TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer has decided to make dramatic changes in the leadership of the company's attractions business, and that's not unusual for an acquiring company. Still, the move to import executives from the company's vacation rentals business to run a leading tours and activities business isn't exactly being welcomed with open arms by the rank and file.
More than two years after TripAdvisor acquired tours and activities leader Viator and several weeks after Viator CEO Barrie Seidenberg announced her resignation, at least three other Viator executives are leaving as TripAdvisor brings in members of its vacation rentals team to scale the business faster, Skift has learned.
In an internal email sent to the Viator/attractions staff Wednesday, and obtained by Skift, TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer reveals that Viator vice president, product, Scott McNeely, who’s been with the company since December 2005, and Viator vice president, marketing Kelly Gillease, who likewise has worked at Viator since late 2005, will both be leaving TripAdvisor in March.
The departing executives didn’t respond to requests for comment but resentment about the changes can be read into the fact that Gillease, for example, is leaving the company after only having been promoted to vice president, marketing, for TripAdvisor’s attractions unit in October.
Vacation Rentals Team Takes Over Attractions
Dermot Halpin, who headed both vacation rentals and added attractions to his responsibilities at TripAdvisor when Seidenberg resigned, will be bringing in people from his vacation rentals team and others within TripAdvisor to replace departing Viator executives, including Anita Ngai, who is general manager for Viator in Asia Pacific, according to Kaufer’s email. [See the full text of the email below.]
Unlike McNeely and Gillease, Ngai had only been with the attractions team at TripAdvisor for about 13 months.
“The attractions space is a billion-dollar opportunity, we’re in the lead, and we remain committed,” Kaufer wrote. “As we scale from a medium-sized to a large business, we have a new set of challenges to meet: We must build the biggest and best selection of bookable attractions, focus on the matching the traveler to these attractions to drive conversion, and take full advantage of the incredible asset in TripAdvisor’s scale.”
Will There Be More Defections?
Some people close to the situation are saying that there will be more departures. One line in the email, in particular, seems to have caused particular rancor among Viator veterans.
“I know change can be unsettling, but rest assured the future for attractions is bright and we’ve put the right people in place to assure even faster growth,” Kaufer wrote.
The implication, some would argue, is that the best people weren’t already in place to spur growth.
Kaufer also touted the accomplishments of TripAdvisor’s vacation rentals team in explaining the looming new appointments, which haven’t been detailed other than Halpin’s new responsibilities, to the roughly 200 attractions’ employees.
“The new leaders you’ll meet have been instrumental in scaling the TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals business into a global leader in the VR space, and they have the right experience and skills to scale Viator and the Attractions business,” Kaufer wrote. “They’ve led VR to a 4x-5x growth in revenue and a 16x growth in supply, all while overseeing five acquisitions, consolidating these acquired brands onto a single platform, dramatically increasing conversion, and doubling headcount.”
Not that things have always gone smoothly for the TripAdvisor vacation rentals team. The move to a new platform in 2015 created a well-publicized rift with some vacation rental property managers.
In the wider vacation rentals industry, however, TripAdvisor has played second fiddle to HomeAway and Booking.com while Viator, founded more than 20 years ago, is the acknowledged leader in selling tours and activities online.
Gillease and McNeely didn’t respond to a request for comment about the upcoming departures.
One person who did react to the news was Rod Cuthbert, Viator founder and former chairman and CEO.
“I did hear from a few unhappy people today, that’s true,” Cuthbert told Skift. “I’m not familiar with the Vacation Rentals folks who are being brought in, but they’ll need to be very talented indeed if they’re to improve on the job that the current team have been doing. I guess TripAdvisor has their own model for integrating acquired companies, but in this case they maybe should have taken a page from Priceline’s playbook, putting more faith in the existing team.”
TripAdvisor Confirms the Departures
Halpin, president, Attractions and Vacation Rentals, at TripAdvisor, confirmed the Viator and attractions’ executives’ departures to Skift on Wednesday evening after we inquired about them earlier in the day:
“Today we communicated to our employees about three upcoming departures from the Viator and Attractions business: Anita Ngai (GM, APAC), Kelly Gillease (VP, Marketing) and Scott McNeely (VP, Product) have each decided to leave to pursue new opportunities. They’ve made significant contributions to Viator and TripAdvisor over the years and we wish them all the best.
“We also communicated that Anita’s, Kelly’s and Scott’s responsibilities will be shared amongst senior leadership within other areas of TripAdvisor, as well as the experienced and established management team we have in place at Viator. The transitions are happening as we speak and the departures are planned from late January through mid-March.
“It’s an exciting time to be in this space. We’re building the world’s biggest and best selection of attractions and we have the right team in place to do just that.”
Breaking Out Viator’s Results
It is difficult to identify Viator’s performance within TripAdvisor in 2016 because its results aren’t broken out; attractions, along with restaurants and vacation rentals, are lumped together as part of TripAdvisor’s “non-hotel” segment.
While TripAdvisor undoubtedly sees its attractions business as a key opportunity and seeks to scale it faster, Viator appears to have met several key objectives last year.
In prepared remarks November 8 released with TripAdvisor’s third quarter results, TripAdvisor stated:
“A key focus in 2016 has been to add more bookable supply, and the team has done a great job bringing more tours and attractions into our marketplace. We have grown partners by 60 percent and bookable products by 70 percent this year to more than 55,000. We have also tripled the number of suppliers connected via API for live availability this year.”
In the third quarter, TripAdvisor’s non-hotel revenue jumped 35 percent to $101 million and its adjusted EBITDA margins improved to 15 percent, the company stated. That growth was much faster in the third quarter than TripAdvisor’s hotel segment, which actually saw a 6 percent revenue dip, although non-hotels was only 24 percent of TripAdvisor’s overall revenue.
Clearly, TripAdvisor would like to jumpstart Viator’s growth, and while part of the company is focused on turning around TripAdvisor’s Instant Booking troubles, Kaufer is bringing in trusted lieutenants to seize new opportunities in its attractions business.
TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer’s Email to the Attractions Staff:
Happy New Year to you all and I hope you enjoyed a well-deserved break over the holidays.
As we enter 2017, we have some important changes to announce for this team: Anita Ngai, Kelly Gillease and Scott McNeely have chosen to leave the business to pursue new opportunities. Anita, Kelly and Scott have contributed significantly to Viator over the years and they’re in large-part responsible for the bright future that lays ahead for our Attractions group. They’re working on their transitions now, with Anita leaving at the end of January, Kelly in early March and Scott in mid-March. We thank them for their dedication and many years of service and wish them all the best.
Thankfully, we have our remaining Viator exec team. Ken, Robin, Jeff, Sheleeza, Laura and Kerry will soon be joined by new team members from within TripAdvisor, and on Dermot’s team, with successful track records in meeting the challenges faced by Viator and our Attractions group. You’ll meet these new leaders in your upcoming all-hands. They’re excited about the opportunities ahead and look forward to learning from you all.
The attractions space is a billion-dollar opportunity, we’re in the lead, and we remain committed. As we scale from a medium-sized to a large business, we have a new set of challenges to meet: we must build the biggest and best selection of bookable attractions, focus on the matching the traveler to these attractions to drive conversion, and take full advantage of the incredible asset in TripAdvisor’s scale.
The new leaders you’ll meet have been instrumental in scaling the TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals business into a global leader in the VR space, and they have the right experience and skills to scale Viator and the Attractions business. They’ve led VR to a 4x-5x growth in revenue and a 16x growth in supply, all while overseeing five acquisitions, consolidating these acquired brands onto a single platform, dramatically increasing conversion, and doubling headcount.
You, the Viator and Attractions team, have many impressive accomplishments under your belt and I thank you for your hard work and dedication. I know change can be unsettling, but rest assured the future for attractions is bright and we’ve put the right people in place to assure even faster growth. This is one of the most exciting areas of our business and I look forward to seeing what you accomplish in the coming months and years.
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Photo Credit: TripAdvisor is bringing in executives from its vacation rental business to run its attractions unit as veteran officials depart. Pictured is a helicopter taking in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, an activity sold on Viator. TripAdvisor / TripAdvisor