Can today's do-it-yourself vacation planner be converted to tomorrow's loyal travel advisor client?
Tripadvisor, the premier consumer user-review site in travel, thinks so, and it hopes to profit from a platform it has dubbed Reco, which can connect its hundreds of millions of users to an appropriate trip-planning specialist.
A vetted group of 300 advisors, or "trip designers," as Tripadvisor calls them, who have road-tested the concept see promise for profit, as well.
Reco is essentially a lead-generation program. Travelers answer questions about the kind of travel they are interested in, preferred destinations, their budget and their travel style, and in response they are served a list of advisors who best match their criteria. They can contact the advisors through the Reco platform and, after an initial discussion, engage an advisor's services for a $199 trip-planning fee.
The fee is collected after the first conversation but before serious planning begins. Advisors get 25% of that fee plus retain all commission from any travel that's booked, using any supplier they choose. Future trip planning can be done between the client and that advisor without Reco's involvement, but Tripadvisor anticipates that users may want to engage with multiple advisors over time, looking for different areas of specialization for different trips.
Brad Soroca, vice president of marketing and general manager of direct-to-consumer for Tripadvisor, said a portion of the site's users may want to continue to plan some trips on their own but also want the assistance of an advisor for more complex trips.
"Traditionally, [users] would have left our platform and gone who-knows-where," Soroca said. "We can [now say], 'Hey, here's an opportunity for you that makes sense.'"
Reco marks Tripadvisor's latest attempt to monetize its 400 million-strong user base, said Lorraine Sileo, senior analyst for Phocuswright. She expects it to be integrated into future subscriber offerings. The platform, she said, is a way to capture the increasing number of travelers looking for personalized service as a result of the pandemic.
"It's opening a new market to travelers who have never used a travel professional before," she said. "Whether or not they will pay $199 for the privilege is yet to be seen."
Reco, Soroca said, was in the works before the pandemic began, with development beginning in 2019. It was ready to launch when the pandemic hit, but the team pressed pause to evaluate the impact of Covid on the market. It decided to go into beta with Reco in June.
Many consumers, they discovered, wanted the additional level of interaction and support that working with a travel advisor offers. Soroca said feedback was "unbelievable."
"We found people were really excited to have an avenue where they could interact with a trip designer if they were serious about traveling [during the pandemic]," he said, adding that response amounted to validation-of-concept, providing the company with the confidence to fully launch Reco last week.
Domestic road trips have already been planned on the platform, and as borders reopen, Soroca anticipates more international trips will be planned and the volume will scale up.
Travel advisors — like Kate Sullivan of Anthology Travel — will plan travelers’ vacations through Tripadvisor’s new planning platform, Reco.
Kathleen Sullivan, founder of Anthology Travel in Washington, primarily works with a small group of clients on a referral basis and charges an annual retainer (last year, that fee was $2,500). But as she learned more about Reco, she realized she may have priced out some potential clients.
"[I realized] there were some travelers who could really benefit from using a travel advisor but didn't have access, pricewise, to what I was doing," she said. She plans to use Reco to explore opportunities and perhaps expand her clientele.
Brianna Glenn, owner of Milk + Honey Travels in Los Angeles, is similarly interested in what Reco will add to her business once more destinations open to travelers.
"I just thought it was a positive thing that they were seeing the value of travel advisors and using their platform to share that with their audience, which is huge," Glenn said.
Reco is looking for more advisors to sign on as trip designers, but in a measured way, according to Soroca.
"We have a group [of advisors] that has committed to us, and we want to give them the growth that is coming from the marketplace," he said.
But, he added, "We do want to fill in specific holes as they arise and make sure we've got the right talent."
Advisors can go to Reco's website, helloreco.com, to express interest in joining the program.
ASTA, which also offers a lead-generation program to members, said in a statement that Tripadvisor's involvement with advisors was "validation, more than anything else, that the market is shifting back to travel advisors and will continue to do so over time."
The Society said its primary goal is to connect travelers with member advisors, who have agreed to abide by its code of ethics, enforced through its consumer complaints program.
"No other booking tool or travel advisor referral platform can vet their travel advisors with the seal of approval that the American Society of Travel Advisors can provide," ASTA said.