Douglas Quinby, co-founder and CEO of Arival
"Some cruise lines and concierges are like the mafia."
Quote from Douglas Quinby, co-founder and CEO of Arival, in an article on PhocusWire this week on the dirty truth about tours and activities.
Each Friday, PhocusWire dissects and debates an industry trend or new development covered on our site that week.
A fairly throwaway line in a list of issues that rarely get a mention in the press as they gush over the ongoing and rapid rise of tours and activities.
The latter point might be true to some extent (we beg to differ) but the accusations that elements of the burgeoning sector are behaving like organized crime do warrant some analysis.
And, more constructively, how to overcome them - if possible.
The problem (some, let's remember, might not see it as one) is not something that has emerged in recent years since the onslaught of interest and money has flooded into the sector.
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In fact, it's one of the oldest mechanisms within "distribution" in the entire travel sector and has existed for as long as consumers have wanted to experience something on a trip.
Concierges are often considered the most well-connected people in a hotel, knowing what to recommend and seemingly able to get "a deal" on a museum trip or restaurant booking for guests.
What often happened is that a supplier of a product would outbid (or even out-muscle) a rival player and the concierge would simply provide the ticket or reservation based on who was in favor at any given time.
Some might call it, err, capitalism, others might say it creates a market where the most important element in the foodchain - the consumer - is never quite sure what has happened behind the scenes to give them the chance to experience Product A or Product B.
The intermediary (i.e. the concierge or the cruise operator, if you take Quinby's comment further) generally wins because they have the stranglehold on supply to the customer, who they hope will be happy with what they've paid and what they experienced.
But other suppliers lose out, many with superior products, simply because they cannot meet the requirements of the intermediary. Thus the problem - with the consumer being the end-user who failed to get a choice.
It is easy to say that suppliers should stop playing "the game" but this is far harder to do for a number of reasons: historic processes and cash.
Still, this is where progress and technology can kick in.
The gradual digitalization of the sector (it still has a long way to go) should help create some kind of level playing field for local suppliers to operate in.
As more product is booked online, either pre-trip or in-destination, cash no longer becomes a consideration and reservation or booking processes (and the recommendations that got consumers to that point) become less opaque.
This sounds simple - but it isn't. It takes a concerted effort across the supplier marketplace to sign up to a new world of transparency in tours and activities.
Now some may argue that the modern concierges (marketplaces such as online travel agencies - the web world mirroring that of the offline) could be in a similar position, if one supplier is favored over another because of commercial considerations.
But, as a step towards greater transparency, marketplaces are a far better mechanism for the consumer to at least get a choice of products, rather than being funnelled into one supplier or another.
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