Is TripAdvisor holding a gun to its suppliers’ heads?

Bókun customers will get preferential listings on TripAdvisor for tours and activities — this was admitted recently by the president of TripAdvisor Experiences, Dermot Halpin, during the Arival event in Las Vegas.

Let that sink in for a second.

Make no mistake, this is a major departure from how TripAdvisor displays listings currently. Although the exact details still have to be confirmed, this change suggests that your listing will no longer be ranked purely on the merit of your ratings, but on the systems you use within the TripAdvisor ecosystem*.

I delivered a workshop at Arival on how to rank better on TripAdvisor and how to manage reviews, good or bad. However, on delivering this workshop, it became clear that some of what I was advising would be thrown to the wayside. For example, one of the topics in my presentation was to answer a question I am constantly asked: “Is TripAdvisor still independent?”. I usually explain by giving two answers.

  1. In business terms: no, they are not independent. As a business, they are there to make money. Like any other business, TripAdvisor has wages to pay and services to manage. Being a business owner myself, I know that cash-flow is king and without a stream of revenue coming in you are dead in the water.
  2. However, in terms of TripAdvisor’s reviews: yes, they are independent and always have been. Reviews have always come from real people and real customers. And it’s the authenticity of these reviews that gives them such value to users. Well… this is how I used to think until Dermot Halpin let ‘slip’ that the TripAdvisor policy was going to change.

How will TripAdvisor and Bókun’s partnership affect listings?

I imagine, and believe, that listings will still appear in ranking order, but now the customer will soon only see curated listings IF the companies are using the Bókun booking engine. For me, this takes TripAdvisor’s reviews from being independent to a semi-independent or sponsored model. Yes, suppliers can’t pay for ‘sponsored’ listings, but forcing suppliers to use Bokün to rank higher is in a sense a sponsored listing as Bokün will still take a commission from bookings. 

The commission with Bókun is only 0.01% so it’s amongst the most competitive in the market, but my sources say this will only be in place for 3-5 years and commission will probably shoot up once TripAdvisor have cornered the market and gobbled up as much inventory as it can.

This move does not sit well with me and, going by the gasps of the 1100 people in the room at Arival, I am certainly not the only one.

TripAdvisor’s Bókun gambit is not for the customer’s benefit

Don’t get me wrong, TripAdvisor is a big player and it influences and even generates a large part of tourism expenditure each year (see my article on how TripAdvisor influences over 10% of tourism spend) but I can’t in good conscience recommend TripAdvisor to our customers after this announcement. Why? Because now their listings will be biased and skewed towards their own goals and business needs rather than that of the customer. I also believe this will dilute TripAdvisor’s usefulness, as the best tours and experiences won’t necessarily rank above a weaker service that uses the Bókun booking engine.

So, if I am asked whether TripAdvisor is independent or not, my answer to both sides of the question is now a firm no.

Will Google and Facebook pick up the slack?

Although this industry is changing on a daily basis, my money is still on Google or Facebook (read my thoughts on Facebook and Tripadvisor here). Google is integrating directly with ‘schedulers’(booking platforms) and this will ‘bypass’ the Online Travel Agent (OTA) model. This will then show up directly within Google search results and Maps and be bookable directly within Google. Booking platform Peek have been a first mover with Google and are already integrated. Word has it that FareHarbor will follow suit soon.

What I love about this is it puts the control back into the suppliers hands, meaning your marketing efforts will be even more important. You also save on that OTA commission!

However, If TripAdvisor and other larger organisations are snapping up booking systems (in anticipation of this?), this still may make the OTAs a necessary step in that process.

Whatever happens, expect a turbulent few years ahead within the industry. We are in for an interesting, if somewhat bumpy, ride.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think of this move by TripAdvisor? Who is your money on? Enter your comments below.

*At time of writing this is TripAdvisor, Viator and Bókun.

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