Airbnb virtual experiences: are they worth it?

In the Great Lockdown, two-way video has become our primary social channel. Meetings, parties, concerts, music lessons, exercise classes: Any interactions that can be adapted to a Zoom video call, have been. Surely there’s nothing left to be Zoomified.

Actually, there is. Airbnb recently introduced what it calls Online Experiences: Live interactive sessions, conducted over Zoom by guides around the world, for small groups of “tourists” stuck at home.

Over the course of an hour or two, the hosts dive into a wide range of artistic, cultural, musical, culinary and athletic topics: “Dance Like a K-pop Star,” presented live by a guide in South Korea; “Cooking with a Moroccan Family,” from Marrakech; “Tokyo Anime and Subcultures,” from Japan; “Day in the Life of a Shark Scientist,” from South Africa.

The average price per person is about $16, but you might pay as little as $3 (“Cultural Journey through London Chinatown”) or as much as $130 (“Private Astrology Reading & Natal Chart,” from Barcelona). At the moment, some 200 classes are available, but the company adds another dozen or so every week, after vetting and viewing a dress rehearsal of each. Catherine Powell, who leads the Airbnb Experiences programme, says that her team has received thousands of proposals. (“We had one called, ‘My Experiences Watching My Cat,’ ” she says. “That one was rejected.”)

Many of the guides once led these sessions in person, as part of Airbnb’s Experiences programme. (Visiting Alaska? Go salmon fishing! Visiting Italy? Do a wine tasting!) When the company suspended those risky in-person interactions in March, the guides, suddenly unemployed, proposed adapting their classes to video.

And so, last weekend, while the rest of the country was binge-watching, I went binge-experiencing. I crammed in seven Airbnb courses, all in hopes of answering the question: How well can a Zoom video chat replicate experiencing another place or culture? And how is it any better than, say, watching a YouTube video on the topic?

I discovered the answer to that second question immediately. These classes are not canned videos. They are live and two-way, and you are with people. The classes are generally small enough that you can chat, discuss and joke with both your instructor and your fellow classmates. You hear their various accents, notice the sun’s different position in their time zones, and get a sense of their interior decoration tastes.

The main event, though, is the hosts’ presentations, and they can be mind-blowing. “Meet the Dogs of Chernobyl” ($85), for example, is one of the few classes in which the host actually ventures away from home. Lucas Hixson, a radiation specialist, arrived in Ukraine in 2015 to discover more than 1000 dogs, starving and unattended, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They’re the descendants of pets who were abandoned by their fleeing owners after the 1986 power-plant disaster.

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