Airbnb: class is in session

“Did you know kaftans were originally worn by men?” asks Narresh Kukreja, of the design label Shivan & Narresh. No, I did not. But I’m too busy attempting to replicate the sketch of a kaftan that Shivan Bhatia has just drawn for us on a croqui (that’s French for a type of skeletal design). I’m on a Zoom call along with several fashion and design enthusiasts attending the duo’s At Home with Airbnb debut. It is an hour-long virtual workshop where they take participants through the basics of fashion illustrations — how to create a swimsuit, something to cover up with, and to slip into for evening drinks. “The underlying idea is to impart our knowledge to a small batch of guests, where we can connect with them freely and take them through the whole process of sketching out a simple thought into a visually-appealing representation,” says Bhatia, speaking of the experience he co-hosts.

At Home with Airbnb, launched this month as part of the platform’s Online Experiences offering, is specific to India. Each session is hosted by celebrities and influencers. Among the chosen seven is fitness trainer Nam-Wook Kang, credited with getting actor Deepika Padukone into wedding photos-ready shape. “I will show you exercises that require minimum equipment,” he promises, “or that use objects found at home.” Kang has honed his set over several months of lockdown while hosting sessions on his own social media handles. Then there’s chef Sandeep Sreedharan, of Goa’s Mahé restaurant fame, who intends to use “this as an opportunity to demystify the jargon around sustainable cooking”. He’ll approach his 60-minute sessions, one ingredient at a time.

Virtual advantage

Airbnb’s new marketing campaign hopes to capitalise on the popularity of its Online Experiences programme, where hosts the world over have found innovative ways to showcase their cities, even under lockdown. It saw a three-fold increase in the number of bookings from India in its first month (May) alone.

It is important to note that 51% of Airbnb India’s business comes from Indians travelling within the country. So the aim behind the celebrity-driven approach is to boost those numbers. “The idea of Online Experiences was to bring travel to your doorstep at a time when you cannot step out,” says Simran Kodesia, Communications Lead at Airbnb India. “With At Home with Airbnb, it is another level of gratification. You get to say, ‘I learnt how to set the table from Devika Narain, the lady who worked on Virat and Anushka’s wedding’. It also helps our celebrity hosts to stay relevant and connected with their followers and fans.”

True. Right through my session, despite the technical and practical hitches that seem inherent to such conference calls, there was a high degree of personal interactivity. Like a virtual classroom with the tutor calling each student by name, asking to see their work and responding to it.

Real world moves

But Airbnb is not the only player in the online experiences market. There’s an abundance of fitness, art, dance and culinary experiences online. There are also companies like Delhi-based MyScoot, and platforms such as Pytm Insider where activities are accessible. Which begs the question: are these virtual experiences — with and without celebrities hosting them — viable in the long run? “In theory, yes,” says Divia Thani, Editor, Condé Nast Traveller , India. “There’s definitely opportunity for some cool activities to emerge with long-term potential. A lot depends on the execution. But it is not an equal substitute. In the long-term, nothing compares to an immersive, first-person experience.”

Bhatia agrees. “For many people, life’s passion points — be it art, fashion, cuisine, nature, relaxation — are at the heart of travel. And these points [which the virtual experiences reflect] will inspire them to book their next holiday, as and when we have the right global health ecosystem to do so.” I’m certain both Airbnb and the travel industry will be saying Amen to that.

Sign up for sessions with Devika Narain (Rs. 2,500++), Sanjana Chatlani (Rs. 2,261++) and Shivan & Narresh (Rs. 2,200++) today. Details: airbnb.co.in

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