We all know that a holiday is a sort of time warp. We sneak out of our daily boundaries and exacting routines, breaking free from the more or- less pleasant Truman Show we are part of, we shrug off all responsibilities, pack the essentials, and go. A break, travel, even minimal, is a contractually recognised truce between our duties and our curiosity.
A vast amount of weekday time is spent interacting and dealing with people, but whilst the ‘silent retreat’ type of holiday is a growing temptation across the digitally binged West, on the opposite side of the spectrum, a soaring phenomenon within the industry is the experiential, adventurous, and, to some extent, responsible tourism that seeks immersive experiences and close encounters with the locals.
‘Experiential’ is, without doubt, the mantra word of our time, embossed at the core of the tourism industry as much as the word ‘disruptive’ is at the centre of the IT and technology industries.
The new leisure format breaks the mould of the ‘fishbowl effect’ that entails visiting our holiday destinations nicely in line with other foreign visitors in white sneakers, all locked into the tourist-trap circus, eating food that strives to resemble the cuisine we have just left behind in our home towns. What have we really learned? Not much. What have we experienced? A bit of sameness.
Time to break the line. Roll up your sleeves and get down to some action with the locals.
Airbnb Experiences was conceived and launched two years ago, at more or less the same time as Showmearound, another platform offering activities and chat encounters with the locals, or Meet the Locals, with the slogan ‘Come as a foreigner, leave as a friend.’ It is worth noting that decades after the forerunners of experiential tourism, the WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), was born in 1971, the platform still offers active holidays in organic farms around the world (www.Wwoof.net). Originally a European concept, now present in over 50 countries, in this format, the guest works with the farmer for four to six hours a day and gets free food and accommodation in exchange.
Airbnb Experiences reached Dublin last year, and it allows local people to offer tours and activities that may not necessarily be labelled as ‘touristy’. The activities on offer range from the mainstream ‘coffee & food walking tours’ of cities to the more niche ‘vegan cookery classes’, an immersive Riverdance class, and full-contact ‘cowmilking’ on a Wicklow farm.
Looking further afield, we find experiences such as ‘Japanese slow-living’, ‘Tokyo waterway night paddling’, ‘forest therapy’, and an ‘Aussie barbecue by the river’ in Sydney. For the daring, how about a ‘wolf encounter’ in the Seattle forests?
The activities on offer on all the ‘experiential’ digital platforms span the wildest of arrays. Having tried a few across Europe, I found that, nearly invariably, what leads the individual host to make him- or herself available to visitors for a few hours is the sheer joy of sharing, socialising a passion, an interest, a skillset. History, art, food or forest, photography or social activism, the driver is always the willingness to share. On the other side, the motivation that prompts the visitors to book is the willingness to meet, engage, and come in contact with another person who can act as a medium to a different place, a different culture..
Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb, recently declared that there is an “Amazon-sized opportunity” in selling experiences, and we know he is right. What else would we be looking for, in a society that has resolved all other necessities, if not experiences?
It appears, however, that the platform, up until now, has lost some $100 million, and some media outlets are picking up on what looks like a lack of uptake of the 5,000 activities (55,000 on the waiting list) currently offered in 27 cities worldwide.
We believe this is a common blip in the launch phase of a life cycle of new concepts based on transactional digital platforms. The rule of thumb of innovation often seems to be: overestimated effects in the short term, and underestimated reach in the long term.
The experience economy around the tourism industry is on a solid upward path, hand in hand with the lessening of the urge to possess brought about by millennials and Generation Z. This overlaps with baby boomers’ and Generation X’s desire to live a long and very active life – something that is bringing a completely new slant to active tourism. The adventure travel market has grown by a whopping 65% in recent years, and the WTO (World Tourism Organization) considers it one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry.
The rule of thumb of innovation often seems to be: overestimated effects in the short term, and underestimated reach in the long term.
In the last three years alone, the number of UK >65-year-olds travelling overseas has increased by 13.7%. Many of them aim for adventure and exploration, and do not hesitate to hit the gym hard to prepare for the challenge.
From the five-star hotels to the local tourism office, we are witnessing a multiplication of initiatives and experiential activities that are meant to offer a bridge between the visitors and the local-specific lifestyle.
The experience economy will most likely reach maturity and explosion when the voice-recognition instant-translation earpieces become available, crumbling language barriers amongst people and countries. It’s coming – give it another three to five years.
As the last decade has witnessed the explosion of mass tourism up to a tipping point of uneasiness, the backlash and search for alternatives has begun. More and more, we want to experience places viscerally, returning home changed and enriched. Immersing oneself in compelling situations allows us to break free from the claws of social media and rumination over daily concerns.
The easy criticism of the experiential travelling platforms is that it still represents an organised and transactional form of holiday fruition, and hence cannot be truly considered spontaneous and authentic.
As Jeremy Smith, editor and curator of responsible tourism for WTM, puts it, if there were a first rule of authenticity, it would be: “You cannot create authenticity […] and you cannot talk about being authentic – at least not if you actually are.”
For the ultimate authentic experience, the solution is equally clear-cut: whenever we are ready to cut loose from transactional platforms, that, to some extent, remove the element of risk and unknown, sanitising all that they touch – thus renouncing our right to share our holiday achievements on Instagram or Facebook – we will seek adventures on our own terms, solely for our own consumption, but only brave hearts will be strong enough to embrace the dizzying feeling of a truly intimate experience.
One thing is for sure: the future of holidaying is not sedentary. It’s full of action, made up of micro-identities and granular discoveries – not only territories and places, but people and faces. It’s ‘our way’ all the way. It’s the here, the now, the untold, the undiscovered. To some extent, it’s the irrelevant, the under-the-radar, that will never be covered in a guide or official blog, and, at some stage, not even in a review. ‘Keep it to yourself’ will become the new ‘been there, done that’.
Time to look back to move forward.