Riding the experiential wave

At the inaugural SG Tourism Leaders Engagement Series, organised by TTG Asia Media and PATA Singapore Chapter in November, three leading travel experts in Asia-Pacific examine the effects of experiential travel on the industry and how companies are responding to the shift towards authentic and immersive travel.

What is experiential travel, and how is it different from earlier trends?
Dean Schreiber
CEO, Oakwood, and managing director,

Oakwood Asia Pacific

Schreiber: People have always wanted to travel and experience things; what did we call experiential travel before we labelled it experiential travel? I think we’ve just put a label on it, which is also fuelled by the fact that we have more access to information. We make decisions based on Instagram posts, Netflix, and even TV shows like Game of Thrones which lead to a surge in interest to visit Croatia.

Experiential travel has always been around, and as a hospitality company we’ve always wanted to promote living like a local, so I think it’s a bit of a hype.

Parin Mehta
Managing director, Asia Pacific
Airbnb Experiences

Mehta: This globally curious segment has always been around, but some important changes in the last few years – such as a greater demand for insider access, hospitality, and uniqueness – have really accelerated the experiential travel trend. This really boils down to the fact that people want to brag about what they’re doing and tell their friends about it, and I think we’ll see it accelerate even further in the coming years.

Dan Penner
Senior regional manager, Asia Pacific
TripAdvisor Experiences

Penner: When Viator started as an online tours and activities booking agency back in 1995, everyone thought we were crazy then [Editor’s note: TripAdvisor acquired Viator in 2014]. But suddenly experiential travel’s a very hot subject now, with so many changes over the years. As well, low-cost airlines are also making everything so much more accessible, allowing access to a diverse range of cities.

Is experiential travel a millennial trend, or do you see it playing out in other age groups?
Schreiber: We see business travellers extending his or her stay an extra day, to do something in the city. There’s also the possibility that spouses or families may join these bleisure travellers and experience the city together as well.

Mehta: We also see a lot of business travellers who will take on an extra evening or day to do something they are interested in. For example, I have a young family and don’t have a lot of time for myself, so every city I visit for work, I take a day off and learn a martial art. Whether it’s kendo in Japan or muay thai in Thailand, regardless, experiential travel can also mean mixing that business trip with an activity you’re passionate about.

Overall, the travellers who seek experiential travel is pretty broad, but I think a lot of things start with an early adopter segment like millennials. But generation Z is one of our fastest growing segments – at a rate of three times year-on-year – in Asia. And don’t discount generation Alpha.

Families will go on a trip together, and they take on an experience as a way to bond. Sometimes, the person who books the experience might not be the one who is most excited about it such as a grandparent or child.

What are you doing to ensure your company stays relevant as experiential travel becomes the norm?
Schreiber: Oakwood Premier OUE Singapore has launched a gin package to introduce guests to local gin. We also provide the gin in our cocktail cart and take it to the guest’s room, as well as organise distillery tours.

Mehta: Airbnb Experiences only started about three years ago with eight markets in Asia, but within 18 months we have quickly scaled to 300 markets.

The evolution we made recently was the move into categories. We recently launched a category around adventures, and another on animals, with more in the pipeline. As we get deeper into these categories moving forward, it’ll be more exciting for guests and hosts because it can help them connect over the same passions. An example would be a surf lesson with a world champion, or cooking with a renowned chef.

Also, we don’t have an experience where there is no human host. The human host is a vital part of it. One of the things we hear quite often from guests is sometimes they forget the activity that they did, but they always remember the host.

I think categories will be more helpful for people to take their existing passions and discover them online. And as more guests have great experiences and more hosts enjoy running these experiences, these categories will start to fuel themselves.

We put a lot of effort into localising a platform, and part of it has been the tapping of existing offline communities, and getting them to submit experiences and teach each other. We have a community of pro surfers in Bali who have invested in the platform and are helping each other out to be successful. The same goes for a number of cooking hosts in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Penner: We’re constantly evolving our website to stay relevant. We’re making ways to plan your trip online, share it with your friends, and get recommendations from your group. We’ve also introduced a tool to plan your trip more holistically – think flight, hotel, experiences.

We’ve also introduced more structured data, which helps us give customers what they want at the right time, (as well as make) use of mapping when it comes to planning a trip. We want to make sure our platform is relevant for the next 20 years.

What other experiential travel trends do you see among travellers today?
Schreiber: One of the things we’ve seen recently is that our travellers want to experience the local food culture. We’re seeing that the hospitality industry is moving away from in-house restaurants. It’s expensive to run a restaurant in a property, and this trend is good for us because we can be more focused on improving the customer experience, rather than (diverting resources) to F&B. We’re now offering more accessibility to the local food culture through food delivery companies, for example.

We are lucky to have a longer length of stay; our average length of stay around the globe is 45 days. So we have the chance to know our customer more intimately. We listen to them from the time they arrive. If somebody wants to find the best batik or taste the best chicken rice in town, we can always speak with them and tailor an experience for them.

Penner: Something we recently rolled out with was the ceasing of ticket sales to attractions with dolphin and whales in captivity. This is a response to what customers want, which is not seeing animals in captivity. Also, culinary tours is a massive mover for us, we’re in triple growth at the moment. We see a large interest in historical tours, private guiding, and sustainable products as well.

Mehta: One of the things we do is listen to our guests, understand what they want, so we’re able to launch new categories to fit what they want.

What have you noticed that travellers are doing more of nowadays?
Penner: Travellers are travelling differently. One difference is the lesser requests for packaged holidays, as people are becoming more comfortable with making bookings online, and travelling on their own. We’ve also noticed people making last-minute bookings, like waking up in their hotel room and deciding on the spot what they want to do on that day. Hence, we work closely with suppliers, to ensure that everything is bookable easily.

Mehta: I think people will look for more transformational travel. I recently interviewed a Chinese millennial guest who did 50 experiences on the Airbnb Experiences platform in the last year. And the reason why she was doing this was because she was dissatisfied with the formal education system and was looking to build an educational curriculum for herself. She did that by going around the world, and trying different experiences in different places with different experts.

I can see a trend – in the sense where people become more selfish when they travel – and really focus on their passions.

What key trends do you think will shape experiential travel in 2020?
Schreiber: I like the whole slow travel concept about trying to shift business out of the popular cities that are being destroyed by mass tourism. Slow travel is something as an industry we should probably encourage.

Penner: Sustainable travel is growing, and TripAdvisor is also featuring more of it on the platform.

Mehta: We’re seeing this increasing trend where travellers, aside from wanting something unique and differentiated, also want to do something with purpose and make a social impact. We’re seeing guests working with charities or NGOs, learn more about what they are doing, and support them by volunteering.

Google introduced several travel-related features such as flights and hotels. Do you think it will become a competitor in the future?
Schreiber: I think technology is a wonderful thing. Previously, you had to plan the whole process on how to get somewhere. Now you can open up Google Maps to find where that place is and get there quickly. Google just allows you to maximise your time and experience much more than we ever had before.

Mehta: I think the wider point here revolves around access and discovery, rather than any specific company. In the beginning we talked about the fact that experiential travel has been around for a while, but the tools are now in place for travellers to discover something that really appeals to them.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit a garden in Tokyo, and as part of the experience, we cut bamboo for an hour with a samurai sword. Now this is something I would not be able to find even if I searched on a search engine for it, but it was because it jumped out at me while I was browsing through some of the experiences on Airbnb.
So I think anything that allows guests to use technology to find things that they might not have been able to find before, or even know existed, is very powerful.

Penner: The competition against various OTAs we have in Asia is incredible. We see Google as more of a partner at the moment, but of course you have to be wary of them.

A large part of the travel suppliers and operators in Asia-Pacific remain offline. How can you get them online?
Penner: It’s easier for us to get these people onboard because we are a reviews website too. Of course you’ve got to come up with a sales plan as well. We had initial challenges with the older-generation agencies, which we had to educate and ensure them we can help with their inventory management.

Mehta: It’s about putting the tools in place, and get existing offline communities excited to come online and build businesses for themselves. One area we’re really excited about is helping more members of society become economically active.

When you book the product which is actually offline, you get to connect with another human being. I think the real magic of Airbnb’s experiences is not necessarily the online products.

Most hosts we have on our platform are not suppliers or tour operators, they are everyday people who have their own lives. So I think we’ve still got a ton of opportunity to open up markets, even more so when you move from cities to rural areas.

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