Airbnb launched ‘At Home With Airbnb’, a set of curated online experiences that lets guests be up, close and personal with popular celebrities, artists and influencers. Seen here are acclaimed designers Shivan and NarreshImage: Courtesy Airbnb
Visiting exotic places from your living room and enjoying a cooking class from a world-renowned chef are soon becoming the new ways of experiencing the world. As the fear of the pandemic prevents people from making ambitious travel plans, the industry is coming up with innovative ways to generate revenue, and at the same time, offer unforgettable memories to customers.
The travel and tourism industry is dealing with huge losses since the coronavirus outbreak. According to a study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and hospitality consulting firm Hotelivate, it is likely to lose $65.57 billion while operators alone are set to incur losses of $4.77 billion in the worst possible scenario. The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts the sector is likely to face 100 million job losses due to the pandemic.
Though the numbers are alarming, there is pent-up demand for travel. And people are slowly experimenting with staycations and short-distance trips. Modes of transportation, too, have become more intimate—like opting for self-driving road trips or choosing private charters instead of flying commercially. The recovery, however, will be slow. Here’s how some companies are changing with the times:Airbnb: Adding New To Experiences
Airbnb is bringing once-in-a-lifetime experiences to guests’ homes with its latest product launch. People can learn cooking a one-pot meal with a Michelin Star chef, learn the art of meditation from a Buddhist monk in Osaka, meet the dogs of Chernobyl or work out with an Olympian.
The online vacation rental marketplace has reinvented its strategy and launched ‘Online Experiences’ via Zoom that are led by hosts from over 30 countries. “This has become our fastest-growing product with hundreds of Online Experiences launched since April,” says Amanpreet Bajaj-GM India & Southeast Asia. “Our host communities got the opportunity to earn even as physical travel reduced.”
Amanpreet Bajaj, GM, India and Southeast Asia, Airbnb
Image: Courtesy Airbnb
According to Oxford Economics, Airbnb and the entire ecosystem that it supports benefited the Indian economy by about $320 million in 2019 and supported 50,000 jobs in the country. The company claims to have nearly 100 hosts providing experiences online and thousands more who have offered to do the same.
In India, the company also launched ‘At Home With Airbnb’ which offers guests intimate and engaging virtual experiences curated by well-known Indian personalities. “From a yoga session with yoga guru Sarvesh Shashi and learning the art of table settings with celebrity wedding planner and event stylist Devika Narain to learning fashion illustrations from popular designers Shivan and Narresh, each experience offers the opportunity to learn something new and interesting,” adds Bajaj, claiming that all experiences were sold out within 48 hours.
As most people continue to work from home, Airbnb recently launched a ‘Work from Any Home’ campaign. “As working from home is translating to working from any home, people want to be connected all the time from anywhere… our hosts have adapted their accommodations to make their space suitable for a work-from-home environment,” says Bajaj. The company has partnered with creative personalities, entrepreneurs and authors who chose to stay in homes outside big cities for longer durations.
When helicopter charter company Blade India reopened bookings in October, it saw a 200 percent rise in enquiries compared to the pre-lockdown period
Blade India: Taking The Safe Route
Image: Courtesy Blade India
Global urban air mobility (UAM) company Blade India saw roaring business as it launched flights from and to Mumbai, Pune and Shirdi, targeting business, leisure and pilgrimage travellers. In the first two months of starting operations in November 2019, it saw over 1,000 flyers with 65 to 70 percent repeat customers. The occupancy rate was 80 percent. Then the pandemic hit and things came to a standstill.
“Although we had to halt operations for a while due to the lockdowns, we were taking charter requests for medical emergencies. With the lockdown easing, we have witnessed an increase in the number of charter inquiries,” says Karanpal Singh, founder, Hunch Ventures and Blade India. When the company reopened bookings in the first week of October, he claims it saw a 200 percent increase in charter inquiries compared to the pre-lockdown period and a 125 percent increase in queries for travel between Mumbai and Pune.
Karanpal Singh, founder, Hunch Ventures and Blade IndiaImage: Courtesy Blade India
Buoyed by the response, and realising that safety is now paramount, the company recently introduced ‘Blade Anywhere’, a personalised charter service. “With the growing demand, we feel helicopter services like Blade will now be seen as more of a necessity than a luxury due to the quality safety provisions,” says Singh. The company has also optimised lounge transit in a way that passengers don’t have to wait for more than 15 minutes for their flight.
In November, Blade India tied up with real estate company Panchshil Realty. The UAM provider will operate its services from Panchshil’s Kharadi, Pune, helipad located next to Panchshil’s high-end luxurious Yoo Villas. “With this tie-up, we are adding value to its [villas’] residents by providing a more convenient travel option to remote and urban locations such as Mumbai, instead of spending hours on the roads,” says Singh.
The plan is now to expand operations to other metros by offering inter-city, charter, experiential and intra-city services.Gaurav Kumar and Vandana Om Kumar, co-founders, TourHQ, with guides Victoria and Einar between them in Oslo Image: Courtesy TourHQ
TourHQ: High On Experiential Travel
TourHQ, a marketplace that connects travellers to tour guides around the world, realised quickly that despite the easing of restrictions, it will take a while for people to travel freely. As a consequence, not only was business getting affected but also the earnings of tour guides. Now, the company is banking on experiential travel that allows people to enjoy scenic places from their homes.
The company has a network of 35,000 tour guides who provide live streaming, real-time, interactive tours via video chat. “Once the pandemic hit, all international travel froze, so did the income for the guides for whom the industry is a means of survival. We then worked on several concepts that we believed would help tour guides make a living, even under lockdowns,” says Gaurav Kumar, co-founder, TourHQ. The company developed software to manage the listing and booking process, trained guides about the use of software, formulate tours for one-hour duration and online delivery, and ran a number of tests before rolling out the campaign, he adds. A screengrab of TourHQ Online Experiences
Image: Courtesy TourHQ
“Our online tours have received positive customer feedback and because of the success of the programme, we have entered into tie-ups with various online travel agencies, and event management companies such as MakeMyTrip, Sistic, Intermiles, etc to market these tours to their clients,” says Kumar. TourHQ currently offers tours to around 400 locations across the world, including places like Lhasa in Tibet or La Paz in Bolivia that are typically difficult to access. “These tours have allowed families to have shared travel experiences despite border closures and separation by large distances. This has allowed them to celebrate their landmark life events together online,” he adds. “Indians are showing an increasing inclination towards ‘Experiential Travel’, and the idea of learning more about local cultures and traditions. We believe that our online tours reflect this trend, as they are all about interacting with locals in India and around the world.”
In a post-pandemic world too, TourHQ will continue to focus on online tours. “Not everyone can afford to travel overseas… students will always like to virtually visit potential universities. A number of other reasons give us the confidence that this trend will not fade out anytime soon,” explains Kumar.
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(This story appears in the 18 December, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)