Much of the attention in 2018 in tours and activities has been on moves at TripAdvisor and Booking Holdings – but Expedia Group has big ambitions of its own.

The company wants to grow bookings in its own unit selling such products to $2 billion a year – a five-fold increase from its current level of around $400 million.

One of the core elements to the strategy, according to Jen O’Twomney, vice president of Expedia Local Expert, is the creation of a self-service platform for suppliers to add and manage their own inventory being distributed to travelers.

This will work in tandem with the connections that the company has with existing third party technology providers such as Rezdy, Rezgo and others, she says.

The initial roll-out of the self-service tool, known as LXP Central, started in April this year.

The platform was built in-house and “will form the backbone of Local Expert’s suite of tools for suppliers”.

Expedia currently has 4,000 suppliers providing around 27,000 activities worldwide, O’Twomney says, but she recognizes that the opportunity to significantly boost those numbers is much larger as it ramps up the technology provision given to the wider marketplace – parts of which are still predominantly using manual methods to handle inventory.

Long-term play

Expedia Group is no stranger to the tours, activities and attractions sector, having had a presence for a number of years and already seen as one of the important, consumer-facing players in the marketplace alongside Viator/TripAdvisor and GetYourGuide.

The company’s unit has been quietly ramping up headcount over the last year or so, with 70 engineers and 80 supplier support staff working specifically in the Local Expert unit.

O’Twomney joined the division in 2016, after three years as its vice president of technology. She’d previously worked for Amazon and Clear Channel between 2010 and 2013.

Local Expert came together formally in 2012, with a range of tools and services for suppliers and in-destination products for hotels brought together under one roof.

O’Twomney says the company had historically seen tours and activities as a unit that was focused on selling products pre-trip, after a booking had been made for a hotel.

“There’s been an entire shift in our playbook now,” she says, with the moderately healthy strategy that facilitates some $400 million in bookings now looking to ramp up to one where customers are targeted throughout the “journey life cycle”.

Part of this has been a bit of a cultural change within the company, she concedes, with the emphasis now on ensuring marketing, CRM and technology can assist travelers at whatever point they want to consider what they’re going to do once they get to their destination.

A three-pronged approach is being implemented that sees Expedia change its marketing messages to customers pre-trip, introduce activity in-destination, and facilitate it all through the brand’s app.

The strategy will also be rolled out through subsidiary brands, Hotels.com, Travelocity and Orbitz, O’Twomney says, with hotel buyers considered the most likely targets.

Four or five horse race?

Expedia Group’s provision for tours and activities has been in play for many years but its stated ambition to see the unit become a much bigger part of its portfolio does coincide with what was has been a big year for the sector so far.

Arch rival Booking Holdings planted its own flag in April when it bought tech provider Fareharbor.

This preceded an announcement at TripAdvisor by 24 hours, whereby the Viator owner would look to bolster its own strategy with the acquisition of Bokun and instigate what is being seen as a price war over commissions paid by suppliers for distribution on consumer-facing channels.

Heavily-backed GetYourGuide is joined by Asia Pacific-focused brand Klook in the group of five providers vying for position.