Industry speculation that Tripadvisor could sell Viator -- following Tripadvisor's announcement that the tours and activities brand would operate independently in January -- has been put to rest by Viator president Ben Drew.
Speaking at Arival 360, Drew says, "I think that people were reading into the changes with great imagination, but the reality internally was quite different.
"What we were aiming to do was to separate the teams of the businesses enough to allow both sides to go quickly and to each achieve their different but linked business objectives. This was not a preparation or prelude for a sale, by no means."
Earlier this year, when Tripadvisor said Viator would operate independently of Tripadvisor Experiences with its own marketing, product and engineering teams, Drew was appointed president of Viator from his previous position of vice president of business development and strategy for rentals and attractions.
Meanwhile Dermot Halpin, who has been president of experiences and vacation rentals, left the company.
At the time, Viator founder Rod Cuthbert said he had been concerned about Tripadvisor's neglect of the brand since Tripadvisor acquired it in 2014.
Although much has changed in the travel industry since January, Drew emphasizes that the strategy allows Viator to focus on speed and "do the right things for Viator rather than being linked closely with Tripadvisor and having to do that coordination."
Viator "has its own mission to solve," Drew says, which is "solving the OTA experiences problem and being the biggest OTA in the [experiences] industry."
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Drew says Viator has seen an increase in last-minute bookings, with the proportion of last-minute bookings on Viator and Viator "affiliates" like Tripadvisor increasing by 38%.
Viator is also seeing more bookings close to people's homes, with the proportion of bookings within 500 miles of a home location doubling, as well as an increase in outdoor activities.
The migration to mobile that was happening prior to the pandemic is also continuing, Drew says, adding that the shift to mobile is "very closely linked with this idea of last-minute booking windows."
When asked if Viator is at a disadvantage as an OTA as many consumers are opting to book directly with operators, Drew says, "I don't think we see it that way. We see challenges to overcome, but I don't see a long-term strategic disadvantage to this. It might be a long-term advantage."
Drew says that while Viator is working to merchandise local products to travelers, he doesn't see the trend of visiting top destinations going away. "It's good to hone our approach in the more local market, which we're doing, but I don't think we're doing a pivot or completely repositioning the business in that way."
Elsewhere, Drew spoke to how the concept of quality is factoring into Viator's current strategy. "Previously, we had talked about our 395,000 listings and pointed to that as a differentiator because it shows the amount of choice, and that's good for a certain objective. But what we see as necessary for success in the long term is to have both the biggest choice but also the best quality."
To that end, Viator has started to outline what's considered acceptable and unacceptable for operators. "It's a vital part of going from a system where we concentrated on volume to a system where volume and quality matter in equal measure."
He says Viator has started to remove some listings that do not meet acceptable standards.
"The reason why we are laying this out is because, at the end of the day, the traveler is the boss and the travelers tell us [what they want]."
He says the suppliers in the top cohort in quality get three times as many bookings as the bottom cohort of products, and that Viator's decision to implement a $29 fee for new listings amid the pandemic is part of quality control.
"It's part of a bigger strategic shift, going from an environment interested in maximizing the number of listings to maximizing the genuine choice on offer to travelers, and a big part of genuine choice is quality."
He says 50% of new listings coming onboard are hitting the "excellent" standard from day one -- a "big step forward and exactly what we wanted with this move."
The Google question
When asked about Viator's relationship with Google, which is in the midst of an antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Drew says there is a "balance" to be struck.
Although Viator participates in Reserve with Google as well as other advertising initiatives, the idea that Google is also a competitor and should be treated as such "is quite compelling," Drew says.
"On the other hand, the argument that they're a partner and if they do well, we benefit too is also compelling, so we're constantly balancing this."
He continues that "while Google has the resources and technological chops to be dangerous, their focus is very broad, and our focus is very specific. Our focus is on the experiences shopper and we obsess over that experiences shopper.
"We think that our focus and our knowledge of the traveler will always be of value."
That said -- despite Tripadvisor co-founder and CEO Steve Kaufer being an open critic of the search engine and the ongoing DOJ lawsuit -- "we are in a position here where we think we get more out of [Google] by participating than pulling out at this stage," Drew says.
"As long as that's the case we'll continue to participate in these experiments and trials Google is running and see where it goes from there."