Operators React to TRIP’s Sponsored Listings for Bokun Users

TripAdvisor will start offering what they call Sponsored Placements for tours and experiences at the top of some search results. The announcement, which was emailed to TripAdvisor operators Tuesday, is the latest development in a simmering drama around TripAdvisor’s strategic plans for Bokun.

Reading Time: 6 mins

TripAdvisor this week announced a significant new effort in its quest to bring more Tour, Activity & Attraction operators into its ecosystem. It’s called Sponsored Placements, and it replicates what TripAdvisor has already been selling to hotels and restaurants: a way to get promoted above the usual TripAdvisor sort ranking. But, in a twist unique to its Experiences listings, it comes with a catch. Operators who wish to participate must use the Bokun reservation platform, which TripAdvisor acquired in early 2018.

The announcement, which was emailed to operators Tuesday, is the latest development in a simmering drama around TripAdvisor’s strategic plans for Bokun. This follows the admission by Experiences President Dermot Halpin at Arival in September that the company would preference operators that use Bokun. TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer walked back those statements at another industry conference in November, only adding to the uncertainty among tour, activity, and attraction operators.

“The purpose is to provide additional merchandising placements. Initially, those will be open to suppliers who use the Bokun platform,” says Ben Drew, VP of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives at TripAdvisor “These will be prominent just how they are with restaurants and hotels. This is going to be free for Bokun suppliers in the immediate launch, as a benefit for using the Bokun platform.”

TripAdvisor Experiences President Dermot Halpin at Arival.

No Change to Rankings, Says TripAdvisor

Following Halpin’s announcement at Arival, many operators have been concerned that TripAdvisor would alter the rank order of its listings to favor operators that use Bokun. Drew emphasized that Sponsored Placements would be clearly labeled as such and would not affect organic rank order.

“This in no way will change anything with our sort order or what we call our popularity index,” Drew says, “by which TripAdvisor ranks companies based on reviews.”

To become a Sponsored Placement, an operator’s listing must be on the Bokun booking platform, be in good standing with TripAdvisor, and have a three-bubble review rating or higher. New listings with no rating will also be eligible to “…give travelers exposure to new and interesting products that they may have otherwise overlooked,” per the press release.

In this initial rollout, there are no fees or sign-up steps for operators that use Bokun. According to the company, the rotating carousel on top will randomly pick a qualified operator based on geographic information. When TripAdvisor does intend to monetize this service and how the fees will be structured they did not say. Previously the company has used a cost-per-click model for hotels.

Drew explained that eventually, the program may expand to companies, not on the Bokun platform. What is clear is TripAdvisor is offering a free sponsored listing as an added carrot for operators to adopt Bokun.

More Questions – and Concerns – than Answers

Whether operators switch to Bokun because of this, remains to be seen. Several operators, when reached for comment, had more questions than answers and worried about what this will mean for their businesses.

“For operators, we use that ranking as a benchmark for where we stand in any given market. I’m concerned that’s an unfair advantage for people who use the Bokun platform,” said Dan Rogoski, President & Chief Revenue Officer at The Ride. “We’re not making a change to Bokun because we get a sponsored listing. I don’t know the impact, but if it makes it harder for people to find us, that’s a problem for operators like us.”

One California-based operator who asked not to be named expressed resignation over the various changes TripAdvisor has made to its website and apps. Citing the introduction of a “Booking unavailable” message on operator listings that do not offer booking on the site, he believes the online travel agency will continue to focus on bookability and Bokun. This poses a dilemma to operators who don’t want to use Bokun or accept bookings via the site.

“We knew something like this was coming,” he said. “The big question is, what do we do about it?”  

Another concern some larger attractions and tour companies have expressed over migrating to Bokun would be the access it would give TripAdvisor to their proprietary data. Using Bokun would effectively mean the OTA would have visibility into all of an operator’s booking data, a huge competitive advantage when negotiating contracts or competing in key markets.   

But sponsored listings are nothing new in eCommerce, and certainly not in online travel. Search results for flights and hotels in many online travel sites include sponsored listings. It should not be surprising that TripAdvisor is thinking of ways to introduce sponsored listings and monetize their search results for activities.  

Still, it’s a tough pill for many operators to swallow. For many of these companies, they’ve invested years in promoting TripAdvisor and encouraging customers to leave reviews.

“TripAdvisor came out as the agnostic review website and we all trusted that as operators. And most of us use TripAdvisor as our go-to and we collectively point millions of customers to that website and we’ve done that for years,” said Christian Watts, CEO at City Sightseeing San Francisco. “I’m staring at my window and there’s a TripAdvisor sticker here. And we’ve done that collectively. There are stickers on our buses, logos on our websites because we trusted them to stay neutral. It feels like a slippery slope.”   

“This in no way will change anything with our sort order or what we call our popularity index, by which TripAdvisor ranks companies based on reviews.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


already a member?

Lost your password?


Become an Arival Insider

Included in Free Membership

Included in Arival Pro Membership

The Arival on-demand video library archive
Access to the entire library of over 150 video sessions and webinars

Short, digestible research & trends reports delivering insights into our industry, such as The Tour Operator Outlook for 2021.

Arival.travel articles
Topical articles about marketing, tech, operator business and operator stories in all areas of tours, activities & attractions & experiences

Job board access
Find a job from our regular listings, post a resume to the talent network and learn strategies from the job resources articles

New webinars
Helpful, instructional sessions covering subjects such as Mastering Facebook Ads, Grow Your Business and How To Work With OTAs — topics to help advance your business.

Discounts on all Arival in-person events
20% Discount on all Arival in-person events (save up to $300)* based on business type

Arival ProShield – Insurance program
Access to tailored insurance solutions by Granite Insurance is available exclusively for Arival Insider Pro Access Members. Insider Pro Access Members also have access to a suite of resources from Granite Insurance including templates, forms and other informative documents.

Insiders Pro Access member exclusive webinars
Paid membership-only webinars to deepen your understanding of important industry topics.

Job postings & talent directory
Post jobs & connect with candidates most applicable to your business.

Private roundtables to connect, learn and engage
Small, focused and intimate discussions exclusive to Arival Insider Pro Access members.

Full access to Arival’s library of in-depth reports
Up to date, deep analysis of tourism topics ranging from Self-guided Tours to Sales & Distribution Trends and Outlooks, based on the data that defines the industry.

The latest on-demand videos
Over 350+ on-demand videos featuring hot topics in tours, activities & attractions

Insider discounts in digital marketing, tech, e-learning, and more
Save money on additional tools, services and learnings you need to run your business. Exclusive to paid members.

Membership Overview

At Arival, we believe travel can make the world a better place. Our mission is to establish and inspire a diverse community of individuals and companies in the In-destination Industry by providing opportunities to gain insight, share knowledge and build connections. To make it possible for true collaboration, creativity, innovation, and idea exchange to thrive, we are committed to facilitating a welcoming and respectful community for all. This Conference Code of Conduct shares our community expectations and applies to all attendees, employees, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and other participants at Arival- produced and sponsored events. We empower all participants in our community to actively engage in creating a friendly, inclusive and safe environment for all.

Arival’s core values include the following, and create an expectation for conduct at our events and in online community spaces:

We demonstrate a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.
We value integrity and strive to consistently interact with others in ways that are authentic, ethical, and fair.
We are dedicated to transparency, committing to clear, open and honest communication.
We actively pursue and advocate for inclusion, diversity and representation of varying cultural backgrounds, perspectives and ideas

Arival welcomes people from all cultural backgrounds, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, gender (including pregnancy, perceived pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, or related medical conditions), gender identity, religion (including religious dress and grooming), marital status, domestic partner status, genetic information, age, national origin or ancestry, military or veteran status, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or any other basis protected by federal, state, or local laws.

Accordingly, participants must refrain from displaying any demeaning, harassing, aggressive, or intimidating behavior or materials that would interfere with others’ experience and participation in our community.

If you witness or are subjected to inappropriate or disruptive behavior or have any other concerns, notify an Arival staff member as soon as possible.

Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. Arival reserves the right to refuse entry to or remove any party from any event or community space at any time when participation or behavior create a disruption or hinder the event or enjoyment of the event by other participants. All determinations are at the sole discretion of Arival, and the decision of the Arival team will be final. Severe breaches of this Conference Code of Conduct may result in disqualification from participating in future events. Individuals expelled due to violating this Conference Code of Conduct will not be eligible for a refund or other consolation.

If you have questions regarding this Conference Code of Conduct or its implementation, please contact us at [email protected].