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Marriott, Airbnb see opportunity in selling ‘experiences’

Hotel and home-sharing companies don’t just want to sell you a room anymore. They also want to sell you an experience.

Want a “Game of Thrones” walking tour of Dubrovnik, Croatia? Marriott can book it for you. Want to create your own perfume in Paris? Airbnb can help.

Online operators like TripAdvisor and Expedia have been booking activities for more than a decade. But Marriott and Airbnb want a bigger piece of that business, so they’ve added thousands of offerings that travellers can book directly from their websites.

Airbnb debuted experiences in late 2016; it now offers more than 20,000 activities in 800 cities globally through the “Experiences” tab on its website. There’s a wide range, from a $12 yoga class on a Nashville porch to a $175 encounter with wolves near Seattle. Local hosts apply to Airbnb with tour ideas and Airbnb puts them on its site if they’re accepted.

The larger Marriott Moments program, which launched in October, offers 120,000 experiences in 1,000 destinations, from a $27 walking tour of Detroit to a $588 full-day tour of Tuscany. Marriott’s partner, online tour search company PlacePass, finds and vets the experiences.

Marriott still offers around 10,000 exclusive activities for its loyalty program members. Those offers — like a pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris — can only be booked with Marriott or Starwood points.

On both sites, experiences cost the same as they would if travellers booked directly with tour providers. West Wine Tours, which gives tours of Sonoma and Napa, California, in a restored Volkswagen bus, charges $125 on its site as well as through Airbnb.

But Marriott offers a perk: Members of its loyalty program can earn points for booking experiences. Airbnb is working on its own loyalty program, but details haven’t been announced.

Sarah Ellis booked a bike tour in Rome, a walking tour in Copenhagen and a Harry Potter walking tour in Edinburgh, Scotland, through Airbnb. She also booked a “Sherlock” tour through TripAdvisor in London, but felt it was too big and commercial.

“The less commercialized and monopolized and standardized the better for an authentic experience,” said Ellis, a librarian from Fresno, California.

Others say they would avoid booking through a big company. Matthew Kagan, a partner at a Santa Monica, California-based communications firm, said he wouldn’t necessarily book anything through Airbnb or Marriott even though he’s a member of Marriott’s loyalty program.

“I find sites like Yelp and other crowd-sourced options very helpful because I believe I’m getting real locals’ knowledge,” he said.

But Elizabeth Barber, an associate professor at Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, thinks Marriott’s experiences appeal to travellers who want a trusted name vetting their activities.

“If I only have three days and I don’t want to waste my time, these have Marriott’s stamp of approval,” she said.

Danielle Oteri runs a company called Feast on History that gives tours in Italy and New York City and has been offering tours of Italian food shops in the Bronx since 2007. Both Marriott and Airbnb reached out to her directly about her $79 tour, which is offered on both of their websites. But most tours are still booked through her own site.

Oteri thinks the growing demand for experiences stems from the sameness of global cities, with chains like Starbucks on every corner.

“When you travel it’s so much harder to find places that are unique to the city,” Oteri said. “It’s helpful to have someone introduce you to that stuff.”

But there are downsides to the experience boom, Oteri said. Airbnb recently began offering a tour similar to hers for $50. Marriott and TripAdvisor also collect a 25 to 30 per cent commission for tours booked through their sites, while Airbnb takes 20 per cent.

Still, the exposure on big websites is critical for small providers who can’t spend much on marketing. Marielle Chartier Henault, says five to 10 Airbnb customers per week book her one-hour, $36 mermaid swimming class in Toronto.

Joe Zadeh, Airbnb’s vice-president of trips, says people can earn an average of $6,000 per year if they host an activity four times per month and $30,000 per year if they host closer to 15 activities per month. Some of its hosts are earning more than $200,000 per year.

“It’s a really great economic opportunity where you’re doing what you love,” Zadeh said.

Dee-Ann Durbin, The Associated Press

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