businesses could work this out together.

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      I don’t think anything will prevent guests from bypassing AirBnB. The point I am trying to make though is that operators can build relationships with vacation rental owners in order to drive recommendations. Basically, having the owners act as pseudo concierges for their guests.

  5. Jared Alster

    Good read Stephen.

    I don’t think trust will be the major block for Airbnb Experiences. Remember their target market is already comfortable with the idea of sleeping in other people’s homes!

    The larger issue, IMO, is the breadth and focus of Experiences products. Sure, there is a small segment of travelers who want an artisanal pasta making class in San Francisco. But 100x as many travelers want instead to spend their time seeing the classic sites – especially during a first time visit.

    It’s a good opportunity for Airbnb to upsell and create a holistic travel product but other T&A companies shouldn’t let it distract them.


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