Have App, Will Travel Like a Local. Hopefully.

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

A stop on the five-location cocktail tour, offered by Airbnb experiences, in Hoi An.CreditPatrick Scott

By Patrick Scott

While on their honeymoon in Hoi An in central Vietnam last month, 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 organized by SecretEATS, during which they hit five locations serving original cocktails, including a spiked iced coffee in the wood-planked loft of a designer boutique. It was a perfectly tipsy three hours with two other guests and two guides.

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

The push to get travelers to book tours and activities through mobile apps and websites has never been more vigorous. The majority of these day trips, unlike hotels and flights, are still booked offline, representing the next major growth opportunity for online travel companies. Players large and small are racing to aggregate existing group tours, activities and attractions — from river cruises in Chicago to “Sound of Music” tours in the Alps. These tech companies, a mix of established businesses and start-ups, also are developing more personalized, local “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. Investors are plowing money into the sector in record amounts, like the $484 million round of funding that Berlin-based aggregator GetYourGuide announced in May.

 

“There is a real unique leap, more of a quantum leap being made in the experience space,” said Jamie Wong, founder and chief executive of San Francisco-based 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, so it’s a place where people are starting to sink money.”

The so-called experience economy and shift to buying memories rather than things has been tracked since the late 1990s. In truth, all travel is an experience, but the branding and marketing of “experiential travel” has been one of the top tourism trends in recent years.

Typically, these excursions would be found through a hotel front desk or a local tourism office. But tourists, especially screen-dependent 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 local 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, and 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 traveling in Southeast Asia last month, prefer an in-person transaction. Ms. Bacchus, 29, a nurse practitioner 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 local tourism office, figuring they could negotiate a better price and establish trust in person.

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