Tour Operators Need a Dose of Startup Culture

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Back in 2009 I founded a small Saigon-based travel startup, Come & Go Vietnam, with the aim of giving visitors to the country more authentic experiences than those being offered by established tour operators. Whilst we had some success, we ended up having to offer the same stuff as our competitors as the market wasn’t quite ready for fully “local” experiences – most of our clients wanted the standard Vietnam activities, and our local suppliers, partners & guides just couldn’t understand why foreign visitors would want to meet Vietnamese farmers, stay in stilthouses or eat street food.

Seven years on of course, and local experiences are all the rage, thanks mainly to older tourists who don’t want to do organised tours any more, and younger travellers for whom experiential travel is the norm.

This week, accommodation behemoth Airbnb launched Trips, its new range of locally-hosted tours and activities. The company joins the likes of WithLocals, ExplorAll, VeryLocalTrip, GetYourGuide and dozens more marketplaces that allow travellers to go direct to local people and book interesting activities.

What’s interesting about all these companies is that none of them emerged from the established travel industry. This is increasingly how innovation happens – not from within the industry itself, but from people outside it, or its customers, frustrated at how the industry works and how slowly it changes. Rather than try to get companies to change, they simply bypass them and disrupt the business model.

Once old-school industry giants such as Sabre and Amadeus have realised and adapted to this new threat. Fully aware that trying to instigate corporate transformation can be like turning around an oil tanker, they’re acquiring interesting startups and embedding them, which means they get a big dose of startup culture and thinking without having to take on the difficult, some would say impossible, task of transforming their own corporate culture & mindset.

If tour operators are going to adapt to the “go local” trend, they need to follow this example. When your business model is the same as it’s been for years – contracting hotels, working with licensed tour guides, and selling the same old attractions and restaurants – a whole new way of thinking is required to supplement your traditional product with a new range of experiences provided not by travel professionals but by chefs, farmers, photographers, weavers, writers, artists et al.

Some may do what many hotels have done in response to the rise of Airbnb and grumble about regulation (often ignoring the fact that that regulation, far from enabling the industry, is stifling it), or dismiss it as a passing fad; they are likely the ones who will die out first and the ones who can offer local experiences to their clients, both B2C and B2B (and selling local experiences B2B is a big, largely untapped opportunity), are the ones who will survive and thrive. And the best way to do this is not to try and copy or beat the likes of WithLocals or ExplorAll, but to embrace them as partners or even to do what Amadeus and Sabre are doing, and bring them onboard.

The travel industry is changing beyond recognition, and whilst the oft-predicted death of tour operators & travel agents hasn’t and will not happen, those that survive need to adopt some startup thinking, get out of their bubble, and place themselves at the heart of travel trends rather than scrabbling to catch up.

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About Author

Tim is one of representasia’s co-founders and the company’s CMO. He has been in the tourism industry since 1992 and has worked in Paris, London, Saigon & Bangkok. He has a strong background in operations, technology, sales & marketing. Representasia is his second business venture, following his founding of a successful Vietnam DMC in 2009.

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