Skift is starting a new monthly feature we’re calling Voices From the Front Lines of Travel.

This feature will be a series of interviews with the frontline employees in travel whose voices rarely get heard in trade or mainstream media. Think the tours and activities manager selling tickets for the tourist bus. Or a professional Airbnb host. Or a hotel revenue manager, or an Uber driver, or the wait staff. Or an airport gate agent. Or an SEO manager for a hotel. We are granting these people anonymity for them to speak freely about their work and business.

VFFT

For our first post, we’re talking to a tours and activities manager, someone who’s been connected to tourism in multiple cities, from tier one markets to secondary and tertiary ones, too.

Tour & Activities Operators’ Frustrations on Being Caught in the Middle

What’s it like for both operators and consumers? It’s a challenge, to say the least. For the insider we’re talking to this week it’s a constant struggle between what their brand knows and the changing marketplace before it:

The average consumer doesn’t understand the difference between booking direct or booking through a tour operator. I’m here in New Orleans now with some friends. A friend of a friend is also here. They were starting to book something through Viator and it was like, “Well, should I call them to ask? Should I call the tour company to ask?” “No, no. The transaction went through Viator, so you need to talk to them.” It does create a little bit of confusion.

Below we let this person relate his or her experience with changing technology, consumer habits, and other brand challenges in a very candid manner.

These are first-person quotes edited for clarity, but otherwise verbatim.

Consumer Confusion

Skift: One challenge of this space is that there are multiple ways for consumers to acquire tickets, from buying them off the street to downloading a PDF from an online third-party seller to getting them as part of a package.

For me, trying to be very customer-service oriented, it always feels like a cop-out saying, “Oh, no. I’m sorry you have to contact this other company, because you booked through them.” They don’t fully understand the difference between you and someone selling your ticket. On that end it can be a big challenge. Then also making sure that that partner has the right information.

For example, we change our hours by season. We’re a seasonal business. We’re offering more departures in the summer than in the winter. If you can’t get your third parties to upkeep these, believe me we try, sometimes they don’t upkeep things, and then the guest has the wrong information, because they’re using this third-party resource as their main source of information. It’s ultimately wrong.

I wish I had a good answer for you. We have our key contacts there, our account managers, we keep them updated. I think we’re not their biggest seller. We’re not their top priority. That’s a point, actually, that I have to make even to my stakeholders internally when they go, “Why isn’t this updated on that site?” We’ve sent them information. They’ve had it. We’ve pushed them to try to get it up, but we’re not their only client. We’re not the only customers that they’re serving. Sometimes things don’t get updated as quickly as we would like. It’s not in our control.

Technology Woes

Skift: Digital players have been forces in tours and activities for over a decade, but no matter the size of the tour company or the booking site, access to inventory is often stuck in the pre-Internet days of vouchers, reservations, and the telephone.

Luckily in [our market] we’re fairly high on the food chain, I guess. I think so. Right?

Their main goal also is sales. They’re trying to drive revenue, so it’s a squeaky wheel situation or the bigger guys are able to make a little bit bigger noise to get things updated. It happens, but I know that some of my colleagues in the industry they have more frustrations as well. People that are doing slightly higher numbers than we are have mentioned the same things to me. Maybe a Disney or somebody like that is able to carry a little more weight, but I think it’s all evenly split for better or worse. At least in [my city’s] tours and attractions market.

Then taking it through the customer journey, so they’ve bought it, they have this voucher. With the vouchers right now we still have to operate on a paper based system. The ticketing platforms that we’re on, that some of my industry colleagues are on, some of us use the same ones and some of us are on different ones, but they don’t all talk to each other. They don’t all talk directly to our third-party resource.

A business decision that we’re starting to really think about more seriously and reformulate a strategy around is do you allow your third-party resellers full access to your inventory?

For us, for example, we do offer reserve ticketing, but only through our website. That’s the only way that you can reserve us is to select date and time. Like you said, when more of our third parties were not able to offer that, the challenge then comes when somebody has a voucher and is disappointed that they can’t get on the departure that they want. Probably because it’s been sold out. Some of the third party resellers make it seem as if they are picking a specific date and time even though that, for us, is not the case, because we have no information on that. Again, the transaction is not going through us.

Your can’t offer true real-time inventory because they’re not tied into our ticketing systems. If we know that our peak time we can sell at full price; we can’t give them full access to sell it out at a net rate. That’s not doing good business online. We’re not doing ourselves justice to creating the most revenue that we possible could. With Viator specifically, yes, absolutely you could get on this morning and decide that you want to take a 2 p.m. [tour]. The way Viator handles it does make you think that you have tickets for that specific cruise. The reality of it is that it’s still an open voucher to us.

It’s still paper based. Everyone’s trying to do mobile, but at the end of the day because they’re not tied into our ticketing system, when we go back in to do reconciliation for finance at the end of the day, because it’s not tied in, we can’t account for that particular ticket. We do still need to collect a paper voucher, trade in that paper voucher for a live ticket out of our inventory, and then give folks a live ticket to use to actually get on the boat that when they scan it getting onto the boat, then at that point it kills that ticket in our inventory. We’re able to reconcile, but then we have a mountain of paperwork piled up in our accounting department that they need to go through in order to bill back to the reseller, so we can get paid for it.

There’s heaps and heaps of paper, because nothing is really consolidated. We’re getting vouchers from Viator, from Travelzoo, from Expedia, from all of these things and nothing’s connected. Nothing ties into our ticketing system. It’s still a very manual process, which feels very archaic. It works. It’s been working. We’ve been in business for [decades], but in such a digital age where solutions are starting to come into the tours and attractions space, but it’s not there yet.

We sell people, literally, a piece of paper at the end of the day, which is hard.

The TripAdvisor Factor

Skift: Because each destination is unique and there a very few chain attractions, many attractions are dependent on sites like TripAdvisor for visibility and legitimacy. But the site is a double-edged sword, especially for small companies without specialists on hand to deal with negative reviews. 

TripAdvisor is a content site. People trust TripAdvisor. Expedia doesn’t have that. TripAdvisor started as a ratings website. They didn’t start as a ticket seller. Whereas Expedia that’s always been their goal, whether it was hotels, tours and attractions now, but they’ve always been a ticket seller. While people can review our products we’ve got thousands, and thousands, and thousands of reviews on TripAdvisor. Thankfully, we’re rated about four and a half stars, so we use that to gauge customer service. Being a content site versus a ticket-selling site we would get more traffic from TripAdvisor than we would from Expedia.

For smaller players it’s a challenge, because you have one bad day you get five new reviews — five new one-star reviews out of a hundred that you’ve got on your TripAdvisor page. That significantly affects your ratings. Thank God this has never happened, but if we happened to get five one-star reviews in a day it wouldn’t affect us much in terms of average. We want to try to make it right with the guest, but overall our rating isn’t going to change significantly because of that, but with a smaller tour operator or a smaller player those five one-star reviews really are a challenge. That presents a big problem for them, so mitigating that is tough.

I think that kind of awareness is growing. I’m not sure that it’s as easy for them as it is for me. Obviously, anything that I do from looking at TripAdvisor, looking at Yelp, I’m looking at how many reviews does the company have versus what their star rating is, but because I’m Internet-based I wouldn’t call myself the average consumer. I think people are starting to see that, but again, I don’t know that it would make much of a difference. Again, if you see five one-star reviews in one day, you’re going to think that’s the whole business, which isn’t the case. That’s the big problem for these smaller ones.

Also for these smaller operators usually it’s a handful of people running the entire business. They don’t always have the tools or the bandwidth to get online and respond to these reviews or reach out to the guest to make it right. They’re so busy running their business in general that they can’t do it all. I don’t know that all the time that they’re able to respond to reviews. I think that that probably presents a bigger challenge to them.

I’m very lucky in that I have a great customer service team. I have a strong digital marketing team, so we’re able to be on top of them at all times, but like I said for a small operator, or a walking tour, or something where the guide is also the guy that’s booking your ticket is also the guy who’s working down in accounting at the end of the day, that can be a challenge.

The great thing for us in the tours and attractions space is that we can learn a little bit from the hotels who went through this five, 10 years ago. How they were working with booking sites.

There’s enough differences that we can’t mirror how that all went down with the hotels in those years, but we try. It definitely, like I said, it’s something that we’re very focused on every week making sure that we’re presented best, giving the best price, we’re growing the channel. We’re still not cannibalizing our own direct channels, but maximizing our revenue.

If you work on the front lines of the travel industry and have a story to tell about your experiences, send Skift an email to jc[at]skift[dot]com. Your anonymity is guaranteed. 

Photo Credit: The new Skift Series on the travel industry people you don't hear from often.