Want to eat dinner with an investment banker-cum-bhakti yogi? This is just one of the many new "experiences" available on SideTour and other websites like it. Side Tour

“Not too many people open up a package of rocket launchers addressed to them,” Steve Genna says about five minutes after we meet. Of course, he tells me this because that’s exactly what he did this morning; he opened up a box of rocket launchers and placed them in a dark basement in New York’s fashion-crazed SoHo neighborhood.

We’re standing in a two-story vault whose walls are filled from floor to ceiling with pistols, machine guns and the odd grenade launcher.

“Just about everything you see here has been used by somebody famous,” he explains, and for the next two hours we wind past an unnerving array of weaponry, shoot some blanks, and unlock a piece of movie magic in Hollywood’s secret weapons depot, the largest prop house of its kind this side of the Mississippi.

Twenty-four hours later I’m across town with Ming Lok and a family from San Francisco listening to a Cantonese Opera in a park in Chinatown. The sinewy strip of cement is packed with men gathered around small tables waging bets, a relic, I’m told, of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which left many immigrant workers alone and ensured this small enclave would become somewhat of a bachelor’s club for the lonely and gamble-addicted.

Ming moved to this neighborhood from Hong Kong when she was 7 and started taking people around to “experience Chinatown like a local” last fall, after years of fielding questions from friends. What’s the community like, they’d ask, or what’s dim sum and where’s the best place to eat?

It turns out Chinatown is a community run by a series of associations based on one’s surname, trade or regional ties; dim sum is more or less the Chinese equivalent to tapas if tapas were piled high on food carts and served by cantankerous grannies in a banquet hall; and the best place to eat in Chinatown is the modest Chatham Square Restaurant.

Of course I know all of this now because I took Ming’s tour, available on for $30. I know where the cast of “Boardwalk Empire” gets their arsenal, what kind of armor the people in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film “Noah” will wear, and that somewhere in a basement in SoHo there’s a machine that can produce fake passports. I know all this because I took Steve’s tour, available on for $70.

Want to eat dinner with an investment banker-cum-bhakti yogi? There’s a tour for that. Want to fish with a Fijian king, train with a Las Vegas circus performer or learn how to become an urban beekeeper? There are tours for those, too.

Vayable, Side Tour and other Websites like them are popping up online at an astonishing rate, offering a new marketplace for people to discover, buy and sell “experiences.” Beyond the guidebooks and vacation packages, beyond the beaten path, this is the new frontier of the tourism industry. And if it’s still somewhat of a “secret,” you can be certain it won’t be for long.

What’s Mine Is Yours (For A Price)

In the span of less than two years, a dizzying array of peer-to-peer startups including San Francisco-based Vayable, New York-based Side Tour, Los Angeles-based CanaryHop and Berlin-based Gidsy shook up the traditional tour industry by realizing something they’d overlooked for decades: Tourists want to be like locals and locals want to live like tourists.

Each website markets itself as a community where locals and travelers alike can buy experiences sold by their peers. It’s “collaborative consumption” -- the much buzzed about euphemism for what’s mine is yours (and you can find it online for a price) -- and the idea spread quickly.

In April 2011, Vayable became one of the first to claim its stake on the experience-selling market. It crept across the United States, launched in 600 cities on six continents by this July, and even partnered with Airbnb to offer activities in select destinations. Side Tour hit the market next, but is only just expanding outside of the Big Apple this month. The surprisingly savvy investor Ashton Kutcher helped German startup Gidsy get the ball rolling in Europe by November 2011 and, like Vayable, it too spread globally this summer. Finally, CanaryHop launched right off the bat in March 2012 with a slick SNL-like YouTube promo from its co-founder, Andy Samberg.

These are just the big players; others like UK-based Blink Collective and Singapore-based EvenPanda entered the market this summer and are already making waves. Yet, any young idealist knows that waves are one thing in a startup world that’s sink or swim.

Of those splashing around in the pool, CanaryHop is the most generic, Vayable the most established and Gidsy the most talked about. But it’s Side Tour, the only one of the pack that has yet to go global, that’s the most intriguing.

A Sense Of Discovery In The Everyday

Gidsy, CanaryHop and other sites like them are nothing if not ecumenical. You can sign up, call yourself an expert in, say, sushi-making, and start offering “experiences.” In theory, if the service you provide is terrible and everyone’s sushi looks like ceviche, you’ll get weeded out through a process of peer review a la Airbnb.

Unlike Airbnb, however, experiences are much more about the people that offer them and, as Side Tour CEO Vipin Goyal points out, not everyone was put on this planet to be a host.

“Building a marketplace is not the same as building a website. Anyone can build a website, but it doesn’t matter how many activities you have on your site. If they’re not good, they’re not selling.”

Goyal sees himself and his team of 12 others as curators, and all hosts on Side Tour are vetted. Consequently, the company takes a larger cut (20 percent) and prices run a tad higher, but it’s the price they’re betting you’ll pay for higher quality -- a bet that seems to be paying off. The TechStars NYC startup claims its third-quarter revenue grew by almost 200 percent over the previous quarter.

Jamie Wong, CEO and co-founder of Side Tour’s biggest competitor, Vayable, says its revenue is also doubling month-over-month, as the website experiences exponential growth. But while Vayable (which screens potential hosts through video chats) is primarily concerned with blitzing traditional travel and tourism, Side Tour has focused more on entertainment -- the idea that you don’t need to get on a plane to have a world of experiences.

Goyal came up with the concept for everyday staycations after returning from a six-month around-the-world trip with his wife.

“When we traveled, we were eager to meet new people and find new things to do. We had some amazing experiences, and when we returned to New York, I wanted to bring that sense of discovery into our everyday lives,” he said.

Side Tour is also about helping talented individuals build up a side business around their particular expertise. Take Food Network winner Elise Kornack. She was one of the first entrepreneurs to use the website and said it helped her and her girlfriend, Anna Hieronimus, to “redefine what we were doing and understand what we wanted to accomplish.”

The pair -- who have welcomed hundreds of guests into their home for intimate five-course market-focused meals -- used Side Tour as an incubator, and are now ready for their next challenge: a brick-and-mortar establishment, Take Root, which opens this month in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood.

Side Tour, too, is ready for its next challenge, and will open marketplaces in Washington and Chicago by the end of October. It plans to further spread its tentacles across the United States (and beyond?) in 2013.

The New American Dream

At the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet conference this February, angel investor Ron Conway proclaimed a seismic shift in the American Dream: People these days, he said, prefer access over ownership.

While this may be true, perhaps it’s just the natural progression of things. Etsy provided a peer-to-peer marketplace for the arts, Airbnb did it for accommodation, and as the U.S. emerges from a recession, a new crop of websites have emerged hinging on two assumptions: Americans’ purchasing habits have switched, and people innately act with the best of intentions.

There’s GetAround (loan your car to a stranger), GrubWithUs (eat with strangers) and even TaskRabbit (get strangers to do your chores). Yet, of all of these ideas, the aforementioned experience-sellers seem the most likely to succeed.

Some suggest the overall rise in collaborative consumption runs parallel with the rise of online dating, the irony being that more people are looking online to seek experiences and communities offline.

Goyal said Side Tour is as much about meeting like-minded people as it is about having experiences, and even claimed individuals had met their future wives or bosses on a tour.

The venerable dating site seems to think it’s a good idea, too. In May, it announced a new program in 40 U.S. markets called The Stir, which takes online dating offline with events like cooking classes, dance classes, sushi-making and wine-tasting. The Stir uses the site’s matching algorithms to fill offline events with compatible singles.

Yet, the sharing economy is not just for lonely hearts. Time Magazine went so far as to name collaborative consumption one of the 10 Ideas That Will Change The World, saying “In an era when families are scattered and we may not know the people down the street, sharing things -- even with strangers we've just met online -- allows us to make meaningful connections.”

Rachel Botsman, co-author of “What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption,” says all of this peer-to-peer sharing “involves the re-emergence of community.” Some research, she claims, has even suggested that we get a spike of the pleasant neurotransmitter oxytocin when we’re entrusted with others’ goods and services.

In an age where community is elusive and communication is more about the written word than the spoken, it appears more people are using the Web in a very targeted way to get offline, meet new people and share new experiences. And for those who’ve always wanted to see rare and famous weapons, learn the inner workings of a dim sum palace or share a five-course artisanal meal with nine strangers, for anyone who’s wanted to be a tourist in their own city, now there’s a way.