Big-name tour operators aren't losing sleep over Airbnb Adventures. But some are indeed paying close attention, which is prudent. Just ask European airlines, which underestimated the emergence of Ryanair and EasyJet, and would love to have a do-over.
Some tour operators have plenty of respect for the brand that Airbnb has built, but when it comes to the recent launch of multiday tours in the form of Airbnb Adventures, these tour professionals don’t think the online travel platform has what it takes to handle the complexity of such travel itineraries.
Online travel companies mainly compete against one another using “data, databases, and analytics,” said Oscar Lopera, general manager of group services at Diethelm Travel Group, which offers custom tours in more than a dozen Asian countries.
“They are not real destination experts. They are travel companies who are digitalizing the distribution and access of travel services or products in an easy, digestible, and associative way,” he said.
Lopera sees value in what Airbnb and other online travel companies are doing in the digital arena for tours, but he argued that luxury travelers demand customization and clamor for unique experiences.
Will Airbnb Fall Short?
Digital platforms don’t have corporate governance at the local level and inevitably fall short when it comes to health and safety, licenses and insurance, Lopera said.
“These platforms are ultimately acting as agents within the supply chain and are not regulating their services in the same way that a specialist destination management company does,” he argued. “Eventually complaints will surface and begin to impact Airbnb’s ability to trade effectively without taking necessary action.” Diethelm Travel provides destination management services.
Airbnb rejects the notion that there is a lack of destination expertise involved in Airbnb adventures.
The Right Stuff
“To maintain a unique and enjoyable experience, most adventures are listed on Airbnb by small, local operators who have deep knowledge of each destination and are vetted to a high-quality standard before they make it onto the platform,” said Airbnb spokeswoman Alison Holberton. “For this reason, feedback has already been overwhelmingly positive.”
Lopera of Diethelm Travel doesn’t see Airbnb impacting how his company, which has been around for six decades, runs its business. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, people start to realize some of the limitations to booking set packages from online platforms and then turn to alternatives like more established destination management companies and destination experts who still provide the human interaction that helps to build confidence in the high-end travel sector,” he said.
It should be pointed out that Airbnb Adventures does not focus on luxury travel. In its launch announcement, Airbnb said the media price of its tours, where participation is capped at a dozen people, is $588 for a three-day trip. The tours include accommodations and meals, but not flights.
Airbnb Can’t Compete on Value
Jeff Russill, senior vice president of marketing and product for Toronto-based G Adventures, said Airbnb Adventures went down the path of off-the-beaten path tours, which is on brand for Airbnb, instead of more conventional packaged holidays.
“To me it is not a new product in the market but new distribution for small operators that have websites and run tours,” Russill said, adding that the local operators often tweak their offerings slightly to make them different for Airbnb from their standard tours.
He said that Airbnb Adventures will have to compete with major tour operators on value and reliability. “Distribution doesn’t trump a good offering,” Russill said.
Russill noted that the tour transactions take place through the Airbnb platform but are with the local operators themselves. He doubted they would be able “to react to events on the ground and provide 24-hour customer service.”
Airbnb worked with the Adventure Travel Trade Association on best practices and to ensure each trip meets certain standards before Airbnb officially debuted its adventure tour offering.
“While we can’t eliminate all the risk in going on unique adventures out in the natural world, every trip must meet certain quality and safety standards,” said Holberton of Airbnb. “Additionally we have developed a number of policies and partnerships to ensure that each trip runs as smoothly as possible and that our community is adequately prepared for otherwise unexpected situations.”
For example Airbnb has a team monitoring global emergencies around the clock, according to Halberton, to communicate with both hosts and guests. The company has also partnered with emergency management and civil protection groups for guidance on safety and preparedness.
Airbnb has also partnered with International SOS to provide medical assistance and support evacuations if the situation calls for such measures, she said.
A Rising Tide?
Multiday tours are complex products that need customization and support, including insurance, Russill said, adding that half of G Adventures’ business comes through travel agents for precisely these reasons.
He doesn’t think Airbnb Adventures would have a negative impact on G Adventures because it will raise awareness for the tour sector. Perhaps it “will lift all boats,” Russill said.
And the G Adventures executive said his company would “absolutely” consider being a tour supplier for Airbnb Adventures, although for now Airbnb seems to be relying on smaller local operators.
Russill hopes Airbnb Adventures will spur big online travel agencies, such as Booking Holdings, which is competing with Airbnb in alternative accommodations, to consider distributing tours. He recalled that Expedia tried to do so about 8–10 years ago, and G Adventures participated, but Expedia dropped the idea because tours are so complex.
Online travel agency distribution from the likes of Expedia Group and Booking Holdings is on the wish list of The Travel Corporation, with its 30 brands, including Trafalgar, Contiki, and Brendan Vacations.
“We appreciate that Airbnb has recognized the multiday opportunity, and we finally look forward to the larger OTAs recognizing what an exciting opportunity to expand distribution opportunities with well-recognized global brands,” said Dan Christian, chief digital officer for The Travel Corporation.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Booking, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Ctrip, all of which offer single-day tours and activities, eventually take the multiday bait.
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Photo credit: Show is a G Adventures-supported waterfall mist hike in Vik, Iceland. The tour operator sees Airbnb as a distribution platform and not a destination expert. G Adventures