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In spring of 2018, Quincey Cummings and Mitchell Andrus flew from the Bay Area to Panama to buy their new home: a 30-year-old, 46-foot sailing yacht named the Esprit.
They cruised through the Panama Canal and spent a few days in Panama City prepping for the voyage ahead. Then they swung around the Azuero Peninsula and turned the bow north. Forty-seven days after leaving Panama City — with a handful of stops for resupply and maintenance — Cummings, Andrus and the Esprit docked in Berkeley.
The two-cabin yacht has become the couple’s full-time residence (which they share with a reluctantly seafaring cat named Panda) and the foundation of their business. With Andrus as captain and Cummings as mate and chef, Q+M Travels takes visitors on sailing day trips, sunset cruises and overnight tours around San Francisco Bay and along the California coast. Last week, Cummings and Andrus became two of the first hosts on Airbnb Adventures, the short-term rental giant’s expansion into multi-day, adventure-focused tours.
Airbnb jumped into tours in 2016 with Experiences, adding activities like dumpling making in Shanghai and salsa classes in Havana to its standard stock of rental residences, available rooms and the occasional treehouse. “We launched in 12 cities around the world with about 500 hosts,” says Airbnb’s Caroline Boone. Three years later, she adds, you can book activities in almost every country on the globe.
Boone is head of Adventures, which she says is designed to expand Experiences from hours-long diversions to multi-day excursions with all the logistics — minus your flight — included. A few stretch longer than a week and cost thousands of dollars, but most are a handful of days and a few hundred bucks — adventure travel with a relatively light commitment. Among the hand-picked itineraries for launch are a three-day canyoneering and cultural trip in Oman ($599), a two-day trek and homestay in Northern Vietnam ($82) and a three-day mushroom foraging journey along the Oregon coast ($385).
“We’ve always had this idea about end-to-end travel on Airbnb,” Boone says of providing a complete travel experience, rather than just one piece of the puzzle.
Adventures is a bid to make that a reality, but launching longer, more active trips poses new issues and concerns — both for the travel-booking website and the hosts it relies on.
To establish safety guidelines and quality control procedures, Airbnb turned to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a membership organization that represents adventure tour providers, tourism boards, hotels and travel agents. The ATTA advised the company on the risk factors for specific activities and techniques for making sure guides are qualified to deliver an exceptional outting and keep their guests safe.
If a traveler is going to track lions in Kenya or go rafting in the Yukon, they need to feel confident in the guides steering them through rapids or leading them through the bush. Should a trip go south somewhere in the backcountry, you can’t just pack your bag and make for the closest hotel.
“This is where you don’t want your local 18-year-old to say, ‘I can take you on a whitewater rafting trip,’” says ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell. “It’s one thing to do that with an art museum and a cooking class, but it’s a different ballgame when you step into nature and culture. It has to be done sensitively and safety.”
Boone says Airbnb has created a vetting procedure for Adventures that includes assessing the experience of the host and the safety criteria for each trip. For more technical activities, hosts may need special certifications and to carry their own insurance on top of Airbnb’s $1 million policy.
After years of marketing the ideas of local residents renting homes and tours hosted by chefs and musicians who don’t work full time in tourism, Adventures is nudging Airbnb toward more professional hosts. Stowell says a handful of ATTA members were part of the launch, and many of the people listed on the platform have their own travel companies, operating on the ground in their chosen destinations.
If adventure travel presents new challenges for Airbnb, it also offers new opportunities. The ATTA estimates the adventure travel market at $683 billion, a number that’s grown 260% since 2012. Boone sees the potential to expand that market by making tours more accessible — lowering the price point and broadening the definition of what counts as “adventure.”
Stowell believes Airbnb will introduce adventure travel to a community of Airbnb users and younger travelers. “From my perspective as a trade association, the most interesting and exciting thing is that they’re opening up a big new channel of travelers that might not have considered adventure travel before. I view it as an opportunity to widen the market.”
Q+M Travels’ Cummings and Andrus hope Airbnb can do that for their business. In the couple’s first year selling sailboat charters, they’ve booked mostly day trips and sunset cruises, but they’re eager to move into longer excursions that make use of the Esprit’s size and layout, like the 3-day, 2-night Culinary Sail in San Francisco Bay listed on Airbnb Adventures.
The trip posting details a hike on Angel Island, an on-board cooking class and learning to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge, but the couple stresses that the itinerary is flexible, subject to the whims of the weather and their guests.
“We consider it more of a sample itinerary,” says Cummings. “Part of the joys of sailing is that it is kind of spontaneous. Where do we want to go next?”
Andrus hopes that Airbnb will be a springboard for Q+M Travels, that the platform’s massive audience and marketing reach will be worth the 20% cut it takes from every booking. Still, he worries that the Airbnb website forces travel providers into a box, the trip that he and Cummings have dreamed up and designed lost among a sea of other tours with equally enticing photos and titles.
“I don’t feel like it displays the Quincey and Mitch factor of us as entertainers and hosts and experienced people,” he says. “It’s just another business on Airbnb.”
Quinn Carson is another one of the businesses on the platform. The dreadlocked, Midwestern recording engineer-turned-surf instructor relocated to California in 2011 and started introducing visitors to surfing via short lessons and overnight tours with his company Eat Sleep Surf. He was one of the early hosts to join Airbnb Experiences, and today, about 60% of the clients for his two-hour classes book via the website.
“Airbnb, since they launched Experiences, has been a real source of business for me,” he says.
When Experiences first debuted, however, Carson wasn’t offering quick surf sessions to tourists. He had assembled what he considers his flagship tour: two days of surfing, hiking and camping in Malibu.
Only it didn’t sell. “That trip kind of flopped originally when the market started going toward cheap, quick experiences,” Carson says.
Boone says an early effort at multi-day trips called Immersions didn’t take off. “We kind of had to earn the trust and the right to go deeper with multi-day experiences.”
The new Adventures provides a platform for exactly those kind of excursions, and Carson recently revived his original itinerary as the Malibu Surf Camping Trip, a pair of surf lessons and a favorite hike with a night at a scenic campsite on a private vineyard.
Carson is cautiously optimistic about Adventures and his second attempt to share the trip he loves most with Airbnb’s audience. He’s already designed another more ambitious itinerary called the So-Cal Trifecta, a three-day, greatest-hits mix of surfing in the Pacific, climbing in the desert and hiking in the mountains. But he’s not ready to list it on Airbnb quite yet.
“I’m waiting to see how this goes,” he says. “Last time I put so much energy into putting this together, and they started pushing these cheaper experiences and sort of put me out of business. When Airbnb launches something you never know what’s going to happen.”