This is a question that followed me around like a little rain cloud throughout my press trip to Airbnb Open LA 2016. I’ve been working with Airbnb for over a year now, and sometimes it feels like I’ve told most of the stories that can be told. I mean this in the best way possible – I love that people can open up their homes to others, create a micro-economy of their own. That tourists and travellers alike have a way of injecting currency into an economy on a very local level in a way that directly impacts the people who actually offer their homes to you, as opposed to having your virtual money disappear off into the endless loop of commercialised corporations. And host stories are new every trip, of course – each new place I stay in I hope to make friends that give me some sort of insight into their world. But something that I always wonder is – how do our voices evolve – how do we start telling newer, better stories?
And that was one of my small, secret aims of this trip, to try and come away with one good story, one thing that I feel resonates with me and hopefully you guys.
One of the biggest announcements Brian Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) made this Airbnb Open conference was the launch of Airbnb Trips. No longer offering only the opportunity to rent homes, Airbnb is now evolving to become a one-stop travel service. This means booking flights, ordering groceries, making restaurant reservations, all within the app. It means the launch of audio tours, free city e-guidebooks, car rental services. It means the launch of Experiences.
Experiences is without doubt the single biggest thing about Airbnb 2.0, simply because it is so novel, and makes so much sense. Is it a completely new idea to pay a local to bring you around? No. These things exist, and they’re called tours. But is it a new idea to have a local invite you to partake in the intimacies of their lives? Possibly. And now it’s being made so convenient too – to do it all on one app: booking accommodation, food, flights, and having your days planned out for you. This, Chesky announces, to gasps and insane applause, is the future of travel.
As the press con dissolved, I found myself wandering around looking for hosts to talk to, to try and understand what sort of experiences they would actually be offering. I met a dude from Miami who brings guests paddle boarding, diving, and for a boat party, over the span of four days. I met a couple from London who want to teach people to pluck and grow their own organic food. These were all interesting and sounded all kinds of awesome, dont get me wrong. But I kept looking. I was searching for something else.
And then I got a text from Elaine, one of the Airbnb girls.
“Jemma, you here?” she asked, “There’s someone I’d love for you to meet.”
This is Nicole Biondi from Cape Town, South Africa. She’s an author – she’s penned crime thriller novels for the last five years, with more to come, and has worked in tourism for 17 years as the head of the Cape Town tourism board. Elaine introduced me to her because I also write fiction (albeit less successfully with exactly zero novels to my name lol) so she thought it would be interesting. Well, it was – but not for the reason she might have suspected.
What I wanted to know from Nicole was:
1. Did hosting on Airbnb subsidise her artistic endeavours? I mean, let’s be real. Unless you’re JK Rowling, writing hardly pays the bills. You run on passion, mostly. And your day job – be it working in a cafe, teaching english, or being a train attendant. Or being an instagrammer, lol. What I wanted to know was if Airbnb hosting could be your day job, a supplementary income that got you by while giving you flexibility of time to work on your creative projects.
PS. the answer for her was not really, because she only decides to host on Airbnb twice a year max. (Hosts as in, in her home, not host a Trips experience)
2. What was a crime thriller writer doing hosting an Airbnb Experience, anyway? As an aspiring writer myself I can tell you that any time spent not at your desk writing is frustrating. Why have dinner or watch a movie when you could be working on your writing? As you can tell, my social life has gone out of the window. But I had a strange suspicion about her agenda, which turned out to be more or less true..
Nicole’s experience is called Madame Mystery.
“Tell me about it,” I said. And so she did.
She’s penned a whole story that she’s inviting you into, a mix of fact and fiction, called the Botanist Brigade Murder Mystery legend. You begin with a hike up Table Mountain, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and a total bucket list item on every traveller’s list. Halfway up, she brings you into Woodstock Cave for a picnic breakfast, and then introduces you to the name carved into the cave wall – J. W, Lawrence, a man who died on the 15th of May, 1965. Your mission throughout the day is to follow the timeline between 1865 and present day, to figure out why and how he died. It’s a real life Cluedo mystery! And, boy – if you like Escape Room games, you’ll love this.
The Experience consists meals and snacks (starting with breakfast in the cave), a gorgeous hike, an artisanal gin-tasting session that also includes a tour of how gin is made, and ends off with a three course south african meal where you become the characters in the story to try and solve the mystery. All this for 2,000 South African Rand, which translates to about $143. Not bad for an all-inclusive, unique experience.
But that still didn’t answer my question – why is she doing this? So I asked her, again, and she looked at me. Aha, she said, and I knew she knew what I was referring to.
“Because they think they’re having fun, these guests. But I’ve tricked them into coming on a little history lesson with me, on South African history, the black community, and how life has changed for those of us living in Cape Town.”
There it was. She was using Airbnb Experiences as a vehicle for social commentary. I wanted to punch my fist into the air. Yessss! I had solved my own little mystery correctly. She went on.
“Writing is exorcism. There are things you need to get out. This is common to every storyteller..”
And storyteller she is – she told me on the side that she not only wrote stories, she also worked as an emcee, a performance poet, and a voice artist.
I nodded. Go on.
“And when I tell these stories, be they on paper or to unsuspecting Airbnb guests, I want to change the way they see the world. Just a little bit.”
Something you need to understand about Nicole – after seventeen long (and I should think, successful) years as the head of tourism, she quit to work in an NGO called Innovation Edge that focuses on developing early learning in children aged 1-6 by funding ideas and initiatives in marginalised communities. It made sense for her, I think, as someone so passionate about social issues, to move from tourism to a non-profit.
“Did it annoy you?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “To have tourists caper up to Cape Town just to look at it as a gorgeous tourist holiday destination without bothering with understanding the social structure or history of the place?”
“Oh my god,” she rolled her eyes. “You have no idea.”
We then spent a good part of the next hour talking about South Africa – mostly her, talking intensely, and me, listening, trying to absorb, and asking the occasional question. Much of this conversation had nothing to do with Airbnb as a platform, therefore potentially majorly irritating the Parisian journalist who was waiting to interview Nicole on Airbnb Experiences. But Airbnb is not a product in and of itself. It is a platform. And this platform you can use to book accommodation, browse listings, read city guides. So why not use the platform to push a social agenda? I totally got Nicole’s rationale behind what she was doing, and loved it. And despite not being technically a part of the official Airbnb Experiences Ethos, it still aligned nicely with Airbnb’s aesthetic of trying to get people to understand each other and cultures, trying to create a more inclusive, loving world (Look at their latest announcement – a mandatory non-discriminatory rule). Just that what Nicole is doing is on a far, far more local level.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post called The Broke Student’s Guide to Being Human. Those of you who remember that will understand why meeting Nicole was so important to me. As someone who comes from a position of privilege (i mean, come on. A chinese woman in Singapore is like being a white person in America), it is easy to forget and important to remember that your privilege often works at another person’s expense. Let’s not play the privilege game – the comparison of who is more, who is less, who is equally privileged. There will always be someone more fortunate. Someone vastly poorer. You are born into a body and social station which is not of your choice, and all you can do is try to be fair, and kind while learning to navigate it.
But in traveling, this is easy to forget. It is so easy to ooh and aah over the gorgeous mountains of cape town while ignoring the incredibly insane income disparity that exists there. So easy to shudder at the gunshots in the middle of the night, that you hear from your rented room in a small town of Medellin, Columbia, thrilled at your authentic local experience. But your holiday experience is another person’s everyday reality. And while it may not be your responsibility to familiarise yourself with the entire social historical context of whatever city you go to, it sure doesn’t hurt.
I wont attempt to explain the social fabric of south africa. Learning about it from Nicole was endlessly interesting to me, but I have no faith in my ability to do it justice, or replicate her words with the same level of conviction that can only come from a lifetime of personal experience. But go. Ask her. Ask any host you stay with, any local you meet on your Airbnb Experience. Ask them for their story. Ask them why they’re doing what they do. If it pans out well, you’ll find yourself enriched, your perspective widened, your capacity for empathy hopefully deeper by the end of it. And if it doesn’t, well. You’ll have a story of your own to tell.