Travel web­sites push ex­pe­ri­ences

Com­pa­nies look to or­ga­nize the roughly 80% of travel ac­tiv­i­ties now booked off­line

The Niagara Falls Review - - Canada & World - AISHA AL-MUS­LIM

Book­ing com­pa­nies and hote­liers are try­ing to sell trav­el­ers more on­line than just a place to stay, an air­line ticket or a car rental. These web-based firms also want cus­tomers to pur­chase ex­pe­ri­ences such as para­sail­ing ex­cur­sions, food tours and aquar­ium ad­ven­tures.

The amount spent by trav­el­ers on tours, attractions, events and ac­tiv­i­ties while trav­el­ing has swelled 21% since 2014 to $159 bil­lion (U.S.), and com­pa­nies like TripAd­vi­sor Inc., Ex­pe­dia Group Inc. and Book­ing Hold­ings Inc. are try­ing to get cus­tomers to buy more of them on­line.

Cur­rently, about 80% of ex­pe­ri­ences are booked off­line through walk-ups, phone, tra­di­tional travel agen­cies, and ho­tel concierges, ac­cord­ing to travel-re­search com­pany Pho­cuswright.

Travel sites and ho­tel chains like Hy­att Ho­tels Corp. and Mar­riott In­ter­na­tional Inc. could po­ten­tially earn more revenue from com­mis­sions paid by sup­pli­ers af­ter a cus­tomer books an ex­pe­ri­ence, or from higher advertising spend­ing by busi­nesses look­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the grow­ing de­mand.

“These tours, ac­tiv­i­ties and attractions, which have al­ways been there, have sud­denly got a lit­tle bit of a re­brand be­cause it is kind of the last area of travel that has yet to be fully dig­i­tized,” said Caroline Brem­ner, head of travel and tourism re­search at Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional Ltd.

Los An­ge­les res­i­dent Fa­timah Satya spent weeks scour­ing the in­ter­net for ex­cur­sions for her Euro­pean va­ca­tion. Through Airbnb Inc.’s Ex­pe­ri­ences and TripAd­vi­sor’s Vi­a­tor, she and her hus­band were able to book a tour of the Devil’s Pul­pit in Fin­nich Glen, Scot­land, and rely on the web­sites for tick­ets, di­rec­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “It is eas­ier to keep track of your trips on the app,” said Mrs. Satya, 30

years old. “I don’t know how peo­ple did it be­fore that.”

Typ­i­cally, travel agents of­ten con­nect tourists with things to do and other ser­vices. But now, the same on­line com­pa­nies that dis­rupted the travel-agent busi­ness for trip reser­va­tions are look­ing to grab the ex­cur­sions seg­ment of the in­dus­try as well.

Travel agents aren’t con­cerned about dig­i­tal com­pe­ti­tion be­cause they of­fer cus­tom­ized itin­er­ar­ies and concierge-style ser­vices for clients, said Erika A. Richter, a spokes­woman for the trade group Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Travel Ad­vi­sors. “There is a mar­ket that we serve that will al­ways come back to travel ad­vis­ers for the level of cus­tomer ser­vice that only a hu­man be­ing can of­fer,” she said.

Travel agen­cies han­dle the largest share of global travel book­ings, rep­re­sent­ing 30% of the to­tal in 2017, ac­cord­ing to Pho­cuswright. How­ever, book­ings

made di­rectly through web­sites are ex­pected to slightly over­take travel agen­cies by 2021, Pho­cuswright said.

“Ac­tiv­i­ties re­mains one of those mar­kets that is still es­sen­tially there for the tak­ing for play­ers who can make that ex­pe­ri­ence much bet­ter,” said Mark Ok­er­strom, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ex­pe­dia, which of­fers ex­pe­ri­ences at 1,800 des­ti­na­tions and recorded more than half a bil­lion dol­lars in ac­tiv­i­ties book­ings in 2017.

Lo­vis Wil­liams of the Bronx, N.Y., didn’t want her in­abil­ity to drive to limit her South­ern Cal­i­for­nia va­ca­tion with her 7-yearold daugh­ter, Cyan. So the 31year-old turned to Vi­a­tor to book tours of beaches and Palm Springs, and Ex­pe­dia for a Hol­ly­wood tour. “I just found it eas­ier to nav­i­gate on my own and fig­ure out what I want to do as op­posed to what the ho­tel is push­ing,”

Ms. Wil­liams said.

TripAd­vi­sor said book­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are its fastest-grow­ing revenue stream, mak­ing up roughly 50% of the site’s non­ho­tel revenue of $360 mil­lion in 2017. It has more than 140,000 ex­pe­ri­ences rang­ing from mac­aron-mak­ing lessons in Paris to three-day ex­pe­di­tions in the Ama­zon rain for­est.

Ear­lier this year, TripAd­vi­sor bought soft­ware com­pany Bokun to give tour op­er­a­tors that were pre­vi­ously off­line the abil­ity to of­fer book­ings on­line. In Novem­ber, TripAd­vi­sor launched a new ver­sion of a Face­book-like travel feed that gives users trip-plan­ning ideas.

Book­ing.com in Au­gust launched “Book­ing Ex­pe­ri­ences” in the U.S., pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for trav­el­ers to book ac­tiv­i­ties from a rec­om­mended list. It hopes the ef­forts will cre­ate loyal cus­tomers, said Ram Pa­p­atla, vice pres­i­dent of book­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

Home-shar­ing com­pany Airbnb of­fers more than 15,000 ex­pe­ri­ences across more than 1,000 cities, af­ter launch­ing its ex­pe­ri­ences busi­ness two years ago with lo­cal guides in a dozen cities.

“The idea is that one day we be­lieve that Airbnb can be the place where you can go with your en­tire trip,” said Joe Zadeh, head of Airbnb’s Ex­pe­ri­ences busi­ness.

Lateshia Dowell, 31, of Farm­ing­ton Hills, Mich., booked sev­eral ac­tiv­i­ties through Airbnb ahead of a week­long trip to Italy in Oc­to­ber. In Rome, Ms. Dowell, a so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing en­tre­pre­neur, had a ses­sion with a lo­cal pho­tog­ra­pher, vis­ited a pasta-mak­ing class and went on a bar crawl. She also booked a pizza tast­ing in Florence and wine tast­ing in Chi­anti.

“I needed to prop­erly plan to make sure I made the most of my time in the coun­try and wasn’t alone or bored,” Ms. Dowell said.

Sev­eral ho­tel chains in­clud­ing Hy­att and Mar­riott are also ac­cel­er­at­ing in­vest­ments in the ex­pe­ri­ences space.

Mar­riott’s ac­qui­si­tion of Star­wood Ho­tels & Re­sorts two years ago helped it en­ter the trav­el­ex­pe­ri­ences busi­ness. Af­ter in­vest­ing in travel ex­pe­ri­ences ag­gre­ga­tor PlacePass last year, Mar­riott—the world’s largest ho­tel com­pany—now of­fers more than 110,000 attractions and tours through its “Mo­ments” web­site to any­one, re­gard­less of a ho­tel reser­va­tion.

“Peo­ple want In­sta­gram-wor­thy kind of mo­ments,” said Ericka Acosta, a Mar­riott spokes­woman. “We see peo­ple are trav­el­ing for these amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Cor­rec­tions & Am­pli­fi­ca­tions Mar­riott of­fers more than 110,000 attractions and tours through its “Mo­ments” web­site. A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of the story in­cor­rectly stated Mar­riott of­fers more than 110 mil­lion attractions and tours.

AN­DREW HARRER BLOOMBERG

The same on­line com­pa­nies that dis­rupted the travel-agent busi­ness for trip reser­va­tions, such as Ex­pe­dia and TripAd­vi­sor, are look­ing to grab the ex­cur­sions seg­ment of the in­dus­try as well.

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