What seemed like a sound idea in the middle of February quickly looked like complete madness by early March. When my co-founders and I began telling our peers about our new business, the responses ranged from incredulity to laughter. We were not surprised.
Who in their right mind would start a digital agency dedicated to revolutionizing bookings in the Tours & Activities sector of the travel industry when the entire industry itself was being closed down?
It's shocking how quickly this all happened.
But, as calamitous and heartbreaking as it’s been for everyone working in travel – and for travelers themselves – the pandemic has presented the Tours and Activities sector with an opportunity to reinvent itself. And in the months since the lockdown began around the world, our brand-new agency has been at the forefront of that reinvention, training and guiding operators into what we believe will become their new normal.
Leading the shift from OTAs to Direct Bookings
What started back in February as an idea – “let’s build a digital agency to get direct bookings for tours, activities and attractions operators” – turned into something very real when we dived into an industry that was undergoing a fundamental shift.
To understand that shift, you need to go back in history to the beginnings of Tripadvisor, Booking.com and other online travel agents (OTAs). These companies were very successful because, suddenly, small operators with a passion for the Tours & Activities sector had access to a much bigger market, and were able to grow their businesses as a result. But they didn’t have the tools or the staff to do it themselves.
This continued to be the case throughout 2019, with the industry settling into what seemed a very cosy arrangement between the operators and OTAs as the industry continued to see more and more of its business move online. But underneath, there was always a tension around the cost of that relationship – which saw the OTAs routinely take up to a 30% slice of the operators revenue for every transaction they drove.
The problem: many of these Tours and Activities operators had no idea how to harness the shift to online bookings for themselves and get out from under the onerous deals they had established with the OTAs. And the OTAs had become very good at leveraging their global scale to dominate the digital marketing landscape.
Then Covid-19 hit. Travel disappeared almost overnight, and the OTAs purged huge numbers of staff, leaving them less equipped to provide true value to Tours and Activities operators. At the same time, with people spending more time at home, eCommerce boomed. Grandparents learned how to use FaceTime and Zoom to talk to their adult children and grandkids, and consumers everywhere became just that little bit more savvy.
So, as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s clear that things will be different. With travel largely restricted to everyone’s own backyard and big-spending visitors from the US and China off the books, for now, the challenge is to get local marketing right.
And this does not play to the strengths of the OTAs.
Capturing local demand directly is the game for now
OTAs work best when large numbers of travelers are shopping for things to do on their big, international trip. They have leveraged this strength to take control away from the operators themselves because when business is good and there are thousands of people from around the world looking for the same thing, OTAs get the job done.
But when the market becomes smaller and more local, those advantages vanish. In that environment, Tours and Activities operators have an opportunity to shift the balance of power back in their favor by focusing on the targeted, search-based marketing needed to win the business of local and regional travelers.
Enter our new agency: TourismSolved
Another upside to a seismic event like the Covid-19 outbreak? Great talent becomes available. As a result, we’ve been able to quickly build an exceptional team with decades of experience in digital marketing and travel, all around the world. So right out of the gate, we know not only the issues that need to be solved, we have a pretty clear idea of how we can solve them.
More importantly: we’re passionate about helping Tours and Activities operators take greater control of their business by capturing direct bookings rather than relying on the OTAs.
What we have now is a truly global business that can scale at-speed, with systems that can always be the latest and best.
Using this downtime to transform the industry
As planes were being parked on runways globally, we knew no one was going to buy any Tours and Activities products during our first couple of months, simply because there was nothing to buy. So we’ve used this time to work with some amazing Tours and Activities businesses from around the world on becoming more digitally savvy to take back control of their bookings.
We’ve had the time to really focus on the individual and collective challenges of these businesses and understand how things could be different for them once the pandemic subsides. And, because we have a versatile team, and we aren’t locked in to using a preferred platform or technology stack to deliver results, we’re able to find the ideal solutions for the different challenges our clients face.
If content and SEO are the right answers for your business, that’s what we’ll do. If SEM and paid retargeting are where you’ll see success, we’ll be there for you too. Because at the end of the day, our mission is simple: we want to deliver direct bookings and profitable growth for Tours & Activities operators. And now is the time to make that happen.
As the industry emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions, it faces big new challenges. But it also offers fantastic new opportunities for Tours and Activities operators to reclaim a portion of their business that had been outsourced to the OTAs. That means better managing their digital presence, digitizing the entire customer journey, and finding the right partners to master online customer acquisition.
With no baggage from the past and some of the best people in the business on our team, we are uniquely placed to help them do just that.