Ben Drew: People had a “great imagination” to think Viator would be sold

At Arival 360, the president of Viator, Ben Drew, tackled rumours they were to be sold by Tripadvisor, the issue of quality versus quantity, and the OTA’s relationship with Google

Rumours that Viator was to be sold by Tripadvisor were quashed at the Arival 360 conference on Monday night.

Viator’s operational split from Tripadvisor was in no way a precursor to a sale, the president of the tours, experiences and activities online travel agency, Ben Drew said. Instead, they were to enable each company to focus on their separate objectives, and to increase speed.

When asked whether he could speculate on the potential of a sale by Douglas Quinby, founder and CEO of Arival, Drew said: “There was speculation about this earlier in the year and I think that people were reading into the changes with great imagination.

“But the reality internally was quite, quite different.

“This was not a preparation or a prelude for sale by any means”

Viator ben drew Arival 360 tripadvisor
Viator is an online travel agency for the tours, experiences and activities sectors

“You know what we were aiming to do was to separate the teams of the businesses enough to allow both sides to go quickly, and to allow each to achieve their different, but linked business objectives.

“This was not a preparation or a prelude for sale by any means.”

Viator, which currently has 395,000 tours, activities and experiences product listings, was separated from Tripadvisor in January 2020 as part of a company restructure. Drew became president of Viator at that time, having been vice president of development and strategy, rentals and vacation for Tripadvisor.

Arival 360 is a conference for the tours, activities, attractions and experiences industries. As well as events, Arival provides news, analysis and research for the sectors. The conference is being held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Viator’s $29 fee has improved listing quality

Drew was also questioned about the changes Viator has made to quality, commissions and fees.

Earlier this year, a $29 fee was introduced to list a new product on the OTA. The move was met with dismay by operators struggling during the Covid crisis. At the same time, Viator announced that it would begin to hold listings to a set of quality standards, and those products that did not meet the standards would be removed.

Drew said that the changes were part of a strategic shift by Viator to ensure that travel products sold on the site were of high quality, and that the sale of poor products damaged their brand.

“What we see as necessary for success in the long term is to have both the biggest choice and also the best quality,” Drew said. “And so laying out what good looks like, or what acceptable looks like, what excellent looks like and what unacceptable looks like is a vital part of going from a system where we’re concentrated on volume to a system where volume and quality matter in joint measure.

“We have started to remove some listings that are not reaching the acceptable standards. Teams take great trouble to reach out to these operators and make multiple attempts to contact them and work with them. In order to try and improve those listings, we see it as part of our competitive advantage. We want them to improve.

“If the unacceptable level of quality is there, it’s because we think that is harming Viator to have that content on the platform.”

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 from the moment they were posted.

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, for operators who pay more or receive less commission. Drew stated that Viator wouldn’t become pay-to-play.

If Google benefits, so does Viator

Viator ben drew Arival 360 tripadvisor
Reserve with Google is a product targeting the travel market that allows travellers to book tours and activities

Google has become increasingly involved in the travel industry and now has a range of products targeting the market, including Reserve with Google, which is aimed at tours and activities, and in which Viator is a partner.

It has recently come under a barrage of criticism from OTAs in the market, such as GetYourGuide and Viator’s parent company, Tripadvisor.

After the United States Department of Justice announced an antitrust investigation into the search giant last week, Tripadvisor’s CEO, Stephen Kaufer, told CNBC: “Google is using its dominance in internet gatekeeping at the expense of other businesses.”

Drew was more measured. He said: “There is a balance to be struck here. On the one hand, the argument that Google is a competitor and should be treated as such in our strategy is quite compelling.

“And then on the other hand, the argument that they’re a partner and if they do well then we benefit too is also fairly compelling. So we’re constantly balancing these two different, both of them correct in some ways, but in other ways, very inconsistent views of the world, and it is a challenge to do so.

“I think if you refer to the carousel module, which is something that Google has launched in the last month or so on the standard Google search results page [for tours, experiences and activities]. That’s something that they’ve launched that we’re participating in.

“Google has the kind of resources and the technological chops to be dangerous. Their focus is very broad.

“And our focus is very specific. Our focus is on the experiences shopper. And we obsess over that experience, the shopper, and over the way they behave the way they shop and the way they book.

“Google, well, they have a much broader remit of challenges and a much broader set of markets that they care about.

“Ultimately, we think that our focus and our knowledge of the traveller will always be of value and that will always be valuable.”

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