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Viator's Journey from Startup to Global Travel Titan

Viator, a leader in the online tour and activities booking industry, was founded in 1995 by Rod Cuthbert. The story of Viator’s creation begins with a personal frustration encountered by Cuthbert during his travel planning. While trying to book a ferry from the Greek mainland to Crete, he faced difficulties in securing a reservation, which led him to realize the potential for an online service that could simplify the process of booking travel activities.


Cuthbert's vision was to create a platform where travelers could easily find and book various types of travel experiences, from day tours to multi-day excursions, all around the world. He saw the potential to leverage the burgeoning power of the internet to connect travelers with tour operators, thus streamlining the tourist experience.


Viator, named after the Latin word for traveler, started as a small startup and gradually built a network of tour operators offering thousands of experiences globally. The company focused on curating high-quality tours and activities, which were vetted for quality and value. It also placed a strong emphasis on customer reviews and feedback, which became a core part of its offering, providing transparency and trust for users looking to book experiences.


The company grew by capitalizing on the increasing trend of travelers seeking unique and memorable experiences, rather than just traditional sightseeing. Viator provided detailed, multilingual descriptions of tours and activities, along with photos, videos, and reviews, which helped travelers make informed decisions.


In 2014, Viator was acquired by TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel site, for approximately $200 million. This acquisition aligned Viator with a powerful partner that had a vast user base and was a trusted source for travel information and reviews. Under TripAdvisor, Viator expanded its reach and continued to thrive as a leading platform for booking travel experiences, benefiting from the synergy between TripAdvisor’s content and Viator’s inventory of activities.


This creation and development of Viator illustrate a successful transition from a simple idea to a leading global player in the travel industry, driven by a desire to enhance the travel experience through technology.


While Viator has established itself as a leading platform in the online tour and activities booking sector, it faces a range of challenges.


Let's explore some specific examples of these limitations:


1. Commission Fees

Viator charges tour operators a commission, typically around 20% to 30% per booking. This significant cut can lead operators, such as a small snorkeling tour provider in Thailand, to increase their prices on Viator compared to what they might offer directly to customers. This pricing strategy can make Viator seem less competitive against direct bookings or other platforms that charge lower fees.


2. Dependency on TripAdvisor Reviews


Viator’s reliance on TripAdvisor for user reviews is a double-edged sword. For instance, a tour company in Rome might see fluctuating fortunes on Viator tied directly to the ebb and flow of its TripAdvisor ratings. If fraudulent or biased reviews appear on TripAdvisor, they can unjustly affect the tour operator's reputation on Viator as well, leading to decreased bookings and revenue.


3. Quality Control


Variability in experience quality remains a critical challenge. A tourist may book a wine tour in Bordeaux via Viator expecting a high-quality experience, only to find the tour overcrowded and the guide underprepared. Such inconsistencies can stem from Viator's inability to directly manage or oversee the day-to-day operations of third-party tour operators.


4. Market Competition


With rivals like GetYourGuide and Airbnb Experiences offering similar services, Viator must continually differentiate itself. For example, Airbnb Experiences may offer a cooking class in a local's home in Tokyo, a niche experience that might seem more authentic and less commercial than a similar cooking class listed on Viator.


5. Limited Customization


Travelers seeking personalized experiences may find Viator’s offerings too standardized. Consider a couple wanting a private sunset cruise in Santorini. Viator’s preset group tours may not meet their needs for exclusivity and personalization, pushing them towards local providers who can tailor experiences directly to individual preferences.


6. Over-reliance on the Online Platform


Viator's success is tightly linked to its digital presence. Any disruptions, like the website crashing during a high-traffic period such as Black Friday sales, can lead to a direct loss in bookings. Continuous investment in IT and web infrastructure is critical to prevent such issues.


7. Customer Service Challenges


Managing customer service in the travel industry can be daunting due to its complexity and global reach. For instance, if a traveler in Vietnam has a last-minute cancellation of a river cruise booked through Viator, navigating the time difference, language barriers, and refund policies can be frustrating and might lead to a negative customer experience.


8. Economic Sensitivity


The travel sector's vulnerability to global events was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions led to a steep decline in bookings. For Viator, this meant handling an unprecedented number of cancellations and refund requests, straining their operations and impacting revenue significantly.


Despite these challenges, Viator continues to maintain its popularity by leveraging its extensive inventory and the trust associated with the TripAdvisor brand, proving its resilience in the ever-evolving travel industry landscape.



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