sharks
Justin Blake.
  • A South African marine biologist has created one of the most popular online Airbnb experiences in the world
  • His “virtual shark dive” has proven a hit.
  • Although in-person tours have since reopened on Airbnb, bookings are still open and popular with guests around the world.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South African marine biologist Justin Blake has turned his in-person Airbnb experience into a virtual one - and in doing so has rapidly created one of the most sought-after online experiences in the world called Meet a Real Life Shark Scientist.

At the same time, by taking advantage of Airbnb’s social impact policy, he has raised more than R150,000 for shark and conversation efforts.

sharks
Justin Blake.

Like many Covid-related business transitions, the shift from physical into virtual was not something Blake had considered - particularly not  for the tourism arm of his business that relied on face-to-face meetings.

Prior to the pandemic, Blake’s successful in-person Airbnb experience focused around showing tourists the Cape Peninsula in a more traditional manner - but with Airbnb quick to call a halt to these in-person experiences as Covid-19 spread, and the dearth of tourists owing to shut borders, he landed on the idea of turning the physical experience into a virtual one.

“I started with a few photos and a very rough concept of what I wanted to say, not how I wanted to say it or how people wanted to hear it,” he says. “I even started trying to teach a free dive breathing exercise during the experience, which didn’t work terribly well!”

sharks
Justin Blake.

But the experience quickly found a rhythm and routine, influenced by the feedback and responses of his guests. Through the use of photographs, videos, and interactive question and answer sessions, he was able to refine the online experience to a point that it was a captivating “virtual shark dive” experience.

He now shows guests how to follow sharks in real time as they swim around the ocean, reveals how researchers have uncovered fascinating details about their mysterious lives, and how they are using this information to protect the oceans into the future.

sharks
Justin Blake.

The move into the online space was a decision that paid off quicker for Blake than he imagined -  within weeks Blake’s online Airbnb shark experience was rated among the most popular in the world. It’s still consistently in the top 10 Airbnb Online Experiences globally, has achieved a 4.98 star rating from over 500 reviews, and 98% of participants have rated it five stars.

At the peak of lockdown, Blake was filling up four 90 minute slots each day. On a fully booked day, at R300 a booking, this means that Blake could have seen as much turnover as R12,000 a day - minus the various fees and other costs involved. 

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Image: AirBnb / Justin Blake

“I cannot describe the chaos that ensued after listing, with literally hundreds of people starting to book and enquire!” he says. 

The shift to an online experience staved off unemployment for the tour guide, he also used the opportunity to channel funds back into shark conservation - a portion of all proceeds from the experience goes directly to shark research and conservation. To date he’s raised more than R150,000 for the cause.

shark
Image: AirBnb / Justin Blake

Although he expects the booking numbers to stabilise as South Africa and other parts of the world start returning to more traditional forms of tourism, he’s positive about the future of this as a medium for both business and education.

“Seeing such a strong response and interest in what I’ve been doing for almost 13 years now was incredibly motivating - sparking many conversations, deep thinking, and research into ways of improving such a novel concept and idea - at least it was for me! It’s been a life changing experience and steep learning curve,” he says.

Blake also says there are still opportunities out there for people looking to emulate his success on the online experiences platform by sharing their own passion and expertise. 

Rather than focus on external promotion, he believes online hosts should focus on constantly improving what they offer to the paying customers.

sharks
Justin Blake.

“Providing a great product, and a focus on each guest, leads to word of mouth growth,” he says. “But the main things for me are having something incredible to share - in my case, our research findings;  a keen interest in the topic; and telling the story well, authentically, and with passion,” he says.

Blake also makes an effort to focus on solutions, to leave participants with a feeling of positivity.

“We are shown problems everywhere we look, we even seek them out sometimes, and I think that we too quickly glance over the incredible achievements that countless positive, passionate, and accomplished people are achieving day after day,” he says. 

“I’ve thought about the ocean every day since I can remember, setting aside a ‘big income job’ to fulfil my desire to understand & protect it, so I guess authenticity is also important!” Blake says.

sharks
Justin Blake.

Although in-person Airbnb experiences have  reopened in South Africa, you can still book a virtual shark dive with Blake on the Airbnb platform - and browse hundreds of others based in South Africa and abroad.

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