Chiang Mai is known for the dish Khao Soi

Chiang Mai is known for the dish Khao Soi

After all the fun I had on my various food and city tours in Malaysia and Bangkok, I decided to try booking another food experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was only going to be in Chiang Mai for 3 days, and didn’t have a plan in advance for this visit. But as soon as we arrived (I was traveling with a new friend I met in Bangkok), we decided to try booking a home cooked meal through Withlocals. I’ve written about my Withlocals tour of Penang, and their new phone app is very handy for quick finding and booking of activities.

We found a meal experience that got great reviews and sounded delicious so I filled in the booking information, paid the deposit, and waited for a response. The woman who runs the home cooked meal got back to me pretty quickly, but she was out of town for the weekend and so proposed doing it the next week, unfortunately too late for us.

Withlocals handy booking app

Withlocals handy booking app

Then I tried booking a cooking class. I only gave this person 24 hours notice, and didn’t hear back before the event would have started. I’m not surprised, this woman is doing the cooking class on her own, so even if she just was offline for one day she’d miss my request. Obviously it would be better if people kept a calendar up to date with their availability. But this is challenging when dealing with individuals who are not professionals. Some of whom might have other jobs that also involve changing demands on their time.

To put this in perspective, at the same time we were trying to book some peer to peer food fun in Chiang Mai my friend was also booking a day tour with a commercial company. He put in the booking online one day in advance and immediately got an automated booking confirmation with a note that he’d be picked up in the morning. But there was some confusion with the last minute booking, and the tour never picked him up. So even with professional tour companies last minute requests can be a challenge.

To the credit of Withlocals, I got an email from their Customer Happiness Manager the next day apologizing that my requested booking date could not be accommodated. They will provide a full refund of my deposit but also wrote: “… we highly appreciate your interest in Withlocals and want to try to accommodate your travel plans as best as we can! Therefore we’ve also looked up some comparable experiences that would definitely spice up your travel experience. We can book any of the following alternatives on your already made payment. Of course we will refund the entire payment surplus and to compensate for this inconvenience we will compensate any possible payment shortfall for you :)”

Seeing my interest in food experiences (and the location of my booking request), they suggested three other Thai dinning events. And I interpret this message to mean that if I selected one that cost more than what I had planned to pay for the meal I tried to book, Withlocals would cover the shortfall.

withlocalsWithlocals also offered to do the work of finding and booking the activity for me: “You can share your favourite experience and prefered booking details (date, time, etc.) with us and we will approach the host to complete a new booking for you!”

I think this is a very good practice: Withlocals knows I’m serious about booking an event since I paid the deposit for one already. And as a relatively new company they really want to get customers out there enjoying their tours and experiences. I know my friend wasn’t offered this level of support for his mistaken commercial tour, though they did apologize and book him on the same tour a few days later with a personal confirmation that the driver knew to pick him up.

Overall I think it’s likely that commercial tours will handle last minute bookings better than peer to peer bookings: the size of their operations and the standardization of their tour offerings makes this easier. But as smart phone use and internet availability become ubiquitous worldwide, this gap should close. A responsible independent peer to peer guide will find it easier and easier to check on bookings in real time. And the better sharing economy travel experience companies will provide these guides with easy-to-use phone apps to manage and respond to requests. While the system management technology is behind-the-scenes and not something travelers will ever interact with, I think this is going to be a critical factor in determining which of the many new peer to peer activity companies succeed.