Where would you point a newbie Colorado Springs visitor?
Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, Seven Falls, Old Colorado City, Manitou Springs. They’re probably all on your list of old faithfuls, and for good reason — they’re reliably pleasing.
But some of your local brethren are kicking it up a notch for tourists. They’re offering more quirky activities such as light painting, blacksmithing, paint pouring, astronomy, tours of a mountain goat lodge dairy farm and a romantic Red Rocks hike and photo shoot. These are Airbnb Experiences, a vast assortment of exclusive activities locals offer in a number of cities around the world.
Everyone’s familiar with Airbnb, the online marketplace where one can find lodging on a farm, camp site or in a luxury home. In 2016, the service decided to go one better and debuted Experiences.
“We recognized that where you stay is one part of the trip. It’s also what you do and who you meet along the way,” said Natalia Merluzzi, director of policy for Airbnb Experiences. “Experiences is the first step by Airbnb of becoming an end-to-end trip experience. We want to make experiences magical.”
Some of them certainly sound enchanting: pasta making with an Italian grandmother in Rome, playing mermaid for a day in San Diego or learning to chainsaw carve in Salem, Ore. Making smudge sticks with a witch in San Antonio, Texas, will run you $35, while learning to eat fire in Los Angeles will set you back $45. Plus possible emergency room expenses.
Judging by the numbers, Airbnb users are hooked. When it launched, there were about 500 experiences. Today, more than 40,000 experiences are available in more than 1,000 cities across the globe. Every year the number of seats booked on experiences has increased almost seven times.
Colorado joined the fray in April 2018 and now boasts more than 200 experiences. Unsurprisingly, outdoor and sports-themed activities tend to be the most popular. One of them is Elise Hughes Berheim’s Garden of the Gods Walkabout, which she bills as an outing with an environmental expert. She has a master’s degree in wildlife sciences.
On a recent Wednesday morning, she meets Chicago residents Diana Grijalva and her mother, Maria Grijalva, three days into their Colorado Springs vacation, in the main parking lot of the tourist attraction. The early 7 a.m. departure time ensures a less crowded adventure, lower temperatures and better wildlife sightings.
“We kept hearing how beautiful it was here,” said Diana.
The $65, three-and-a-half-hour tour, complete with snacks and bottled water, begins with the geologic history of the park and information on its wildlife inhabitants and plant life. Hughes Berheim points out a hole in one of the red rock formations, where prairie falcons have made a nest, and the resulting white splash below their home, what Maria politely calls the “bird bathroom.” Farther on, the tour guide introduces her group to the scrub oak, juniper trees and the park’s one lone cottonwood tree.
“My intention is that the guests have a fun time,” said Hughes Berheim. “That differs depending on the guests. Hopefully I inspire them. I’m really inspired by nature. I think all Coloradans are.”
She started to offer her experience in May last year, after moving from South Dakota and searching for a job connecting people to nature. A friend told her about the Airbnb opportunity, she applied and now has 135 customer reviews on Airbnb, all of them five-stars.
Before you go rubbing your palms together, daydreaming about the fortune you’ll make leading cliffside basket weaving classes in Ouray, you’ll need to convince Airbnb you’re the person for the job. They don’t let just anybody in the gate. They’re allowing you to attach your name to them, so your idea and execution must meet the criteria.
Airbnb looks for three things: expertise, insider access and human connection. If one of the trifecta is missing, forget about it. They receive thousands of applications every week and accept about 30 percent of them.
“Those who are making it onto the platform are offering something unique,” Merluzzi said. “Over 90 percent have a five-star review. That’s beneficial to us and to the host.”
The average host made about $2,500 last year, while some top folks are earning six figures, according to Merluzzi. Hughes Berheim compares it to the gig economy, in which people hold temporary positions and organizations employ workers on a short-term basis. While her Garden of the Gods experience sustains her financially over the summer season, it naturally falters come winter. But it’s also inspired to found her own business, Environmental Experiences, in which she offers the same tour.
“We provide insurance, one reason we can help entrepreneurs get off the ground,” Merluzzi said. “We can lower overhead they would normally have to have to start a business, and give them marketing power they wouldn’t normally have.”
Airbnb also offers social impact experiences, which can be hosted by or benefit nonprofits. The company takes zero revenue. It all goes back to the nonprofit. Free Animal Doctor, a nonprofit animal welfare organization, is one such host. The group offers an experience hiking with a rescue dog in L.A.’s Runyon Canyon for $45. They receive all the profits.
“What differentiates us is we’re empowering local residents to benefit from tourism dollars,” said Merluzzi. “Experiences is bringing guests beyond the typical tourist attractions. It’s also bringing economic benefit to the individuals who want to become entrepreneurs. And bringing it to neighborhoods that don’t benefit from tourism dollars.”
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