Tripadvisor-owned online travel agency Viator has been quietly piloting a new marketing program that has raised a few eyebrows among the tours and activities community.
Called Accelerate, the program allows operators to adjust their commission rate to boost their product’s visibility on the platform.
The model – common among hotels listing on sites such as Booking.com, but less seen in the experiences space – is designed to give operators more exposure to travelers shopping for similar products through contextual ads.
Participating products, which must be an active product with a “good” or “excellent” rating on the platform, appear in ads across Viator under a promoted experiences banner.
The program is voluntary and stands to give operators more control over their exposure. Before opting in, operators can use Viator’s “Visibility Score” tool to compare their visibility against their competitive set and see how adjusting their commission could boost their placement.
Once joined, operators have access to a dashboard with analytics including their Visibility Score, bookings and page views to evaluate how the program is performing.
According to Viator, the program delivers as much as a 15% increase in bookings on average, and operators can choose to opt in or out at any time.
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Accelerate, which began rolling out in late August, is currently available to eligible products in 13 markets of varying sizes in the United States. Of Viator’s more than 350,000 products, the pilot is currently available for several hundred.
"Operator feedback is at its foundation. As the industry has grown, it’s become harder to stand out – we heard that loud and clear. So we created Accelerate to help operators stand out - on their terms, under their control and where it matters," Viator spokesperson Laurel Greatrix says.
“The intention [with the Accelerate pilot] is to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can – and use that information to mold this program into something increasingly powerful for suppliers, useful to travelers and scalable for us."
Solution or "shameful"?
While the Accelerate program has had initial success among some tours and activities operators – food experiences operator Destination Kitchen in New Orleans, for example, saw its bookings jump 228% over a 30-day period in the program – it has signaled concerns from others.
“Viator had stated for years that they are unable to help rank any brand to improve their position and rank. Everything was done via an algorithm that combines ‘reviews and keywords,’ and the only way to enhance your product was to purchase credits from [Viator parent company] Tripadvisor – which is technically expensive advertising. Now all of a sudden they are [ranking products] so openly by operators increasing their commissions?” says Ana Karina Araque, co-founder of U.K.-based Imagine Experiences.
“All [Viator] seems to be doing is pushing operators with not much budget more toward Google and giving them more power to charge what they want. With Google, at least you know that one day, your investment won’t only drive more revenue, but in the longer-term your customer will come back to you and your brand.”
Akila McConnell, owner of Unexpected Virtual Tours and Unexpected Atlanta Tours & Gifts, adds that she is frustrated over Viator’s history of trying out different commission structures.
“They tried initially to individually negotiate commissions, then moved toward standardized commissions, then moved to a dynamic commission structure where they controlled pricing of the product, and now are trying to allow operators to increase commissions to get more visibility. It's not clear why they are constantly changing their commission structure but, from an operator angle, it leads to both confusion and dissatisfaction.”
That said, “from the operator perspective, I am not particularly concerned about Viator’s approach because operators must use some form of marketing or advertising to bring in customers,” but McConnell believes the model may result in Viator losing credibility from savvy consumers.
Viator could be digging their own grave here as, up to now, OTAs have been a cheaper and ‘easy’ option.
Chris Torres - Tourism Marketing Agency
"Ultimately, Tripadvisor/Viator may be the biggest loser in using this approach because consumers - and particularly travel consumers - are very adept at digital analysis," she says.
Christian Watts, founder and CEO of Magpie Travel, adds that the strategy does “nothing” for consumer choice.
Meanwhile, smaller operators that have worked hard to get to the top of the rankings could quickly lose their positioning, while “anybody with low marginal costs such as attractions will probably end up at the top, as well as new and probably lower-quality operators who now have a shortcut,” Watts says.
Chris Torres, founder and director of Tourism Marketing Agency, while acknowledging that Viator, like all businesses, has been hit hard by the pandemic and is looking at ways to increase revenue, calls the move “shameful” and signals “the death of OTAs for many operators, as it is simply no longer viable.”
“Viator Accelerate only works for large operators who work on volume and only push more operators down the pecking order and the only option left is to market their own business through Facebook or Google,” he says.
“However, even those larger, volume-based operators may now start realizing that the larger commission they need to pay Viator is no longer cost effective. Some may now see Google Ads as a cheaper, more viable option.
“Viator could be digging their own grave here as, up to now, OTAs have been a cheaper and ‘easy’ option. This may be about to change.”
Viator contends that Accelerate was “built with empowerment at its core” and gives operators more options and more control over their product’s visibility in a highly competitive market.
Says Brittany Perrin, business development manager at New Orleans-based Airboat Adventures: “We were so excited when Viator presented the Accelerate program to us. We jumped on board immediately and the Viator team did what they always do, performed exceptionally. We have seen near immediate success in just the last 30 days, and the number do not lie.”
Perrin says bookings in the past 30 days were up 166% compared to the last 30 days and more than 2% higher than the competition.
“And of course, our views are through the roof. This is real quantifiable success, and we could not recommend this program enough.”
Still, Torres, among others in the tours and activities space, remains skeptical.
“I see this move as a significant and negative move within tours and activities and the start of a slippery slope toward the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”