Late last year, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky unveiled the newest iteration of his ubiquitous home-sharing service: Airbnb Trips. During an Apple-style product launch in Los Angeles, Chesky – dressed like a Millennial Steve Jobs in a black Henley T-shirt – announced that Airbnb was evolving from an accommodation site into a complete travel resource. Users will eventually be able to book everything from flights to restaurants, get recommendations and meet locals, all on one platform. Following the announcement I had the opportunity to road test the first of the new services: Experiences and Places.
I'll start with Places, a collection of mini guidebooks written by local "insiders" selected by Airbnb. Examples include a list of laptop-friendly cafes in San Francisco, curated by a mustachioed creative strategist, and a Cuban actress' favourite bohemian hangouts in Havana. Airbnb should have no problem populating this section quickly – there are currently 470 guides covering 12 cities – but at launch the content had yet to reach a useful critical mass.
Case in point: while in Los Angeles I decided to spend a few hours shopping. I opened the Airbnb app and looked in Places for recommendations. I found eight LA shopping guides, a promising start. After I filtered out things such as vinyl stores and barbershops, I was left with three guides that included at least some women's apparel. Only one of them had suggestions in my vicinity: a pair of op shops half an hour away. (One of them turned out to be worth the trek, but a Google search would have found the same results a lot faster.) My initial verdict on Places? It's a good source of inspiration and makes for interesting reading, especially when it comes to niche topics such as Seoul's best running routes or urban farms in Detroit. But don't throw out the Lonely Planet just yet.
I had better luck with Experiences, which Airbnb describes as "handcrafted activities designed and led by local experts". You can tell they've put in a lot of effort with these. Trips launched with 500 experiences in a dozen cities and Airbnb produced a slick promo video for each one. Some experiences are single-day activities, others are multi-day "immersions". But none of them are what you'd call a typical tour, Airbnb insists; they're authentic and insider-y, and they're run by passionate residents just like you. (Sydneysiders began hosting experiences in March as Trips expanded to 20 cities worldwide.)
If Airbnb's philosophy is "live like a local", the experience I was invited to try could be summed up as "eat like a local". On a sunny afternoon, I met with about 10 other journalists and our host Andrew – a born-and-bred Angeleno and the owner of a travel company that runs tours to Spain, Mexico and Cuba. Over the next few hours, his mission was to guide us through a "global tasting trip" of LA's many culinary cultures, an excerpt from his $325 three-day experience, which includes cocktails and dinner.
We began at Olvera Street, a Mexican marketplace located downtown. Outside a colourful stand called Cielito Lindo, we stood on the pavement and ate beef taquitos (a filled taco tube that's fried until crispy) in avocado sauce. Cielito Lindo's signage proclaims that they've been serving taquitos since 1934, but Andrew added some personal history: as a boy, his family would come here before going to baseball games at the nearby Dodgers stadium.
Next stop: a Chinatown mini mall called Far East Plaza. Our destination was Chego, a grab-and-go counter specialising in Korean fusion rice bowls. Andrew gave us some background on chef/owner Roy Choi, one of the originators of the gourmet food truck movement. "What's that line for?" someone asked, pointing to the crowd clogging up the walkway in front of a neighbouring restaurant. "It's a fried chicken place," Andrew answered. "I haven't tried it yet because the line's always too long." He handed out beers, soft drinks and rice bowls topped with intensely umami garlic-and-chili beef slices, fresh Thai basil, and crispy fried shallots.
The food was delicious, but here's what our local insider failed to mention. Roy Choi is passionate about bringing affordable, nutritious food to underserved communities. That's one of the reasons he opened Chego in what was at the time a nondescript Chinatown shopping plaza. Since Choi took up residence in 2013, Far East Plaza has become a booming hipster destination. Other Asian-American cool kids such as Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and Alvin Cailan (Eggslut) opened their own shops, bringing Instagramming Millennials and social media buzz with them. They're revitalising Chinatown in a way that isn't happening in San Francisco or New York, where trendy Asian-American chefs generally do not operate in traditionally Asian areas. What's happening in Far East Plaza is culturally and culinarily exciting, and it's unique to LA. Kudos to our guide for taking us there, but failing to provide more insight and context was a regrettable missed opportunity.
Oh and the fried chicken place with the interminable queue? That's Howlin' Ray's, and according to my food photographer friend their Nashville Hot Chicken is one of the best dishes in the city.
Our final stop was a short train ride away in Little Tokyo. (Credit where it's due: I would not have taken the Los Angeles metro were it not for the tour. Sorry, experience.) Here we met with a little hiccup: Andrew had intended to take us to Marugame Monzo for hand-pulled udon but they closed the kitchen as we arrived. Instead we walked around Japanese Village Plaza, a pedestrian mall lined with Japanese shops and businesses, and then stopped at a cafe for sake and green tea.
At the time this was a new tour, and I expect such wrinkles have since been ironed out. And Andrew improvised well, smoothing things over with drinks and recommendations for our remaining meals in LA. But again he supplied zero information to contextualise our surroundings. And so we blithely sipped our sake as if we were in any old Japanese restaurant back home, when in fact we were next door to the former sushi joint credited with inventing the California roll. Call me a tourist, but I would have thought that was worth a photo at least.
If you want to learn about the richness and diversity of Angeleno cuisine, watch City of Gold, the 2015 documentary about restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. If you want to pay a local to take you to some of his favourite low-key spots for lunch, then this experience could be right up your gullet. I don't mean that disparagingly. Spending time with locals is how you get to know a city; if you don't happen to know any residents, now you can pay to hang out with one through Airbnb.
During the tour Andrew mentioned that his initial pitch to Airbnb was an all-Mexican tasting tour of East LA. That's a heavily Hispanic area that even many Angelenos don't visit, and it would have been ace to have a Spanish-speaking local like Andrew to squire us around. But after feedback from Airbnb he amended the itinerary to its current form. Perhaps it was deemed too adventurous, or too similar to the street taco experience being offered by another host.
Airbnb has been extremely picky about which experiences it allows on the platform. Whereas the Homes business was about quantity, the newer sections prioritise quality – every experience listed on Airbnb has been carefully vetted and approved by the company. At launch there were 19 single-day activities available in Los Angeles, a selection that I found to be both highly curated and somewhat limited. On a Friday, for instance, I couldn't find any experiences to join over the weekend. But this is Airbnb we're talking about, so a problem of scale won't be a problem for long.
There are more than 3 million rental listings on Airbnb. If just a fraction of those users start hosting and booking experiences, I'll sound like the grinch who stole Christmas vacation. And that's totally fine with me. After all, Airbnb's new services are an extension of their promise that you can live like a local anywhere. What traveller doesn't want to believe in that?
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