Skift Take

Everyone wants to get in on the tours and activities market, but very few can or have succeeded in the space.

When it comes to promoting its own inventory of thousands of travel experiences, Marriott appears to be taking a page out of Airbnb’s book.

The company Wednesday announced it is adding expert recommendations, more specialized categories, and a new Facebook messenger integration with its recently launched Marriott Moments marketplace — similar features that were previously adopted by Airbnb when the homesharing giant expanded its business into tours and activities nearly two years ago.

The Marriott Moments marketplace, which offers more than 110,000 experiences in more than 1,000 destinations worldwide, represents the evolution of Marriott’s own 2017 investment in tours and activities metasearch platform, PlacePass. Marriott is offering approximately 8,000 experiences exclusively to its 110 million loyalty program members.

The New Features

The newest features that Marriott rolled out make it easier for Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty members and non-members alike to find and book the types of tours and activities that will appeal to their travel needs and wants.

New expert recommendations on what to see and do in different destinations have been compiled from hotel general managers, chefs, and mixologists, as well as celebrities ranging from chefs Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert to actress Lea Michele and professional skier Gus Kentworthy.

To augment all those 100 or so endorsements, Marriott Moments will also have a variety of “bespoke categories” for tours and activities that will make it easier for travelers to find the type of experience they are seeking. Categories include Pop-Culture Vulture, Exhaust Your Kids and Be the Family Hero, and Young, Broke & Fabulous, for example. Customer reviews will also help guests make decisions about which tours and activities to book.

The platform is also meant to become more personalized each time a guest uses it to book his or her travel experiences. “Over time, the more our users shop and book through the site, the more personalized the recommendations will become,” said Stephanie Linnartz, Marriott’s global chief commercial officer. “However, in addition to the recommendations, in order to showcase the types of experiences that are available to any kind of interest, we believe that the categories will be useful to showcase the breadth of the offerings in this initial period.”

Additionally, Marriott is introducing a Facebook Messenger integration that allows Facebook users to chat with Marriott Rewards or SPG to quickly get recommendations based on where they are located or by giving an address. They can also use Facebook Messenger to sort and filter tours and activities by price, location, popularity, reviews, and more.

A partnership with Eatwith, an online community that helps people find and book local culinary experiences in more than 130 countries, also enables people to book local food tours and activities via Marriott Moments, including intimate dinner parties, meals with local families, or special cooking classes.

Following Airbnb’s Lead?

In many ways, these new Marriott Moments features mirror earlier efforts from Airbnb to do the same when it comes to helping travelers figure out what to do — and how to do just that.

One big differentiator to note between the two companies, however, is that Marriott is partnering with a tours and activities metasearch platform to provide the inventory for its experiences, while Airbnb’s Trips primarily consists of peer-to-peer activities led by locals.

Prior to Airbnb’s official launch of its own tours and activities business, Trips, in November 2016, Airbnb began offering user-generated Insider Guidebooks that would eventually form the basis of Places, which the company announced at the same time it launched Trips.

This section, Places, which no longer appears to be actively promoted on Airbnb’s website or mobile app, was where Airbnb users could find guidebooks compiled by hosts and fellow travelers, as well as find recommendations from other travelers and celebrities on the best things to see, do, and eat in a variety of destinations.

In November 2016, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky described this app/website section as a place where Airbnb users would be able to get recommendations and insider advice from actual locals, and he hinted at the ability for people to book restaurant reservations directly via Airbnb.

Nearly a year later, in September 2017, Airbnb announced its tech integration with restaurant reservations and technology platform Resy, which enabled users to book restaurants on Airbnb.

Today, while it may be a challenge to find Places as it existed in November 2016, a quick glance at the Airbnb website and mobile app demonstrates the company’s own strategy for curated experiences, with categories that highlight concerts, surfing, food, social impact, and more.

Is This Enough to Succeed in Tours and Activities?

Marriott’s entry into the tours and activities space via Moments represents the company’s larger desire to be an all-encompassing travel brand, not unlike Airbnb, which has similar objectives.

“We want to be what you think of when you think about travel,” Marriott global brand officer and luxury brand portfolio leader Tina Edmundson recently said at the Skift Forum Europe in April, while describing Marriott’s larger ambitions. “We launched this Moments platform with 110,000 experiences on it, not just to provide you with a hotel stay but also to provide an experience within the community you are traveling in. We want to be this place where you come for any of your travel needs.”

But breaking into the highly fragmented tours and activities space can be very challenging — as Airbnb has also learned. Nearly two years after it entered the tours and activities market, Airbnb has yet to turn a profit from its Trips business, but the company hopes to expand its Experiences from 60 destinations to 1,000 by year’s end.

For a hospitality company accustomed to having customer book hotel rooms, it can be a bit of an adjustment for them to book thousands of tours and activities, noted Johannes Reck, CEO of GetYourGuide, a tours and activities booking platform.

“What Marriott is trying to do is incredibly difficult,” Reck said. “It’s far away from the core of what they do. Aggregating itineraries and making it bookable for customers is not very easy.”

Marriott, for its part, sees this as an evolution of what Marriott has been doing for guests for decades. “Providing local recommendations of things to do is a service that Marriott hotel associates have been providing for years,” Marriott’s Linnartz said. “With our local area expertise and physical presence in thousands of destinations around the world, we believe Marriott is well-suited to expand beyond the hotel room and add more to the entire travel experience.”

Reck said that most companies that decide to enter the tours and activities market struggle with either not having enough inventory, as well as not being able to ensure the quality of the product.

Companies like Airbnb, for example, he said, “have struggled to build up real density” and although they may have a “large amount of activities,” the bigger question is whether they actually are generating revenue for their tour and activities suppliers. “They need to be relevant stakeholders in these suppliers, but neither Marriott or Airbnb has been able to do that,” Reck said.

He questioned Marriott’s decision to partner with a metasearch platform such as PlacePass because these platforms don’t make it easy for consumers to easily compare the available inventory, or to assess the quality of a tour or activity because they are generally just aggregating the tours and activities from a variety of different suppliers.

“Marriott has a bunch of experiences they want to offer, and curation is the right way to go [in presenting them] because it implies high quality, but to have that quality, you have to have a large network to pick from, with highly vetted suppliers,” Reck said. “I worry it may not be a great experience for Marriott customers.”

To that point, Linnartz said, “These partners are carefully chosen for their value, quality, and track record of delivering great experiences. Each provider has met a set of requirements in order to be featured on the platform and are additionally continually monitored based on customer reviews and feedback.”

Reck said that his own company’s experience with Facebook Messenger demonstrated that the messaging channel is best for handing customer service and is not primarily used as a booking channel. “It’s a nice thing to have, but it’s not a game changer.”

Although Reck is skeptical that Marriott and PlacePass can vouch for the quality of experiences offered on the Moments platform, he does, however, believe that Marriott has an advantage in the form of its powerful loyalty membership.

“They can really serve very specific types of activities based on the type of trip that a customer has,” Reck said. “That’s the piece I would dig into. I would really look into choosing one or two key partners I can build off of, and then focus on matching that content to the user base to leverage their internal customer data and come up with the best recommendations for their customers.”

Whether Marriott is successful in creating its own tours and activities marketplace that can compete with the likes of GetYourGuide and TripAdvisor’s Viator, or other competitors such as Expedia and Booking that are also getting more deeply invested into the space, will ultimately depend on its ability to ensure quality and to personalize the guest experience in a way that others haven’t yet been able to do.

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Tags: marriott, tours and activities

Photo credit: People who visit the Marriott Moments marketplace will find expert recommendations on things to do and see, as well as curated categories for tours and activities. Marriott International

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