How travel providers can sell experiences better than Airbnb

This is a viewpoint from Matt Walker, chief storyteller at LikeWhere.

If you want to “Live like a Local”, traveling is a risk. You are better off staying home.

What’s more local than waking up in your own bed to the shuffling of your partner and the licks of your dog, or the shuffling of your dog and the licks of your….other dog?

Local has become one of those wily marketing terms that taps into our irrepressible need to be authentic, but more importantly, seen as authentic, without yielding any true clarification as to what it is.

Renowned authority Joseph Pine says:

“Authenticity is the new consumer sensibility of the Experience Economy.

“Authentic experience” is the standard by which we determine which product to buy and which brand to use. In the world of social media, authenticity is the standard by which we judge everyone else. Although, outside influences shift what we think is authentic, an experience, by definition is a reaction to external stimuli that occurs inside us–what is authentic is always determined by a personal set of criteria.

“The paradox [of an authentic experience] is no one can have an inauthentic experience. And, no business can supply one.”

We want to live and be seen as authentic and we travel in the same way as we live. But, that doesn’t have the same ring as “live like a local,” does it? Largely due to the marketing of Airbnb, local has been rebranded as the pinnacle of authentic experience: the experiential or consumable version of authentic. We hear local, we assume authentic.

This has temporarily solved a messaging problem in travel marketing, but fails to capture what inspires the modern traveler in the experience economy. The future of travel retail–and the crux for any travel brand seeking to compete with Airbnb in-destination–will be driven by a criterion of what personally inspires each traveller.

Local has many faces

In a recent tnooz piece, we published the results of a traveler survey we conducted, where we found:

  • 98% of respondents said having “local experiences” in a new city was important. 80% of respondents went on to define local as that which pertains to a specific place, and the native people of that place (20% defined it literally in terms of proximity).

This exposed the difficulty in marketing local in travel, because each city contains a variegated set of tribes and corresponding traditions, each a different version of local. Delivering the local experience is further convoluted by a traveler’s expectations.

One’s preconceptions of what is authentic in an unfamiliar destination is greatly informed by advertising, media and depictions of national holidays.

As Dublin natives, we have found that most of what visitors look to consume in Ireland is a derivative of St Patrick’s Day.

Every March 17th, during St Patrick’s Day (not Patty’s Day – which is short for St Patricia: different saint, different day), Dublin city pulsates to the rhythm of footfall and song, attracting 100,000 visitors from abroad.

And just because, most sane Irish natives avoid the city on Paddy’s Day–even our head of state flees the country–doesn’t make it any less local, or any less authentic for those visitors. It’s in the locale (Dublin) with some native (albeit unhinged) people, but most importantly, it’s aligned with the travelers’ expectations.

Come celebrate Ireland, in Ireland, with other tourists!

Travel is entering a post-local phase of marketing

When Bill Kimpton used “like a local” in the 1980s it carried weight because it was the plumbline for the Kimpton brand: the ethos that governed all personalised interaction between brand, neighbourhood and guest. Forty years later, it has become a tagline for a service that increasingly has no human component.

Has the travel industry reached a semantic satiation with the marketing term local?

Recently, GetYourGuide sidled into the provider space of tours and activities, branding their own experiences. Having retained the services of DesignStudio – the design firm responsible for Airbnb’s facelift a few of years ago – will GetYourGuide re-emerge in the coming year with a similar VintRetro UX and local-speak that pesky Millennials found hard to resist five years ago? Moreover, will that be enough to challenge Airbnb?

Remember, Airbnb solves the local/authentic conundrum by connecting a visitor with a native in the locale: whatever happens is local, and therefore, authentic. However, the trigger is always the lifestyle preference of the traveler. Every traveler wants local, but not just any local, they want the version of local most authentic to them.

Then it stands to reason that armed with the lifestyle preferences of the customer, travel providers can improve on Airbnb’s local\authentic recommendations. Furthermore, it opens up a far greater inventory of experiences–something Airbnb seems to be struggling to scale.

Using content to surface preferences is not new, the technology exists; it powers inspiration in retail and streaming services like Spotify, why not in travel? The travel provider that knows their customers’ lifestyle preferences could anticipate the best fit of local experiences in cities on their route map or neighbourhoods where they provide accommodation and, offer the most personalised recommendation that would lead to a memorable experience.

Call it local, call it authentic, but make it memorable

In our search for meaningful ways to directly engage and inspire the modern traveler, travel providers can no longer rely on marketing language that has no practical application.

Every experience is authentic to someone and travel providers can market every experience in their inventory as local and authentic, if (and only if) they have the capability of segmenting their content by the lifestyle preferences of their customer, ensuring a memorable experience. One traveler’s generic experience is another’s authentic moment.

Case in point: 100,000 visitors to Dublin every St Paddy’s Day. Memorable > Local

This is a viewpoint from Matt Walker, chief storyteller at LikeWhereOpinions and views expressed by all guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of tnooz, its writers, or its partners.

Image via Failte Ireland.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Tarun Goswami

    I think Authentic experiences are more segmented to the ‘types’ of experiences. Every authentic experience is memorable whether it’s local or not. These days, in the travel industry, local defines more unique experiences that are generally not easily available or experiences where tourists get to know a bit of history (imp element) and culture. However, every traveller wants authentic experience whether you name it a local experience or a most popular one.

  2. Joao Marcelo Braga

    Great point of view. Personalization has become a buzzword nowadays especially in the travel industry, but they try to do personalization based just in the user´s “navigation tracker” not in their unicity and personality. Just understanding deeply who is the person behind the screen and what are they looking for the next trip the travel industry will be able to offer a really unique experience for all their customers based on a one-to-one perspective.

  3. Peter

    Very interesting article. More and more travellers are seeking a personal experience while visiting a location. I like to call it authentic experiences rather than local.

    • Matthew Walker

      I totally agree, Peter. However, it’s difficult to market “Authentic” unless you know the personal criteria of “Authentic” – which differs from person to person. Most travel providers give all their packaged Experiences the Authentic Stamp of Approval without matching it to the appropriate traveler – and we get that one-size-fits-all marketing, that has rendered travel providers irrelevant in the inspiration/indestination phases of the travel lifecycle. What do you think?

      • Peter

        Matthew, I totally agree with you. For what you are saying, these travel providers (OTAs) would have to really curate the experiences they are offering to match them with the appropriate traveller demands. As they increase their inventory, the harder it gets to control the quality of local providers that offer that “authentic” experience.


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