“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,” Ms. Bacchus said.
Ms. Gadagkar and Mr. 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.
“We prefer this to booking through local tour offices, because it helps us plan our trip ahead of time, and the unbiased reviews and pictures are super helpful in differentiating between two similar experiences, whereas that’s harder to do when booking with local tour offices,” said Ms. Gadagkar.
Paradoxically, the travel search-and-buy supply is growing so rapidly that it’s easy to be sucked into another digital ecosystem of choices that can distract travelers from exploring where they actually are, or from immersing serendipitously on their own for free.
The expanding experiences segment splits into a few groups.
Major online travel companies like TripAdvisor, Expedia and startups like Klook, KKday and Musement have amassed inventory from the million-plus tours, attractions and activities available. Many are also recruiting entrepreneurs to upload less commercial offerings with personal connections to local culture and residents.Booking.com jumped into experiences in 2016 in Europe and the Middle East. In May, the company opened its attractions offerings to all travelers, regardless of whether they had also bought accommodations. It started with attractions in 10 cities, from an Edinburgh castle tour to a Flamenco show in Barcelona.The goal, like with other big aggregators, is to be a mobile concierge desk for all points of a trip.“To be very honest, these are humble beginning days,” said Ram Papatla, Booking.com’s vice president of global experiences. “We have a lot to learn in terms of how deep we need to go and what kinds of tools we need to build.”
Some startups are focused mainly on building their own supply with local guides, who design encounters where travelers have a deeper engagement with a place. Context Travel was one of the first in 2003, with experts leading private art, architecture and food tours, followed in 2005 by Global Greeter Network, where volunteers show visitors highlights and hidden spots in cities for free.Traveling Spoon, with locals hosting cooking classes and making homemade meals, came on the scene in 2013. Airbnb quickly became a dominant player in the space after it introduced its experiences in 2016, now with more than 30,000 offerings in 1,000 cities.
Dozens more have crowded the scene recently, with apps coming last year from Lyfx, which pairs travelers with outdoor adventurers, and this year from VeloGuide, matching travelers with local cyclists for personal tours. There are also niche players like Tiqets, which offer tickets to attractions and museums like a priority pass to the Sistine Chapel, and Tinggly, whose website sells gift vouchers for multiple-experience packages including dining in the dark in Estonia.Finally, vacation package resellers like TourRadar, Stride and Evaneos aggregate multiple-day tours around the world and let users customize a vacation with an agency operator.