Viator Plans New Product Standards, Operator Fee for New Listings

The online travel agency is establishing new, clear product standards, but also risks operator ire with a new fee at a time when the industry is struggling.

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Viator, the TripAdvisor-held online travel agency (OTA) focused on tours and activities, announced new product standards and a $29 fee to list a new tour or activity as part of a broader effort to increase product quality on its marketplace. The company is announcing the planned changes in a letter to operators this morning.

There are two tiers to the standards: good and excellent. Product listings that do not meet the requirements for “Good” may be removed from the platform. Those requirements include product-related information and performance such as future availability, complete listing content, a minimum star rating, a minimum number of quality photos and guest reviews, and a minimum operator cancellation rate (lower than 15%).

However, in an interview with Arival, Viator President Ben Drew noted that some standards are not in force, and there’s no set timeline for when all of them will be, as many operators face uncertainty around reopening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Viator will communicate with each operator that has listings that fail to meet those minimums and allow them to make adjustments. 

“We’re announcing the standards now to give operators some time to prepare for the changes, but some of the criteria are not in force at the moment because of the exceptional times,” said Drew.

The “Excellent” designation standards have higher thresholds for photos, reviews, star ratings, operator cancellation rates, and some technical requirements such as mobile ticketing, and either the ability to accept reservations within four hours of departure (a four-hour cutoff) or connectivity to the operator’s reservation system. These are intended as a model for best practice for operators on Viator. Listings that meet the “Excellent” standards will be rewarded with more visibility on the website.   

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Stephen Oddo, CEO and co-founder of Walks, a multi-destination walking tour company, thinks it’s a good move. “Emphasizing and rewarding operators who provide both quality and integrity in their product listings will pay dividends for everyone, especially as there’s never been a time when customer trust was more important than now,” he said.

The step to establish product listing standards is not unusual. Most online travel agencies, especially those serving accommodation and rental homes, have long had quality standards. But, as Peter Syme, managing director of 1000 Mile Journeys notes, the tours, activities, and attractions are far more diverse than other travel sectors, which makes establishing standards more difficult. 

Syme highlights one key requirement to make the “Excellent” grade is a four-hour cutoff to accept bookings. This is not practical for several operator segments, such as food tours and some adventure experiences, which require a longer booking window to prepare and deliver a tour. 

Operators not pleased with the timing of new fee

What’s sure to be far less welcomed by operators is the OTA’s $29 fee to list any new product on the platform. The payment will take effect on August 1, 2020, which gives operators just over a month to add new products before the fee takes effect. There will not be a fee for modifications to existing listings.

Reaction from a few operators that Arival reached out to was swift and unequivocal. 

“We are in the middle of the largest travel disaster the industry has ever seen,” said Syme. “Introducing extra costs to tour operators, who currently have zero income to list products on TripAdvisor and Viator, demonstrates a stunning lack of empathy and awareness by a company that pretends to be a travel industry partner.”

Asked about the expected backlash from the operator community, Drew countered that Viator provides a valuable service. 

“We’re not making a profit on this,” Drew said. “What we’re doing here for new listings is covering the cost of having a team member review the listing and work with the operator to make it as good as possible. We find the highest quality listings get three times as many bookings, so this is something that should pay for itself many times over and ultimately benefit the operator.”

Walks’ Oddo doesn’t mind the fee in principle, but he agrees with Syme that the move is ill-timed. 

“Many operators are struggling to get back on their feet in the wake of the pandemic, so it adds insult to injury to start a new fee so soon rather than, say, next year,” noted Oddo. “One of the ways many operators are adapting to survive is by launching new products focused on new target customers, and it’s a mistake to penalize that actively.”

Final Thoughts

The online travel agency is implementing product standards for operator listings, and we applaud the move to communicate in advance of making changes. But Viator should provide flexibility for those operator segments for which some standards are not feasible. As for the product listing fee, every operator is suffering. We’d like to see the company postpone that step to 2021 – at least.

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