The Reality Of The New Test Of The Experience

I’d thought my “experience” was going to be about making pottery, but it turns out that it also involves sitting in a circle feeling crystals and drinking mezcal. I’m testing out the two-day, £221 Crafting Magic Airbnb Experiences package in Los Angeles, but wondering when we’ll get to the clay.

Day one and Andrea Osojnik, our black-clad twentysomething host here in LA’s Echo Park neighbourhood, tells us we need to be in the right frame of mind to make a pot well (hence the crystal meditation) but the booze element (a clay pot makes mezcal taste more smoky, she says) perhaps makes this less likely.

You’ll be familiar with Airbnb’s instant-booking option, but the company’s big news is that it now offers instant friends, too. Andrea’s hippy pottery offering being just one example. It comes with the promise that you need never be a dorky tourist ever again.

At the company’s launch event in LA in November, (guest speakers included early investor Ashton Kutcher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Eat, Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert) Airbnb’s 35-year-old billionaire CEO, Brian Chesky, made what he called the company’s “biggest announcement to date”. As well as renting out your house, you can now rent out your passion to visitors and become, what Chesky terms, a “micro entrepreneur”. It isn’t necessary to be an Airbnb host to offer an experience – anyone can send a proposal, which the company will vet and decide on.

Making a pot on potter's wheel
Crafting Magic promises to ‘unite the spiritual and physical through ceramics’

Of course, there are already travel websites offering contact and tours with locals, but the fact that the short-term rental behemoth now offers this service means that the idea is going to reach a massive new audience. Airbnb is valued at $30bn and boasts three million host properties in 191 countries, but a growing number of short-term rental regulations in cities around the world are threatening the company’s profits. Experiences is a smart and lucrative new string to its bow (rental hosts pay only 3% of earnings to Airbnb, while experiences hosts must pay 20%).

Experiences are currently available in 12 cities around the world: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit, London, Paris, Florence, Cape Town, Havana, Seoul, Nairobi and Tokyo, with 50 more promised for next year. Choices range from a tour with Nelson Mandela’s prison guard and cook in Cape Town, to surfing on Venice Beach. Ten per cent of all “Experiences” are run by not-for-profit outfits. All will be filmed by Airbnb to look like slick Bacardi adverts.

James Galbraith offers a three-day, £345 London food tour called Craft Food Connoisseur. Day one involves craft beer and pizza in Hackney; day two is a tour of Borough Market to buy ingredients which are then cooked by a chef in a supper club; day three is Sunday lunch in the Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington. All meals are included in the price. The 36-year-old says that, unlike other internet tour companies, the bonus of working with Airbnb is that it has “a great network of people willing to share cool, behind-the-scenes stuff, so you’re always meeting like-minded people”. By day, Galbraith runs a business selling Normandy cider and he says his new tour has been great for business.

Andrea inspects her pupil’s work
Andrea inspects her pupil’s work

Back in LA, it’s day two and conversation turns to Donald Trump – an experience I figure I could get for free in any bar. And yet checking out a stranger’s house has its charms. Andrea has some interesting books (Valley of the Dolls, The Alchemist, some Haruki Murakami) and a cool Pierre and Gilles print of Jean Paul Gaultier in the loo.

When I come outside again, the clay spinning has finally begun. We have fun. And yet about half an hour before home time, I detect a sudden ennui in Andrea. It can’t be just that most of our pots are so bad. Maybe the simple fact is that you can’t make instant friends. Or maybe this is what friendship is like. There are always lulls. It’s like travel really. There is going to be a time when your adventure will not look like a Bacardi advert.

In a world where the internet is giving away all our secrets, Airbnb Experiences is the new “behind the scenes”. As Andrea says, as she tops up the mezcal: “Not everyone who goes to Paris wants to see the Eiffel Tower.”