I Tried Airbnb's Zaniest Online Experiences
Could the company's latest play to own the experience economy transport me virtually around the world? I made sangria with drag queens in Portugal, meditated with sleepy sheep in Scotland, and visited stray dogs in Ukraine to find out just how far Zoom-powered travel could take me.
Since the lockdown began, I’ve been dreaming about traveling. During waking hours, the fact that I can’t predict the timing of my next trip ranks low on my list of concerns. But in sleep, I find myself lining up to board planes, sprinting to catch trains, rattling on buses through unfamiliar landscapes. I am always in transit; I never fully arrive. Last night I dreamed I was waiting for a connecting flight when I realized I’d lost my luggage. A few weeks ago, my subconscious arranged a vacation with my parents, who, in reality, I haven’t seen since February. We’d just hugged hello in a crowded airport terminal when my dream self remembered the existence of the novel coronavirus. I felt a sickening dread, and then I woke up.
My unconscious mind seems to be telling me that, after eight weeks of leaving my apartment as little as possible, I’m more restless than I’ve let myself admit. It’s a problem that anyone working from home should feel lucky to have. Still, it may explain the enthusiasm I felt in early April, when I learned that Airbnb was offering what it calls Online Experiences: virtual cooking classes, fitness sessions, and other quirky forays led by hosts of odd expertise all over the world and conducted via the video-conferencing app Zoom for the distraction and amusement of people who find themselves bored, anxious, and homebound.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, I had plans to report on the company’s original, in-real-life version, Airbnb Experiences, for Outside. Launched in November 2016 as Airbnb Trips, then later rebranded, Experiences is its attempt to plant a flag in the tour economy that occupies a significant share of vacationers’ budgets. (Sixty percent or more of travel spending goes to activities and restaurants, according to industry analyst Henry Harteveldt.) Just as Airbnb allows people to turn their ordinary homes into ad hoc hotels, Experiences encourages them to convert their zany passions and pastimes into walking tours, cooking classes, and other pursuits. That personal twist is a hallmark of Airbnb Experiences, and it sets it apart from the offerings of a mass-market tour company.
However, two years after Airbnb rebranded Trips as Experiences, the division is still losing money, according to The Wall Street Journal. Airbnb declined to speak on record for this story, but CEO Brian Chesky—who has ambitions of turning the company into a full-service online travel agency with, among other things, its own flight-booking tool—seems committed to Experiences as a cornerstone of his company’s future.
Now the pandemic has halted tourism indefinitely. Before the arrival of COVID-19, Airbnb had planned to go public by the end of the year. Chesky told NPR in late April that he remains “very confident” that Airbnb will still have an IPO in 2020. But this week, the company announced layoffs of roughly 25 percent of its staff. In a memo, Chesky told employees that 2020 revenue is expected to be less than half of what it was in 2019.
Weeks before, the company had doubled down on Experiences. On April 8, it announced that hosts would be revising their offerings for an online format, creating “a new way for people to connect, travel virtually and earn income during the COVID-19 crisis.” At press time, the more than 150 Online Experience listings included a high-intensity workout with an Olympic rower, a cello concert with a professional musician, and cooking classes for everything from salsa to curry to homemade ricotta cheese.
Until now, Airbnb’s success has been propelled by its promise to help any tourist, in the words of its most famous slogan, “Live like a local.” Its constellation of home shares let you burrow into whatever bohemian neighborhood you might aspire to call home. Airbnb Experiences caters to the same desire to access an authentic version of each place we visit. It offers travelers a conduit to a city’s real residents, many of whom don’t work in tourism.
By contrast, on the surface, Online Experiences seems to provide a way out of a place rather than a way into one—an escape from our present shelter-at-home situations rather than an introduction to a new town. Participants will see little of the destinations where each online experience is hosted. The appeal is the chance to break free, for an hour or 90 minutes, from the stress and monotony of our respective quarantines. But the lure of travel, in large part, is the opportunity to consider our own lives from a distance. I’m one of those people who cries in cars and on airplanes: it feels safe to let the feelings catch up to you when you’re in motion, as if you’ll outstrip them by the time you arrive.
A few days after Online Experiences launched, I eagerly signed up for four of the highest-rated sessions: a sangria-making workshop run by drag queens in Portugal, a magic lesson in England taught by a Guinness World Record–holding magician, a guided meditation in a sheep barn in Scotland, and a tour of Chernobyl, Ukraine, with a man who tends to the area’s packs of stray dogs. As I did so, I was conscious of hoping for more than a virtual change of setting. I was craving the perspective on life that vacations so often provide. The experience that most interests me is the one we’re all in the middle of—but I’ve found my own sense of this lockdown to be oddly slippery, as if the lack of day-to-day variation somehow translates to an absence of texture. I got the news that a family member could have been exposed to the virus, and then the news two days later that her test came back blessedly negative, while I sat in the same spot on the same couch. It’s been hard to hold on to these moments as distinct memories.
And maybe that’s why I’ve been dreaming about traveling: I want to get far enough away from this tense, listless life to look back at it and see where I am.
The evening of my first Online Experience, “Sangria and Secrets with Drag Queens,” I dress in jeans and a turtleneck instead of sweatpants and a T-shirt for the first time in weeks. Yet within minutes of starting the Zoom video conference, host Teresa al Dente directs the ten participants to do something about our shabby appearances. “During this quarantine, I’ve been noticing that, when I talk to my friends online, they don’t look amazing like they usually look when we’re together in life,” says al Dente, who is livestreaming from Lisbon, Portugal. “And let me be honest. All of you are not looking like….” She trails off, as if she can’t find a description that won’t hurt our feelings. “So I will give you 60 seconds to go to your bedrooms and bring a nice hat, or scarf, or some earrings, or something.”
It must be said that al Dente does look amazing, with a platinum-blond updo, red cat-eye glasses, and a string of pearls that are as big as bonbons. She stands before a stage with a shining gold curtain, clearly intended for real-life drag shows. But on March 10, al Dente canceled all performances and has been sheltering in place with six other queens ever since. Today they’ve set up a table and arrayed it with fruit, wine, and spices—the ingredients for the sangria we’re about to make.
I sit for a moment, feeling mulish—I already dressed up for this!—before I go to my bedroom and open my closet. The first thing I see is an orange silk kimono that my mother-in-law found in a thrift store over the winter. I couldn’t wait to wear it, but I’d never had an occasion. Making sangria in silk sounds alluringly irresponsible. It’s a fantasy from an alternate universe where I’m not counting the beans left in my cupboard, the money left in my bank account, and the days since the last time I Cloroxed my doorknobs. I pull the robe off the rack.
In my tiny kitchenette, I balance my laptop on the edge of my sink and massage my oranges as instructed by al Dente’s cohost, Miss Afrika. Far more decadent than cooking in a kimono is the prospect of using up all my fresh fruit in one night—as if I could just go buy more, no big deal. But I soon forget my ambivalence. As al Dente and Afrika mix spices into a syrup, they also incorporate each participant into an improvised story. After I out myself as a journalist, I am cast as the villain: “You know when you see Frozen and you have the bad witch? She will be our bad witch,” al Dente says. An Irishwoman who comes back from her closet in a fur-trimmed coat is the fun one (she has invited two friends, who join from different cities). The handsome boyfriend in an early-twenties couple becomes the collective love object. (“He is my favorite,” al Dente announces.)
Every once in a while, our hosts punctuate the instructions by lip-syncing and dancing to a musical number: Fergie’s “Be Italian” to encourage us to drink our sangria “like Italians” (whatever that means), or “Let It Go” from Frozen when it’s time to add ice. I’m surprised by how companionable it feels to cook with these strangers, alone in my kitchen. We trade suggestions for fruit substitutions via chat. Most of the other guests are somewhere in Europe, where it’s well after dinner, and they ask to see the view from my window in Boston, where it’s still light. “Oh, look, you have some trees,” one says kindly, even though I live across the street from a gas station. At the end, we toast to one another’s health—“Saúde!”—and I find myself wishing that they wouldn’t go. I’m dressed up and a little drunk for the first time in months, and outside my window, it’s warm enough to imagine carrying this pitcher to the porch of a friend’s house a few blocks away. I allow myself to acknowledge, for a moment, how much I wish that were possible. Then I close my laptop and start cleaning up.
Airbnb works by bringing people together. That’s not to romanticize the social contributions of a behemoth company with sales surpassing the Hilton hotel chain. It’s simply to acknowledge that Airbnb, like every exemplar of the sharing economy, succeeds by distributing risk, effort, and—to a lesser extent—profits to a wide pool of people.
In the age of coronavirus, that strength may become a weakness. Some analysts have predicted that, even when tourism begins to rebound, travelers will opt for traditional hotels over Airbnbs on the hunch that they may be more hygienic. (To allay such concerns, on April 27, Airbnb announced a new set of cleaning protocols for hosts, including a 24-hour waiting period between guests, intended to prevent viral spread.) Others think Airbnb could come out ahead. Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of hospitality marketing at Boston University, speculates that travelers could prefer a more remote Airbnb over crowded traditional accommodations. And a recent report from Skift found that, so far during the pandemic, short-term rentals were faring better than hotels. Some Airbnbs have even been used for self-quarantining, The Washington Post reported, though Airbnb has explicitly asked hosts to avoid any mentions of COVID-19 in their listing titles.
Regardless, even before the pandemic, challenges to the significant expansion of Airbnb’s core business were already emerging. “Lodging is their bread and butter, but a lot of the growth in their mature markets is starting to plateau,” Daniel Guttentag, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at the College of Charleston, told me in February. In recent years, public opinion of the company has begun to sour, as the boom in short-term rentals intensifies already-severe housing shortages in many cities. Tourist destinations from Barcelona, Spain, to Las Vegas have cracked down on Airbnb rentals, trying to reclaim housing for actual residents. Meanwhile, the company is locked in what Wired has called “a ‘guerilla war’ against local governments” as it fights regulations that require Airbnb to pay occupancy taxes and comply with zoning and safety rules like traditional hotels. (Airbnb maintains that it wants to pay taxes and has delivered more than $2 billion in tourist taxes to local governments around the world. The company has also settled some of its lawsuits against cities in recent months.) Between new regulation and the reality that many cities are already “saturated” with Airbnbs, Guttentag says, “they’re not expanding at the same clip as they were in Europe and North America, and I don’t think they will again. [Experiences] is a hedge, a way of expanding their portfolio.”
But Experiences is still too small to provide an avenue to the kind of growth Airbnb saw in its early years. Within the travel industry, tour providers are a fragmented market—no one player is dominant, not even Viator (owned by TripAdvisor), one of the largest. Huge profits await any company that can consolidate the mosaic of tiny operators. But Airbnb has scaled carefully: in 2019, the company’s director of food and drink experiences told Eater that they were looking for hosts with “access, expertise, and connection” but trying to steer clear of professional tour companies. Many of the choices on the site are essentially invitations to try a stranger’s favorite hobby—like a five-star crabbing experience in Charleston, South Carolina, whose host, Tia Clark, told me that she has used Experiences to find fellow fishing fanatics on her own travels. Says Guttentag, “They’re keeping the offerings unique, which on the one hand limits growth but on the other makes the experiences special.”
Before the novel coronavirus hit, Airbnb had amassed more than 50,000 Experiences in more than 1,000 cities. According to Airbnb, hosts (the company uses the same term for people peddling homestays and activities) made an average of $2,500 per Experience in 2018, though I spoke with some people in popular tourist areas who were making a living on the platform. Sarah Braun-Lévy, a yoga, meditation, and Reiki instructor in the town of Joshua Tree, California, told me in February that providing Experiences enabled her to leave her job in Los Angeles. When we spoke again in April, her income had dried up in what is usually her busiest season, since spring brings the California desert’s best blooms. She’d applied to teach Reiki healing online and been rejected; Airbnb deemed her idea “too much like a common service and not an Experience,” she says. She submitted another application, to stream hourlong meditation sessions from the desert in Joshua Tree, but hadn’t heard back yet. In the meantime, she was attempting to build a following through word of mouth and Instagram. So far, though, she says, “it’s been really quiet.”
Even the hosts holding Online Experiences are taking a hit, since most are charging between $10 and $40—much less than most in-person offerings, which can frequently cost anywhere from $30 to $150. But Online Experiences could play an outsize role in keeping Airbnb on the minds of locked-down consumers. When I attempted to book my sessions, two of the options I’d chosen had no openings for at least a week; I had to message the hosts and ask them to squeeze me in. Like in-person experiences, most online offerings are capped at ten participants. Every group I joined was full.
On Tuesday, I click the Zoom link for “Secrets of Magic” with Martin Rees, a magician based in Berkhamsted, near London. His credentials include the Guinness World Record for performing the most magic tricks during a single skydive. I feel a little awkward when I realize that my fellow students are two elementary-school-age boys—one in New York who sits rapt with attention for 90 minutes and another in Iowa who starts climbing his couch within the first half hour—and an extremely serious tween girl in Florida. Luckily, a trio of fellow adults soon appear, stranded in separate apartments in London.
Rees is in his early thirties, with gelled hair and a pinstripe shirt. I like his frenetic energy and earnest love of his craft, which he describes as the art of “creating a bubble of awe and wonder and mystery for someone else as a gift.” The bubble doesn’t pass through the computer screen entirely intact: I’m sure the moment when Rees’s wallet erupted in flames would have shocked me in real life, but it’s tame compared to the content of Netflix shows I’ve streamed on this same laptop. Still, Rees is a clear and encouraging teacher: I learn how to make a coin pass through a solid tabletop and how to shred a piece of toilet paper and then unfold it in one piece—a trick that would be useful if it were more than sleight of hand.
On Wednesday, I attend “Dogs of Chernobyl” with Lucas Hixson, an American radiologist who works on environmental remediation at the damaged nuclear power plant and raises money for the packs of stray dogs that roam its Exclusion Zone. He drives through the plant’s grounds, livestreaming as his camera points out the car window at the cement buildings and low-hanging sky. In the course of an hour, he pulls over in a few places where the animals like to congregate and spreads wet and dry food in long lines on the ground. Then he whistles, and the dogs slowly appear. Hixson can see them coming long before the camera separates their gray and brown shapes from the gray and brown landscape. Some bound up to greet him, whole bodies wagging, while others slink warily toward the food.
Hixson explains that the dogs are descended from animals whose owners were forced to evacuate when the plant exploded in 1986. “People were told that they would only be gone for three days,” he says. “They were instructed to leave their pets behind.” I look at my dog, Seb, asleep on his bed by my desk, acutely aware of how much worse things could be.
And maybe that’s why I’ve been dreaming about traveling: I want to get far enough away from this tense, listless life to look back at it and see where I am.
My favorite online session transports me to Stirling, Scotland, in the southern side of the country, where Beccy Routledge normally hosts an Experience called “Tea with Naughty Sheep.” She has four pet Herdwicks with curly gray coats and black button eyes set amid white, wedge-shaped faces. In her day job, she’s an expert on stress and anxiety, coaching professional musicians on coping with nerves. On Zoom, she pans the camera across her verdant property—“There’s no traffic noise here, only birdsong,” she says—before settling onto a hay bale in her barn, surrounded by sheep. There she walks us through three stress-relieving exercises. We massage our arms in a hug, smile even if we don’t feel like it, and exhale slowly while counting our breaths. Routledge suggests that we bury our hands in wooly blankets or sweaters and imagine that we’re here with her, petting her animals.
As Routledge is speaking, I realize that I probably passed near her home when I was in Scotland five years ago with my parents and brother. We contemplated visiting Stirling to see its famous castle on our way from Edinburgh to Inverness, though I don’t think we actually did. I’m still searching my memory when Routledge brings in her daughter, Rivkah, a yoga instructor now out of work and quarantined with her family. Rivkah instructs us to imagine that our stomachs are full of swirling smoke, which we can expel by exhaling. She tells us to inhale bright light in its place. As she speaks, I realize I’m crying for the first time since entering lockdown. I consider turning off my camera, but it seems more conspicuous. Instead, I wipe my eyes with the torn toilet paper that I left on my desk after “Secrets of Magic.”
Rivkah’s voice carries me out of quarantine, instructing me to listen to the sounds coming through my computer screen. I close my eyes and hear chirping birds and a strong breeze. Then she tells me to listen to the sounds in my own world. As an empty bus rattles by, I do feel a bit like I’ve left and returned. Like so many of the realizations I’ve had on past vacations, the truth I’ve hit on today should perhaps have been obvious: the defining emotion I’m feeling is sadness, a longing for the people I love. It seems I had to be in motion to let myself know it. For a few minutes on Zoom, I felt like I was.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.