Viator’s Ben Drew Reflects on Leadership Journey

Departing President reflects on the challenges of leading Viator through Covid, the importance of vulnerability and the outlook for 2024 and beyond

Reading Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds

It was a surprisingly candid Ben Drew that shared a bit of his story with us at the latest Arival event, going beyond corporate jargon to open up about the challenges and leadership learnings over the course of his role as president at Viator

Drew announced this week he would be departing from the top position of the experiences sector’s largest online travel agency (OTA) as of April 12, to move on to a “new opportunity in a new industry” — the details of which he has yet to reveal. 

A long-time presence at Arival events, Drew spoke at the very first Arival in 2017, when he was VP Business Development for Tripadvisor Attractions. 

At the first Arival in 2017, Ben Drew spoke from the Arival stage as VP Business Development for Tripadvisor Attractions

Since then Drew continued to rise through the ranks at Tripadvisor, taking over the helm of Viator — which was acquired in 2014 by Tripadvisor — in February 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In our conversation at Arival 360 | Berlin in March, Drew reflected on the challenges of taking on the president role at Viator at such a tumultuous time, as well as his approach to leadership and the importance of supporting others. He also offered some insights on the outlook for Viator and the experiences sector going forward. 

Leadership and Vulnerability in Challenging Times

Two weeks after taking over as President of Viator in February 2020, with business at an all-time low  and a team anxious about their jobs, health and families, Drew faced an incredibly challenging road ahead. 

“Leading through that time was probably the toughest I’ve ever had to do,” he shared. “Obviously that’s not the ideal first month in a new job.” 

During that time, Drew learned that being vulnerable and real with his team was the best way to lead them through it.

“I learned that showing vulnerability, and doing it authentically, showing what’s really on your mind and on your heart, people respond to that, even in times of great fear and crisis,” he shared. “It really lands with people if as a leader you can do that. 

Ben Drew discusses the challenging times that marked the beginning of his tenure as president of Viator, and the importance of vulnerability as a leader.

The Importance of Team and Supporting Female Leadership

There is a notable lack of women in the highest levels of many tech companies in the travel industry, but Viator is an exception to this with several women in high level positions, including at the C-level — CCO Sarah Dines, for example, who has been involved with starting a women’s leadership group at Arival, and CPO Kristin Dorsett. 

To his credit, Drew did not take any credit for this when asked. “We have several very senior female leaders who are here [at Arival], and I can’t take credit for this at all… it’s really the case that these women are the absolute best people for these roles, and I know that because quite a few of their roles I did before this, and they have taken [those roles] to levels I never could have dreamt they would get to.”

The perspective is laudable, and it’s also a credit to his leadership that he emphasizes the importance of supporting his team and the development of other talented leaders.

“When you get more senior in any kind of organization, a lot of people think that you’re sort of climbing this pyramid, and actually it’s the other way around. You are the bottom of the pyramid, not the top,” he said. “As a leader, your job is to support and nurture others, create the space and the culture that allows others to do their best work.”

Ben Drew shares his respect for the women in leadership positions at Viator, and the importance as a leader of supporting your team.

From Listing Fees to Accelerate, Drew Faced Operator Criticism

Drew’s tenure at Viator has not been without controversy. Some steps taken by the company have spurred widespread complaints among the operator community. In the summer of 2020, when travel and experiences were in the thick of the Covid pandemic and global tourism shutdown, the OTA introduced a listing fee of $29 for all new products.

Drew and the team at Viator positioned the measure as an effort to improve product quality and ensure operators were more  invested in the new products they list on the platform. But the move was ill-timed and drew operator ire. 

In the fall of 2021, the company launched Accelerate, an advertising program that enabled operators to boost their products’ visibility on the platform by paying a higher commission. While several operators have spoken publicly about improved bookings through the program, many too were quite skeptical, commenting privately that it’s simply “a commission increase without increasing commissions.” 

With Viator Accelerate, operators can elect to pay a higher commission in order to have their product listings featured in spaces like this throughout the platform | Screenshot

The concern many operators had was both a lack of visibility as to the impact of the increased commission. They were also worried that if they don’t participate but their competitors do, this would negatively impact their own product visibility and bookings. 

Viator sought to address some of these concerns with Accelate 2.0, released earlier this year, with more reporting features and other improvements. But the program remains controversial, and operator responses to the updates are mixed. Several operators, speaking to Arival in confidence, have said they have seen a material decrease in bookings when they don’t participate.

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The Outlook for Viator and Experiences

Though Drew may have begun in his role as President of Viator in the worst possible time, and contended with industry feedback from some of their controversial initiatives, he is certainly ending on a high note. 

Viator has been the primary driver of top-line growth for parent company Tripadvisor. The experiences OTA reported more than 150% growth in revenue in 2023 vs. 2019, a remarkable comeback after the pandemic.

Drew shared some of his insights about 2024 and beyond for Viator and the experiences sector as a whole, including strong travel demand in 2024 that is returning to normalcy after 2023’s revenge travel phase, Asia emerging as the biggest area of growth, and the types of experiences that are rising in popularity among travelers. 

“I think even though we have come so far, as a company and as a platform and as an industry, we have so much farther to go. And I’m very excited by what 2024 has on offer,” Drew said.

Departing President of Viator Ben Drew shares his insights on travel demand, areas of growth and popular categories for the experiences sector in 2024 and beyond.

What’s Next for Experiences, and Viator?

With Drew’s departure, the question that’s top of mind for many, especially with rumors of a potential Tripadvisor sale is what’s next for the future of Tripadvisor and Viator, and what that will mean for the experiences sector. 

Stay tuned as we’ll continue to cover this on Arival, and at our upcoming event at Arival 360 | San Diego. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter if you haven’t already so you don’t miss any news.

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