Someone should tell Airbnb that travelers don’t like booking tours online

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Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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The future of travel is Experiences—with a capital E. At least according to Airbnb, who has invested heavily in its tours and experiences wing and said the offering “has seen incredible growth.”

But when you look at the tours and activities sector as a whole, it appears travelers still haven’t quite fallen in love with booking tours and experiences online en masse. New data from travel intelligencer Skift found that online travel agencies like Viator/TripAdvisor, Airbnb, and GetYourGuide account for a mere 4% of global tours and activities revenues. This supports previous research from Phocuswright, which found in a 2017 report that “online resellers accounted for just 3% of tours and activities sales globally.”

That’s not to say that the travel tours and experience market is not a big one; Phocuswright estimates its value at $135 billion globally. For a company like GetYourGuide, which is one of the largest aggregators and resellers of tours online, this massive untapped market is an opportunity rather than a hindrance—you’ve just got to understand the fundamental difference in experience between booking an activity online, compared with booking accommodation.

“Accommodation by itself is a very different type of product: It’s a bed and a roof in a location at a specific price point. Whereas an activity is a story, it’s a time period you spend in a destination—it’s the why you go,” said GetYourGuide co-founder Johannes Reck. “So for us the presentation [online] is much more around inspiration than a hotel website is. We want to inspire people to book an experience.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to think of other reasons why travelers might be more than happy to book a flight or hotel online, but shy away from booking a tour or experience ahead of time. Airlines and hotel chains are generally known entities to travelers, even if they’re on the other side of the globe. Meanwhile Phocuswright estimates that the majority of tour operators worldwide are small suppliers that are unknown to travelers, with 61% having less than 5,000 customers annually.

In addition, factors like weather, shifting itineraries, and a preference for flexibility may mean that travelers prefer to make their decision about what tour to book once they’ve arrived. Or, they may want to wait until they’re on the ground and can field recommendations for their hotel concierge, or use their intuition. And perhaps above all: Who wants to decide whether to go to the Colosseum on Tuesday or Wednesday three months in advance?

That said, GetYourGuide is betting on the fact that this sector will grow once customers trust the offerings and curation of platforms like theirs. Once they do, they feel they are perfectly positioned to capture the market. While Airbnb’s Experience play has focused on the unusual, unique, and peer-to-peer model, GetYourGuide has banked on the fact that most travelers—on their one trip to Paris, Rome, or Hong Kong—do not want to skip the iconic sights. Rather, they want to pay for streamlined experience, a professional and knowledgeable tour guide, and perhaps an opportunity to skip a queue.

“We believe that if you’re in Paris and you’re going there for the first time, going to the Eiffel Tower is going to result in a better experience than having a small dinner in some host’s home,” Reck says. “Airbnb tries to change the way people travel, which is reasonable, but I would argue that ultimately you can never be successful if you’re just in the niche market and you’re not offering the main things that people want to do.”