Touriosity: What I learned from running a non-profit OTA*

*And why I am closing it down… for now.

When the pandemic first hit, at the time we all thought it would pass by after a few months. How wrong we all were!

When we all went into lockdown, I took the time to chat with hundreds of operators to advise as best I could on how they could effectively save their businesses. Those who could, I advised never to stop any free marketing channels like Social Media or writing content, as I knew showing that your business was still alive in the consumers’ minds was so important. They had many months of wanting to escape and travel, so it was important to be inspired on where to go and what to do when they could escape again.

Also at the time, I could see many of the major players in the Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), and some res tech, trying to recover as much lost revenue as possible by charging the operators more… at a time when they were hurting the most. Operators ARE their customers. Without them, they would not exist. So to say I was livid was an understatement!

If you use Google Analytics you have probably seen Google’s announcement that Universal Analytics will cease to exist as of 1st July 2023. While this may seem a long way off, you should set up Google’s new GA4 analytics platform now so you can start tracking information ahead of this cut-off date.

Let’s look at some of what happened during the pandemic…

  • Viator started to charge $29 (per new listing from Aug 1st 2020) for ‘quality control’ reasons.
  • Bokun launched a $49 Pro Plan that you had to use if you wanted to use their widget on your website – and they auto-enrolled operators into this without permission.
  • Viator launched a pay-per-play platform called Viator Accelerate, allowing operators to hand over more commission for more exposure. I wrote about the issues that this could bring here.
  • GetYourGuide started to hide customer details from operators (Sep 2020).
  • EZTix took operator money for refunds then didn’t refund consumers. Filed for Bankruptcy in Dec 2020.
  • Australian OTA paid out only 50% of supplier fees while holding onto the rest, making it harder for operators to fulfill bookings – eventually investigated and forced to pay in April 2021.

There are more I have not listed but each one of them only does one thing… put more financial and operational pressure on the operator.

The launch of a non-profit OTA

With all that was happening – and hearing the concerns directly from the operators I was speaking to – it was clear that they all needed help. So I took the decision to push ahead with an idea I had been mulling over for at least 12 months prior to when the pandemic took hold.

I always had the idea of creating a more ethical OTA, one that put the operator first. Originally, this was only going to be for food tour operators and came off the back of the made-up example business, FoodDrinkTour.com, I used in my book Lookers into Bookers. I took this idea and evolved it into Touriosity, the Commision-Free OTA.

Charging no commision whatsoever was the foundation of the whole platform. We just charged a modest annual fee of USD$150-USD$250 that went towards the marketing and maintenance of the platform. The idea was to have a platform that worked on volume of operators rather than product. The more operators paying the annual fee, the bigger the marketing pot to play with.

I knew we could never compete with the big players in the industry, so this is why we focused purely on Facebook and Instagram Ads as this is an area where most OTAs are naive.

In June 2020, I put my neck on the line and announced the idea I had within various Facebook groups, email lists and clients, and the response was extremely positive. Within 24 hours, I received over 1,000 signups from operators interested in becoming a member of Touriosity. A week later, I had 300 paying operators giving the platform approximately 1,500 experiences. Small fry next to the big OTAs but I was happy about that. We don’t need another OTA listing 6,000 Rome tours!

So armed with this ‘war-chest’, I set to work on creating the platform. Touriosity launched officially on November 12th 2020 and created an ad campaign titled, ‘Keep the Experience Alive’.

Right idea… wrong time?

Touriosity was born out of wanting to help operators recover. I have always understood that a lot of operators can not afford a marketing agency, so I gave them a platform that my agency could help market without them paying those fees.

When we launched, we all hoped that 2021 would be ‘back-to-normal’ and for a brief period in some countries it was. During April to September 2021 we saw a huge amount of traffic coming both organically and through the paid ad campaigns we were running. To date, the platform has been visited over 122,000 times from many destinations, but the UK and US are the largest of the audiences.

Although it is now extremely hard to track bookings with Facebook (as we used the operators’ own res tech provider widgets), I heard directly from some operators that bookings were coming in, albeit slowly. One multi-tour operator received a $6,000 booking, which was amazing to hear. However, there were others that did not get any traction due to their locations still being in lockdown or consumer confidence to travel to them.

And I believe this is the main reason why I feel Touriosity, in its current form, has ultimately not been as successful as I would have hoped. 

It is also the reason why a large majority of the original 300 members do not wish to renew when I asked them to this month, June 2022, nearly 2 years after launch.

To be fair, another reason was that some operators are simply no longer trading, which was a good number of original members, sadly.

What I would do differently

Maybe I am just an optimist, but I still believe in the premise of Touriosity – it is one that our industry needs. We need an OTA that puts the wellbeing of their suppliers first, not that of the investors or shareholders. 

If I was to launch today, I would possibly consider 5 things…

  1. Make the platform completely free for operators to list experiences
  2. Charge the consumer a booking fee instead so they pay for the marketing of the platform (would need a lot of upfront investment/infrastructure)
  3. Charge ‘official support partners’ a fee to help towards marketing and building the platform
  4. Be more ruthless in what experiences to list
  5. Make product upload more automated (we manually added 1500 tours!)

Since I launched Touriosity, I have now seen others looking to launch similar platforms of their own. Some are tied in with res tech (why all res tech don’t have their own marketplace is beyond me), some are driven by tech companies that have pivoted and others simply have the same aspirations as me. Touriosity was ‘operator-first’ led, an aspiration and belief I have that, to me at least, all OTAs should follow. 

I still believe that a platform like Touriosity can give our industry the platform it deserves. Is that Touriosity, at this time? No. I feel it was launched at a time when we all hoped the pandemic would pass us by quickly. But I do believe it helped start a movement and inspired others to think a little differently. 

I still think Touriosity has a future in some form… I just need to think about what that is. Until then, thank you to all our members for having the belief in what I was trying to do.

Watch this space.



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