For two years I gave walking tours through the majestic streets of Melbourne. I used Airbnb ‘Experiences’ to source the ‘guests’, advertise the tour, handle the transactions, and communicate with my guests. This is a story about my experience creating my own tour and working with the Airbnb platform.
I was catching up with a friend one day and he told me about how he had started doing this thing called ‘Airbnb Experiences’. In an Experience, the host doesn’t rent out their property to guests, but rather they sell their time to provide a local’s perspective to tourists. Examples of Experiences are walking tours, cooking classes, guided hikes, pub crawls and craft lessons. My friend had started an Italian cooking class, inviting people into his apartment to teach them how to make authentic gnocchi from scratch.
I thought this Experience thing sounded like a great idea and immediately started thinking about what experiences I could create. With my love of Melbourne, interest in history and hours spent walking around the Melbourne CBD, a walking tour appeared to be the logical choice. I could speak a decent amount of Spanish and Portuguese, so I figured a local Melburnian giving tours in those languages might be a key point of differentiation.
My first step was to learn how to give a walking tour. In my mid-twenties I’d travelled around most of Europe and had been on dozens and dozens of walking tours. This had given me a general idea how they work and a few pointers on what to do and what not to do While I had a good knowledge of the key points in Melbourne’s history and knew most of the main sights, I didn’t know where to start in curating a tour. So, what did I do? I went on Melbourne walking tours operated by 4 different companies. I studiously took notes in my phone about the stories being told and relied on Google maps to record the routes we were taking.
Most of the walking tours were 3 hours long, with a 20 break in the middle. I decided that this was too long and wanted to keep my tour to 2 hours maximum. I designed my own route that contained a good mix of architectural marvels and laneway secrets.
The final step was to take photos of me pretending to be a tour guide and write a profile on Airbnb. I set my price point at $25, which I thought was about right for what I would pay for a two-hour walking tour. Airbnb takes a 20% cut and I had to also pay income tax on the remainder.
Size of the market
I didn’t know how many customers I was expecting, but it’s fair to say that there were much less than I had anticipated. My group size would average 2–3 people, but also there was often one person in the tour. The changing number of guests meant that I was constantly adjusting my route and pacing to cater for different walking speeds.
The market of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking guests proved to be very small. I did two tours in Spanish and one in Portuguese. Unfortunately, my language skills became rusty and I eventually no longer felt comfortable offering tours in those languages.
Airbnb encourages its hosts to also market themselves through other channels. I didn’t have the time or inclination to do marketing and I didn’t forecast a high enough return on investment. I also believed that Airbnb’s 20% commission was fair for its lead generation but was too high if I had to source the customers myself. This was a personal belief however and you might find their fees reasonable for the service it provides.
During the winter, international tourism dried up and the trickle of guests I received were mostly Australians on weekend getaways. Incidentally, found Australian tourists to be the nicest and most appreciative of my tours.
Regarding tour revenue, the headline is that it wasn’t sustainable business model. Often I would spend 30 minutes to travel to the city, conduct a 2-hour tour for 1 person, sometimes give them a $3 gift and then spend another 30 minutes returning home. After commission and tax, this 3 hours’ worth of work resulted in a take home earning of $10. Depending on group size though, the top end of the scale was reasonable — a group of 12 people once netted me $210. Conducting a tour for 12 people, however, is a lot more strenuous than taking 1 person around the city, and every one of those 210 dollars was well-earned. Once, I even lost some people along the route and spent a stressful 15 minutes trying to coordinate a search party while keeping my other guests distracted.
I’ve always found reviews to be troublesome. For many guests, an enjoyable tour is worth 5 stars. Some guests however take on the persona of theatre critic and begrudgingly give 3 strenuous stars if I had truly earned them. Airbnb has taken the approach that 5 stars should be the standard, 4 is room for improvement and 3 indicates a red flag. My average review score from 63 reviews was 4.73 — just above Airbnb’s preferred minimum threshold of 4.7.
I received an email one day offering me a complimentary phone call with a consultant from Airbnb. This advisor could give me tips to help me attract more business and also provide advice on how to get the most out of Airbnb. While I originally thought it was a nice gesture, five minutes into the call I realised that Airbnb were essentially scolding me for my ‘poor’ reviews. I sensed that they were subtly hinting that if my reviews didn’t improve, they might need to boot me off the site. The tips that they provided were well-informed, however they were not in keeping with the vision of my tour, and so I mostly disregarded them.
It’s been an Experience!
COVID-19 and some other issues have caused me to wind back my tour — although truth be told I was starting to become a little fatigued by it. On top of a 9–5 job, giving tours on weeknights and weekends was mentally and physically draining.
While there weren’t enough steady earnings to justify tour guiding as a continued side hustle, the experience allowed me to train my communication and public speaking skills. Constantly iterating my tour gave me practise in being agile and showing empathy for my guests. I also made some great friends and learnt a lot about myself along the way.
- Have you been on any Airbnb experiences? Or even hosted one?
- Do you give 5 star reviews if you are happy with restaurants or other attractions?