New CEO Matt Goldberg needs to do many things to straighten out Tripadvisor, starting by bringing a laser focus to the company’s strategy.
And just like that, the search for Tripadvisor’s new boss is over. Co-founder Steve Kaufer will pass on the CEO title to Matt Goldberg. Though he starts the role on July 1, this will be no summer vacation. Goldberg inherits one of the toughest jobs in travel.
Let’s cut to the chase. Tripadvisor’s core metasearch business is floundering and it is experiencing one of the slowest recoveries in travel. These challenges are not new and have been mounting ever since Google threw its hat into the travel ring. But outside of praying for regulatory intervention, let’s focus on what is within Goldberg’s control.
As CEO, Goldberg needs to bring focus to Tripadvisor’s business strategy. Tripadvisor’s scattershot response to a changing metasearch marketplace has been ineffective. In our view, the company has launched too many products with too little follow-through. We believe that Goldberg needs to put forth a singular view of what he believes Tripadvisor can be and then commit to executing against that vision.
Consider even a simple question: Who is Tripadvisor’s customer? Well, the metasearch business serves primarily online travel agencies. There’s Business Advantage for hotel owners. It’s hoping to sell display ads to travel brands and beyond. Tripadvisor Plus is a B2C consumer offering. You’ve got Viator charging commissions to tour operators. TheFork is selling against restaurateurs. Flipkey is onboarding vacation rental managers. And so on.
The harm here is not just the brain damage this causes poor analysts (though spare a thought for us)! Serving such broad constituents complicates Tripadvisors commercial efforts. It limits the opportunity to cross-sell products and creates silos within the organization. A salesperson with deep relationships in the hotel industry can’t sell into tour operators or vacation rentals. The sales cycle for metasearch auctions looks different than that of display ads and both in turn differ from business services. And all of that is before the dramatic mindset shift required to build B2C rather than B2B.
This approach means that each new product launch is limited in how much synergy it can contribute to the overall business. Rather than building a flywheel where new offerings reinforce and accelerate all the rest, instead each product is pulling on its own.
Another less obvious, but perhaps even more insidious, side-effect of Tripadvisor’s unfocused approach has been that it winds up serving multiple masters. Compromises that aim to please all stakeholders are the territory of sleazy politicians and B2B travel intermediaries. This kind of waffling might just work when dealing with other corporations but is deadly in the world of B2C. Consumer brands can’t pull their punches.
Case in point was the launch of Tripadvisor Plus, the company’s D2C subscription service for travel discounts. It was a unique way to monetize Tripadvisor’s massive user base while providing hotels with an alternative to steep OTA commissions. I’ll admit to being shocked when Tripadvisor gutted the program in response to hotel rate-parity concerns. The shocking bit was not that hotel brands were furious, but that Tripadvisor had not anticipated and braced for the inevitable pushback. I had assumed that they were all-in on putting the consumer first above any hotel ire; I was wrong.
Tripadvisor Plus is still around, but by replacing its initial value proposition of immediate savings with one of deferred credits, the product lost its bite. Amazon did not reach 100 million-plus subscribers by preaching the virtues of delayed gratification. Trying to please both its B2C and B2B clients led to Tripadvisor creating a sub-par subscription service that is struggling to find product-market fit.
This is not an isolated instance of powerful product ideas that failed to launch.
Take FlipKey, a vacation rental marketplace, bought by Tripadvisor in 2008 — Brian Chesky was still hosting couch surfers at the time. But despite alternative accommodations growing into the hottest market in lodging, FlipKey never took off.
Then there was the time that Tripadvisor redesigned its homepage to build a travel social feed. A sort of travel-specific Facebook. Tripadvisor has many more users that read its reviews than those who click through to its booking auctions. The idea was to monetize this base of consumers by giving them something to browse through. Tripadvisor could then sell brand advertising against its audience to companies within and without travel. The feed has since fizzled and Tripadvisor has reverted back to a more search-driven landing page design rather than one that encourages scrolling.
Or Reco, Tripadvisor’s ongoing initiative to connect travel advisors with its users for a fee. It’s still small, but I like the concept. Competing against Google with commoditized travel supply is a losing fight. Finding a way to offer differentiated travel advice, much as offline travel agents did a decade ago, could be a powerful way forward. Perhaps Reco was never going to grow to replace metasearch fully but just a bit more than a year out from launch, the product has been on the back burner. You can only access it from the homepage by scrolling to the fine print way down at the bottom.
My advice to the new CEO of Tripadvisor? Matt, it’s like a game of golf. Pick a line, keep your eye on the ball, and most importantly, follow through.