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.