Arival 360 day 1: We needed hope, not navel gazing

On the first day of the Arival 360 virtual conference, there was one thing missing — hope

Hope. That would be the one word I would focus on if I were running a travel conference in 2020. Give people something to hold onto. But the first few hours of the opening day of Arival 360 aimed more for navel gazing before picking up after the first break.

This was carried out under the guise of honesty, and we do need to be straight about the challenges the pandemic has thrust upon the tours, activities and experiences sector. However, honesty can also be optimistic: here’s the situation, and here’s how we’re going to get through it, rather than: everything is awful.

It wasn’t until Marica Mackenroth Brewster, CEO of the Von Mack Agency, came on screen to discuss recovery marketing that a path forward was presented. Mackenroth Brewster was also the first to bring up the importance of self care and mental health.

Before that, Douglas Quinby’s floating head had carried out his introduction — an overview of the market in 2020, which … Well, we all have a good idea of that already. It’s not good.

Day one of Arival 360 suffered from being too US-centric

arival 360
The Empire State Building Observatory is currently operating at 80 per cent capacity — Chris Barbalis / Unsplash

Quinby’s first interviewee was Jean-Yves Ghazi, President of the Empire State Building Observatory. Just months before Covid struck, the Observatory had completed an overhaul of its exhibition. (I visited on the last day open before restrictions hit — it was empty and amazing.)

Ghazi suffered from being too US-centric, or even New York-centric. An awful lot of the world is currently under some form of lockdown. There are no drive-ins and no local tourism because it’s against the law. There is no way to market locally and support neighbourhood businesses — everything’s closed.

This wasn’t just Ghazi’s problem. Other American speakers struggled with it too. It highlights the difficulty of writing for a global, travel industry audience at this time — everyone’s having the same problems, but with wildly different specific circumstances.

After that Quinby, chatted to some small operators about the difficult decisions they had taken to get through the pandemic. One of those operators had gone into hibernation but carried out product expansion, another could cover expenses for a location with $100 — something that isn’t realistic for most operators — and another had completely shuttered because debts had come due. Finally, there was a loaded question with a one word answer: “Are you optimistic, yes or no?” The only possible answer is yes.

Quality beats quantity at Viator

Viator ben drew Arival 360 tripadvisor
A sale of Viator by Tripadvisor appears to be scurrilous gossip

Quinby came into his own during his chat with Ben Drew, president of Viator. As champion and cheerleader of the industry, Quinby pushed Drew on topics such as the relationship between Viator and Tripadvisor, Google’s position in the industry, and the moves Viator is making towards ensuring high-quality listings.

Drew’s been well trained. He knows how to answer questions without really giving an answer. This meant he was able to navigate the Google questions without being too specific on any issue — they are partners after all. But it seems as if Viator is “by no means” being sold by Tripadvisor, and that this was just scurrilous gossip.

Perhaps of more importance to the tours, experiences and activities community were the questions on quality, commissions and fees, and customer service. Drew said that having 395,000 listings is a good metric for a certain objective, but explained that if those are of poor quality, it’s bad for the brand and therefore for sales. And he made sure to point out that operators who receive an excellent rating receive three times more bookings as those who receive the worst.

On fees, Drew said that the new $29 fee had shown a jump in the quality of the listings being posted and that now 50 per cent of listings were excellent straight off the bat. Disentangling the commission structure may prove harder in the long run. These are based on an operator’s market and location, and each operator within the same market and location should pay the same. Over time, Viator will look at offering more services, such as appearing higher on the page, by paying more. He did make sure to state that Viator wouldn’t become pay-to-play.

Giving people something to hold onto

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A moment was missed that could have given people hope — Aleksandr Ledogorov / Unsplash

The travel industry has always been cautious with politics. The brilliant Lauren McCabe Herpich, founder of Global Tours Connect, touched on it briefly with an aside about how much she missed president Josiah Bartlett from the West Wing and Drew made a bit of a statement when he chose Jacinda Ardern, the newly reelected prime minister of New Zealand, over Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

But politics is always a part of travel, whether that’s the requirement or not of having to get a visa to visit, or if airlines are able to fly between different countries. At the minute, we’re currently seeing the most intrusive set of regulations the travel industry has ever seen, and for good reason.

However, the industry has been left out to dry by governments all across the world. Was this discussed on the first day of Arival 360? Of course not. With the number of attendees, and all their contacts in OTAs and agencies, this could have been a moment to coordinate a campaign to tray and save travel. And that would have given people hope.

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