A stop on the five-location cocktail tour, offered by Airbnb experiences, in Hoi An, Vietnam. The push to get travellers to book tours and activities through mobile apps and websites has never been more vigorous. Pic: Patrick Scott via The New York Times.
While on their honeymoon in Hoi An in central Vietnam, Sharadhi Gadagkar and Kunal Patel didn’t bother a hotel concierge with questions about things to do.

Instead, the couple signed up for their first Airbnb experience, a tour organised by SecretEATS, during which they went to five locations serving original cocktails, including a spiked iced coffee in the wood-planked loft of a designer boutique. It was a tipsy three hours with two other guests and two guides.

“We love booking these types of experiences,” said Gadagkar. “They give you a unique perspective on the local culture that’s much harder to get on our own.”

The push to get travellers to book tours and activities through cellphone apps and websites has never been more vigorous.

Most of the day trips - unlike hotels and flights - are booked offline, representing the next growth opportunity for online companies.

Players large and small are racing to aggregate group tours, activities and attractions - from river cruises in Chicago to Sound of Music tours in the Alps. The tech companies, a mix of established businesses and start-ups, are developing more personalised, “experiences”, like a butchery class at a London gastro pub or a tour of Buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City.

Recent advances in technology for booking and buying activities and tours, as well as travel envy spawned by social media, have accelerated the growth.

“There is a real unique leap, more of a quantum leap being made in the experience space,” said Jamie Wong, the founder and chief executive of San Francisco’s Vayable, which has been offering urban experiences hosted by locals since 2011. “It’s a pretty massive pie and its growing far faster than hotels or car rentals.”

The so-called experience economy and shift to buying memories rather than things has been tracked since the late 1990s.

Typically, the excursions would be found through a hotel front desk or a tourism office. But tourists, especially millennials, are increasingly turning to their phones for instant booking. Not having to struggle with a language barrier is also an incentive.

Operators of tours booked online can be the same ones used by tour offices. But when they’re not, deciphering which guide to choose, or even which site, can be tricky. Online platforms say their quality control includes monitoring reviews to weed out underperformers. Some have instant messaging for customers to send up red flags on-site and secret shoppers to test tours.

Even so, tourists like Zeena Bacchus and Felix Eke, who were travelling in south-east Asia recently, prefer an in-person transaction.

Bacchus, 29, a nurse from Pennsylvania, used online booking platforms TripAdvisor and Klook to get an idea of things to do when in Hoi An. But they arranged sightseeing through a tourism office, figuring they could negotiate a better price and establish trust in person.

“I can tell a tour company exactly what I want and see if they can work out my activities for the amount of days I have,” Bacchus said.

Gadagkar and Patel, San Francisco tech workers, are sold on online experiences. Besides their Airbnb cocktail adventure, they booked wine, rafting and cycling tours in New Zealand last year through TripAdvisor and its Viator business.

Online travel companies like TripAdvisor, Expedia and start-ups like Klook, KKday and Musement have amassed inventory from the million-plus tours, attractions and activities. Many are recruiting entrepreneurs to upload less commercial offerings with personal connections to culture and residents.

Booking.com jumped into experiences in 2016 in Europe and the Middle East. Last month, the company opened its attractions offerings to all travellers. The goal is to be a cellphone concierge desk for all points of a trip.

Ram Papatla, Booking.com’s vice-president of global experiences, said: “We have a lot to learn in terms of how deep we need to go and what kinds of tools we need to build.”

Some start-ups are focused on building their own supply with guides, who design encounters where travellers have a deeper engagement with a place. Context Travel was one of the first in 2003, with experts leading private art, architecture and food tours, followed in 2005 by Global Greeter Network, where volunteers show visitors highlights and hidden spots in cities for free.

Airbnb became a dominant player after it introduced its experiences in 2016, now with more than 30 000 offerings in 1000 cities.

Dozens more have crowded the scene recently, with apps coming last year from Lyfx, which pairs travellers with outdoor adventurers, and this year from VeloGuide, matching travellers with local cyclists for personal tours.

There are niche players like Tiqets, which offer tickets to attractions and museums like a priority pass to the Sistine Chapel.

Holiday package resellers like TourRadar, Stride and Evaneos aggregate multiple-day tours across the world and let users customise a holiday with an agency operator.

The escalation in experiences has been a boon to entrepreneurs like Alexander Bradley, a Paris photographer who listed a photography tour on Vayable in 2013. He has 33 photographers leading tours in 17 cities, mostly in Europe and Asia, and lists them on seven booking platforms.

“If it wasn’t for Vayable, I wouldn’t have started,” Bradley said. “It gave me the ability to have a risk-free start.”

The New York Times