In June 2018, our engagement and communications VP Robert Jones took a tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown organized by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. The Chinese Culture Center offers tours through Airbnb Social Experiences, an innovative initiative that gives nonprofits an opportunity to educate tourists and locals in their communities while also generating revenue.
It’s a rainy, blustery day in San Francisco, but nothing can dampen the enthusiasm of Darin Ow-Wing as he leads a gaggle of tourists through the streets and alleyways of Chinatown.
That’s not an unusual sight in Chinatown, which attracts an estimated 6 million visitors every year. What is unusual is the emphasis that Darin brings to his Chinatown Inspired tour. While other guides highlight lurid details of gang violence and prostitution, Darin wants to emphasize the historical and cultural forces that created the first Chinatown in North America and the largest outside Asia.
He recounts the persistent violence and discrimination faced by his forebears, including a wave of racial hatred in the early 1870s that wiped out hundreds of smaller Chinese neighborhoods in railroad towns all across America.
San Francisco, he explains, is where Chinese immigrants flocked to as they looked for safety in numbers. And it’s where they fought back to assert their place in American society: forcing city government to integrate schools 60 years before Brown vs. Board of Education and defending the rights of Chinese laundries in a Supreme Court case that eventually led to the overturning of Jim Crow laws in the South.
As the Director of Education and Engagement at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Darin is passionate about telling these stories, and he’s found an unusual platform in Airbnb, the local tech company that created a global home sharing industry.
Darin was an early adopter of Airbnb Social Experiences, an initiative that allows nonprofits to create classes, tours, tastings and other experiences for tourists and locals who want to dive into the essence of a place, beyond the postcard views and shiny veneers. Nonprofits set their own rates and keep 100 percent of the revenue – Airbnb even eats the credit card processing fees.
For years, the Chinese Culture Center was well known for its student tours, but earlier efforts to lure adults onto the streets of Chinatown had proved futile. “I didn’t realize how hard the marketing would be,” Darin says as we munch egg custard pastries at Café Chinatown Bakery. “I thought it was all about social media, so we worked really hard on Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor – but still it was a trickle.”
Since turning to Airbnb, the same tours are selling out every weekend, and he’s looking to expand his offerings and add new guides. Darin says the Experiences platform has been “a godsend,” and his goal is to earn $10,000 this year, which would allow the Center to offer free tours to schoolchildren from marginalized communities.
Beyond the new revenue stream, Darin says the effort is paying off in other ways, as well. He’s greatly expanded the Center’s educational mission while “creating lots of good feeling” with tourists and locals alike. He’s surprised by the number of Bay Area residents taking the tours each weekend, and he’s working to “turn them into long-term friends, not just one-time tourists.”
Kerry Rodgers, a social impact consultant at Airbnb, confirms that more locals are using the platform to find experiences in their back yard – just one of many surprises in the fast-growing program. “We’re learning and experimenting,” she acknowledges, jotting down notes as Darin offers his insights.
Darin says he’s learning too, and the effort to create a meaningful, marketable Social Experience has led to a bit of personal rebranding. His major discovery: “I can’t just talk all the time. We can’t be only for history geeks and sophisticates. When we started getting feedback on the tours, I realized, ‘Oh #%*&, I have to make this fun.’”
By adding the bakery stop – and later a dim sum lunch – Darin found he could broaden the tour’s appeal while remaining faithful to his mission. Laura Field, Social Impact Project Manager at Airbnb, says there is inherent value in that process of thinking how to engage the public with an organization’s mission.
“The Experience process can help make your mission more accessible,” she says, and that’s true even for organizations that don’t have an obvious “hook” like a Chinatown tour.
As an example, she cites Free Animal Doctor, a rescue group in Sierra Madre, Calif., that allows tourists to take shelter dogs out for a hike in the mountains. In addition to raising $45 a pop, Free Animal Doctor benefits from all those Instagram pics of adorable pups and jaw-dropping scenery. “It’s been great for their adoption rates,” Laura says, admitting her own surprise. “It might not have been an obvious fit, but it’s turned into one of our most popular Experiences.”
Interested in learning more about how your nonprofit can start hosting Social Impact Experiences? Join Independent Sector Tuesday, October 30 at 1 pm ET for Champion Your Cause With Airbnb Social Impact Experiences.