Disrupting tourism: a ubiquitous platform

The tourism industry has a low barrier to entry and a high barrier to disruption.  Almost anyone can setup a fancy website with a shopping cart and start taking bookings online. Getting online seems incredibly easy, gaining traction, volume, distribution and a foothold isn’t.  This is why, despite many attempts otherwise, the tours and activities portion of tourism hasn’t been fundamentally changed by technology.  Many efforts to get tours and activities online generate a lot of excitement but ultimately fizzle out.  Disrupting tourism and gaining traction requires more than just a fancy website, it requires a distributed ubiquitous platform.

Take Expedia as an example of lack of disruption in the tour and activities sector.  A search for things to do in Bermuda the first two weeks of April comes up with only 12 results.  Do you think that’s representative of all the things there are to do in Bermuda in early April?  Really?

How is it possible that only 12 things are available?  Expedia is a premium travel site with great brand, why isn’t everyone on there?

The trouble comes from when you look at what the average tour operator has to do to get online with Expedia.

  • They have to register with Expedia
  • They have to either provide bookable time slots or accept vouchers to accept participants at any time.
  • They have to give a hefty commission

Seems pretty simple, does it?  Well what happens if you take bookings via the phone and other sources?  What do you do about your Expedia listings?  If you loaded timeslots, you then have to log in and update those timeslots every time you get a booking.  If you have someone with a voucher arrive and your program is full, what do you do?   This becomes a big problem.  Worse, you pay Expedia a huge chunk of your revenue for these problems.

Now, consider that problem amplified every time you want to allow someone with a shopping cart to take bookings for your activity.  There are many options both locally and abroad.  You could have many different places you’d have to update and manage your timeslots in order to ensure you don’t get overbooked.  You’re a small business, cancelling due to overbooking would really upset customers and you can’t necessarily simply shift them to a different tour or time.  So you have to stay on top of it.

Then comes the trouble, you’re not only burdened with trying to run your tour, you’re also juggling a variety of distribution points for it.  If those websites don’t bring you enough regular business, why go through the trouble of listing with them?  If they then doesn’t have many listings, there’s no incentive for others to also list there because it isn’t a very comprehensive source.  An individual might have the great idea to throw up a great website, offer bookability as “the source for Bermuda bookings online”, get a lot of buy in and excitement from operators and then watch as it fizzles.

Activity bookings in tourism is an incredibly challenging market for this reason.  You have to have the ability to build traction, volume and distribution all at low cost in order to gain a foothold.  The barrier to entry is low  but the barrier to disruption is incredibly high because you have to reach critical mass to be able to tip the scales to make the whole thing work.  There has to be enough incentive to participate at low enough cost because everyone in Bermuda tourism feels squeezed like they’re trying to divvy up the same pie which keeps shrinking.  Without awareness of things to do, things don’t get booked and the cycle thus repeats itself. You effectively need a platform that allows bookings to be distributed everywhere and provides operators with a single place to manage their inventory.  Not exactly trivial.

In other news, Bermuda.com has 34 activities available to be booked in April.  IslandTourCentre.com also has 34 activities available.  The very same activities and timeslots offered by Bermuda Hidden Gems and KS Watersports which you can also book via their websites.  Activities which are also bookable via concierge desks in many island hotels.  Its the closest we’ve gotten yet to a ubiquitous platform.