Online booking companies are stepping up their efforts to sell travelers tours, attractions, events, and activities. But the travel industry’s three largest online agency conglomerates — Booking Holdings, Expedia Group, and Trip.com Group — continue to have strikingly small market share in the sector.

Some industry observers assumed the giants would swoop in. After all, they already have millions of customers booking with them monthly. That gives them a marketing edge. It costs relatively little for them to try to upsell their customers on, say, a zip-lining ride or a wine-tasting tour.

But the titans of travel haven’t done that yet, and they may come to rue what appears from the outside to be either laziness or a miscalculation.

Attending a conference for sightseeing and experience operators can feel like entering an alternate universe where the world’s most dominant players in travel distribution are mere bit players. This week’s Arival event in Orlando had a striking absence of any “Big Three,” unlike airline and hotel trade conferences, where executives often grapple with issues related to the dominance of a few distributors.

In terms of interest for experience operators, TripAdvisor outdoes Expedia Local Expert. GetYourGuide frequently tops Booking.com, and Klook, KKDay, Traveloka, and Veltra all bite at the ankles of Ctrip. Representatives from the online travel agency brands of Expedia, Booking Holdings, and Ctrip weren’t even on-stage at Arival.

It’s not that the legacy players are standing still. Expedia, for instance, has doubled the products it lists in the past three years. But other players claim to be onboarding inventory at faster paces.

Google’s Edge

So, who poses challenges to the traditional travel titans in this sphere?

Google could become formidable, at least in the attractions and standardized tours slice of the sector. Right now, all attractions operators participating in Reserve with Google are charged zero commission.

Many visitors to a destination and regional residents are trained to turn to Google for ideas on what to do. That habit gives the search giant a comparably low-cost way of acquiring customers.

One caveat: Google appears to be primarily interested in standardized offerings, such as a ticket to a museum exhibition or a standard walking tour rather than complicated products like, say, a multi-day safari.

Airbnb’s Ambition

Airbnb has openly stated its ambitions to lead in experience bookings. The online booking service is believed to have kept its digital marketing costs lower on average than the typical ones for Expedia and Booking.com. Airbnb seems to retain word-of-mouth popularity among enough people that it has to pay less to get them to book short-term rentals through it.

Airbnb aims to upsell these travelers on tours. It’s also encouraging rental hosts and property managers to add activity-related products, which can also be a comparatively cheap way of onboarding inventory.

“I list on Airbnb because I know a good number of executive assistants and office managers are in their twenties,” said Lauren Herpich, an operator of Local Food Adventures in the San Francisco Bay area, during an on-stage panel. “When they’re tasked with organizing their team-building experiences, they’re more likely to be on Airbnb looking for things to do.”

Herpich said she gets a lot of leads via Airbnb. But not so much elsewhere.

“I can count on two hands the number of bookings I’ve got through Expedia in five years,” she said.

One in seven people who booked an experience on Airbnb in the second quarter of 2019 had never booked a stay on the service before, the company told Fortune last month. The company told the media that, in more than 25 cities, more than 10 percent of customers who rent homes through it also book an experience.

TripAdvisor’s Title to Hold

The continued market leader remains TripAdvisor Experiences, partly through its brand Viator.

TripAdvisor’s fastest-growing segment is bookings within the last 48 hours of an experience starting, suggesting that some consumers are turning to the world’s most visited travel app for last-minute planning via mobile devices while in a destination.

Some operators have grumbled at various changes that TripAdvisor has made in the past few years. But the company has tripled the number of workers offering support to the suppliers.

“I know that doesn’t help a person who has had a bad interaction, but from the average perspective across the company, things are getting better,” said Dermot Halpin, who leads the experiences and vacation rentals businesses at TripAdvisor. Halpin cited improving scores from surveyed operators as a sign of improvement.

Hotelier And Airline Hopes

Hotels have long worked with sightseeing and experiences operators to promote their services in exchange for kickbacks. Hotel giants like Marriott International have an opportunity to upsell guests who they already have and who they know are going to be in a particular place at a particular time.

“Hotels are not just another reseller,” said Susan DeBottis, who leads Marriott International’s global tours and experiences business. “We’re operators, too. We know the attention to detail to deliver a good customer experience, and we know how to fight the commoditization of brands from online resellers.”

But Marriott hasn’t attracted much industry buzz since its March 2017 equity investment in PlacePass, a tours-and-activities price-comparison service. It has quietly added attractions offers to the Wi-Fi sign-in page greeting guests at many of its hotels, but it hasn’t disclosed how successful it has been at driving activities bookings.

Some airlines also could upsell travelers on experiences, as AirAsia began attempting to do in earnest this year.

The Rise of the Rest

Experiences-focused online agencies GetYourGuide and Klook both claim to have amassed large numbers of shoppers and large amounts of inventory. Their recent mega-rounds of funding led by Softbank (GetYourGuide received $484 million in May, Klook received $225 million in April) may fuel their short-term growth. But the Softbank Vision Fund’s recent troubles may raise eyebrows.

The most intriguing aspect of companies like GetYourGuide, Klook, and KKDay is the investment by each one in actually running tours branded under their own name. The activities space doesn’t yet have a global brand for tours. If people come to associate having a tour with a particular brand name (“I took a GetYourGuide tour”) and keep going back to that brand for repeat business, that trend could become a hurdle for the legacy online travel groups to overcome.

While tours aren’t standardized like, say, a Starbucks latte, they are much more emotional purchases and the power of brand reinforcement is large, said Jack Louis, president of Fat Tire Tours, an experience provider in multiple destinations.

Vertical integration between the transaction side and the operation side could also give these companies a data edge in fine-tuning their work, vis-a-vis the established travel conglomerates. And because these companies are now too expensive for the giants to buy, they could remain thorns in the sides of the legacy players for years to come.

Affiliate advertising is also only now opening up to experiences providers.

This year, Travelpayouts, an affiliate marketing network focused on travel, added experiences retailers TourRadar and TUI-owned Musement, with Klook set to become active in November and GetYourGuide set to come on board in early 2020.

Affiliate links are used often by bloggers and non-travel companies to resell travel and can vary from text links to full branded display advertising (which Musement) uses. Unlike standard Google ads, affiliate links only pay when a transaction is completed, said Tatyana Buyanova, head of business development and partnerships at Travelpayouts.

Expedia has its own affiliate network, Expedia Partner Solutions. But when asked if it offers experiences providers through it, a spokesperson said they couldn’t share the names of specific partners.

Multi-day tours are an entirely different category, with significantly funded players like TourRadar, Tourlane, and Evaneos tackling different segments.
Smaller players like price-comparison service TourScanner and online agency KKDay continue to look for openings. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Civitatis expects to sell about $100 million worth of tours and activities this year in Latin America, approximately double the amount of the comparable period a year earlier, it said.

Photo Credit: Airbnb host Kenyatta Forbes holds a Macrame workshop at the Bing Reading Room in Chicago, Illinois, on April 11, 2017. Expedia, Booking.com, and Ctrip are struggling to gain traction in the selling of sightseeing and experiences compared with new players like Airbnb. Christopher Dilts / Airbnb Experiences