TripAdvisor this week announced a significant new effort in its quest to bring more Tour, Activity & Attraction operators into its ecosystem. It’s called Sponsored Placements, and it replicates what TripAdvisor has already been selling to hotels and restaurants: a way to get promoted above the usual TripAdvisor sort ranking. But, in a twist unique to its Experiences listings, it comes with a catch. Operators who wish to participate must use the Bokun reservation platform, which TripAdvisor acquired in early 2018.
The announcement, which was emailed to operators Tuesday, is the latest development in a simmering drama around TripAdvisor’s strategic plans for Bokun. This follows the admission by Experiences President Dermot Halpin at Arival in September that the company would preference operators that use Bokun. TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer walked back those statements at another industry conference in November, only adding to the uncertainty among tour, activity, and attraction operators.
“The purpose is to provide additional merchandising placements. Initially, those will be open to suppliers who use the Bokun platform,” says Ben Drew, VP of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives at TripAdvisor “These will be prominent just how they are with restaurants and hotels. This is going to be free for Bokun suppliers in the immediate launch, as a benefit for using the Bokun platform.”
No Change to Rankings, Says TripAdvisor
Following Halpin’s announcement at Arival, many operators have been concerned that TripAdvisor would alter the rank order of its listings to favor operators that use Bokun. Drew emphasized that Sponsored Placements would be clearly labeled as such and would not affect organic rank order.
“This in no way will change anything with our sort order or what we call our popularity index,” Drew says, “by which TripAdvisor ranks companies based on reviews.”
To become a Sponsored Placement, an operator’s listing must be on the Bokun booking platform, be in good standing with TripAdvisor, and have a three-bubble review rating or higher. New listings with no rating will also be eligible to “…give travelers exposure to new and interesting products that they may have otherwise overlooked,” per the press release.
In this initial rollout, there are no fees or sign-up steps for operators that use Bokun. According to the company, the rotating carousel on top will randomly pick a qualified operator based on geographic information. When TripAdvisor does intend to monetize this service and how the fees will be structured they did not say. Previously the company has used a cost-per-click model for hotels.
Drew explained that eventually the program may expand to companies not on the Bokun platform. What is clear is TripAdvisor is offering a free sponsored listing as an added carrot for operators to adopt Bokun.
More Questions – and Concerns – than Answers
Whether operators switch to Bokun because of this, remains to be seen. Several operators, when reached for comment, had more questions than answers and worried about what this will mean for their businesses.
“For operators, we use that ranking as a benchmark for where we stand in any given market. I’m concerned that’s an unfair advantage for people who use the Bokun platform,” said Dan Rogoski, President & Chief Revenue Officer at The Ride. “We’re not making a change to Bokun because we get a sponsored listing. I don’t know the impact, but if it makes it harder for people to find us, that’s a problem for operators like us.”
One California-based operator who asked not to be named expressed resignation over the various changes TripAdvisor has made to its website and apps. Citing the introduction of a “Booking unavailable” message on operator listings that do not offer booking on the site, he believes the online travel agency will continue to focus on bookability and Bokun. This poses a dilemma to operators who don’t want to use Bokun or accept bookings via the site.
“We knew something like this was coming,” he said. “The big question is, what do we do about it?”
Another concern some larger attractions and tour companies have expressed over migrating to Bokun would be the access it would give TripAdvisor to their proprietary data. Using Bokun would effectively mean the OTA would have visibility into all of an operator’s booking data, a huge competitive advantage when negotiating contracts or competing in key markets.
But sponsored listings are nothing new in ecommerce, and certainly not in online travel. Search results for flights and hotels in many online travel sites include sponsored listings. It should not be surprising that TripAdvisor is thinking of ways to introduce sponsored listings and monetize their search results for activities.
Still, it’s a tough pill for many operators to swallow. For many of these companies, they’ve invested years in promoting TripAdvisor and encouraging customers to leave reviews.
“TripAdvisor came out as the agnostic review website and we all trusted that as operators. And most of us use TripAdvisor as our go to and we collectively point millions of customers to that website and we’ve done that for years,” said Christian Watts, CEO at City Sightseeing San Francisco. “I’m staring at my window and there’s a TripAdvisor sticker here. And we’ve done that collectively. There are stickers on our buses, logos on our websites because we trusted them to stay neutral. It feels like a slippery slope.”
“This in no way will change anything with our sort order or what we call our popularity index, by which TripAdvisor ranks companies based on reviews.”Ben Drew
VP of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives, TripAdvisor