Inside the Cutthroat World of Airbnb Experiences

The experience economy is alive and well, and Airbnb is cashing in

Airbnb Experiences
Airbnb Experiences connects travelers with tours and activities.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images
By Kayla Kibbe / December 6, 2019 7:00 am

People love being able to say that they value experiences over things. It’s become a weird, condescending way of establishing moral and intellectual superiority, perhaps rooted in some kind of puritanical belief system linking material possessions to greed and other vices of that nature.

Today, it’s just a weird humble brag: “Oh, you enjoy frittering away your money on physical objects? That’s cool. I prefer to spend my hard-earned resources on something priceless: experience.” 

This is dumb, because as we all know, experience is fleeting and things are forever, but that hasn’t stopped Airbnb from cashing in on the so-called “experience economy” that first took hold over two decades ago and has become increasingly popular among younger generations in recent years.

According to Eater, “Millennials and Gen Zers are valuing ‘things’ less and ‘doing stuff’ more,” especially while traveling. With this trend in mind, room-sharing company Airbnb launched it’s “Experiences” service back in 2017, offering tours and activities for travelers hosted by locals. By branching into business of commodifying experience, Airbnb joined a tours and experiences market estimated to be worth $183 billion by next year.

Among some of the most popular experiences Airbnb sells are those involving food. According to one study cited by Eater, 27 percent of travelers had engaged some type of food “experience,” whether a culinary tour or class, beyond just dining out. These numbers were even higher among younger travelers.

While online travel agencies like Expedia and TripAdvisor are also in the business of pushing tours and other travel “experiences,” Airbnb distinguishes itself from the corporate competitors with its reputation for hosting a community of real people who can presumably provide paid experiences of a more authentic variety.

For the locals selling those experiences, however, the platform can be downright cutthroat. “When you’re on a platform [like Airbnb], even if you’re successful, it’s very competitive, because you never know who’s going to come in and sell an experience like yours,” said Danielle Oteri, who hosts food tours in Bronx. “Anyone who does an experience on there is vulnerable to having someone do the exact same experience.”

So maybe the world of commodified experience isn’t so pure after all.

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