"Tourist" has become a dirty word in the hospitality business. The preferred word? Local.
Travelers can now sign up through hotels and tour operators for experiences arranged by locals. The latest to join the trend are Marriott International, which recently took a stake in PlacePass, the tour- and activity-booking start-up, and Royal Caribbean Cruises, which just introduced GoBe, a seller — online and through an app — of land-based tours and activities.
The experiences can be as varied as the grand and the unexpected. On PlacePass, guests can book a private tour of "Downton Abbey" filming locations, pasta-making lessons with a local celebrity chef or family-friendly outings.
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The new moves by these established companies reflect the increasing draw of home-sharing sites like Airbnb, which promise travelers the chance to live like a local, said Fiona O'Donnell, the director of travel and leisure research at Mintel, a market research firm, in Chicago.
"Guests want to feel like they are experiencing something in the design or the local flavor," she said. "They want it to be memorable and part of the local scene, not like they are tourists."
The moves are also an extension of a trend where hotels are moving away from a uniform experience, no matter where they are, to one in which properties blend into their communities and offer travelers access to local artists and businesses.
Hotel operators already have a trove of data about the preferences and behavior of their frequent guests, said Bjorn Hanson, a professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University. Now, he said, the hotels are using that data to get travelers to spend more money when they visit. "Growth is slowing, so they have to shift their model to target more spending" per guest, he said.
Last year, Airbnb started its own Trips booking site, on which local "experts" sell experiences they put together, like a seven-hour day working and dining in an urban garden with a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker, or a three-day burlesque dancing class in London, complete with a workshop on making nipple tassels.
TripAdvisor, the online travel booking site, bought Viator three years ago. The booking site's nonhotel revenue rose 31 percent last year, while revenue from its main hotel-booking business was down slightly.
The start-up Hello Scout offers concierge service and activities booking via its website and text message for independent boutique hotels in six cities, including New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Hotel guests use it to text local experts to book events, or find restaurants or other hangouts. Travelers pay a fee for the bookings, and the service is free to the hotels.
There are also start-ups that connect travelers with locals for dining-in experiences, like BonAppetour, where guests can book lunch or dinner at the home of a chef in Rome or go to a Parisian dinner party in a 19th-century apartment near the Champs-Élysées.
At the Stafford Hotel in London, the executive concierge, Frank Laino, created and is the host of a walking tour for guests to his favorite places in the St. James neighborhood, including visits to places not open to the public like Spencer House, Princess Diana's ancestral home, and Lock & Company, the world's oldest hat shop.
Marriott's investment in PlacePass — the amount wasn't disclosed — adds to its existing membership rewards program, which it had been building into an "experiences marketplace," where points could be redeemed for local music, sports, food and dining, and cultural activities. The technology will be incorporated into the mobile app that hotel rewards members use to check in and out and to unlock their room doors.
Marriott is using big data technology to analyze and interpret customer activity on the app and to make suggestions about PlacePass experiences to try, whether or not that customer is currently staying at a Marriott property.
"Marriott is adding value to consumer lives besides just a bed in a hotel room," Stephanie Linnartz, the company's global chief commercial officer, said.