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“We’re at a precipice for change,” Expedia Local Expert vice president Jen O’Twomney observes about the current state of the tours and attractions market.

A market, though ripe for disruption, O’Twomney is quick to note no travel company – Expedia or otherwise – has successfully penetrated at scale.

“There’s gotta be a game-changer instead of applying the same old playbook.”

That statement defines the strategy underlying Expedia Local Expert’s efforts to revamp its product to meet the changing needs of suppliers and customers.

Still, it’s not the first time that Expedia has pledged to devote a lot of time and attention on the burgeoning attractions sector of the industry.

The Local Expert Hub was launched in 2012 (part of the Local Expert division), with a range of services and tools for suppliers alongside a desire to place attractions at the heart of the travel booking process online.

The company forecast at the time that the tours and activities division would bring in around $1 billion in gross bookings by 2015.

Supplier service

Most notably, for what’s in store, O’Twomney says the experiences arm of the online travel agency is in the process of launching a new self-service supplier tool.

The platform, which thus far has been shared with key partners and will have an incremental rollout, allows suppliers to sign up, manage content and price their offerings themselves, eliminating the need for a destination or account manager as the middleman.

It also opens the door for more peer-to-peer products to compete alongside big-box activity operators. Though Local Expert does currently count p2p offerings among its portfolio, many smaller businesses face significant hurdles in distributing.
For example, a sole proprietorship may have booking system software, but then must separately provide content and pricing with all different OTAs. “It’s an uphill piece of work,” O’Twomney says of small suppliers, which make up 65% of the attractions industry and generate revenue of $250,000 or less.

“For us to penetrate that market, we have to make it really easy for supply partners to get online,” she says. “Our goal is to give more power to suppliers to onboard themselves.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, a push toward increased p2p suppliers also aligns more of Expedia’s portfolio with offerings similar to Airbnb’s on its Experiences platform.

Airbnb’s hyper-local niche, though, is what “plays really well to their brand,” O’Twomney says, but to travelers, there’s a need beyond simply those types of smaller unique options.

“Our perspective is the right thing for the Expedia customer and that we provide breadth in the market as well as authenticity.”

She adds that Airbnb hasn’t visibly affected Local Expert business and it hasn’t shifted consumer behavior, though “that doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention.”

Mobile-first

On the consumer end, O’Twomney says Expedia’s primary initiative is to simplify its mobile app, particularly in-trip options, which is when most travelers purchase activities.

“This is the nut to crack from the industry perspective,” she says, pointing to how Priceline-owned OpenTable has changed restaurant reservations for diners.

“We haven’t done a good job as an industry of matching customers to the right products at the right time,” she says. “There are other e-commerce models out there that are more compelling.”

She adds there are ideas in place to move beyond simply listings and reviews that will really help travelers, though the “secret sauce” for now is under wraps.

In general, O’Twomney realizes that other tours and attractions sites – the TripAdvisors, GetYourGuides of the industry – are going after a lot of the same market.

“There is no one who owns more than 1% of the industry at this point,” she says. “There’s a lot of white space.”

Whatever’s at play, there’s a change in the air. “I think we’re at a fulcrum of that change becoming something new in the activity space,” she says. “[Though we’re not there yet], we’re going to start to see momentum across the board around how customers shop.

“There’s an effervescence and excitement and something different happening in this space now.”