Viator's Ben Drew on the near-term outlook for day tours and experiences

Things are trending positively for Tripadvisor’s Viator, the 350,000 activities-strong marketplace for tours and experiences. Business in 2021 surpassed pre-pandemic highs. Senior editor Jamie Biesiada spoke with the company’s president, Ben Drew, about how travel has changed, what the future holds and how Viator’s travel agent business is doing.

Q: You were named president in 2020 just before the pandemic. What have the past few years been like?

A: The pandemic hit the whole travel industry very hard, and we were no exception to that whatsoever. It was a very tough, tough year. But in the last nine months, we have really seen the most incredible resurgence in demand for our product and demand for what we offer. It seems clear to me that there is this pent-up appetite for getting back out there and exploring and finding an adventure to go on.

Now, it’s, of course, not the same as it used to be before the pandemic; that’s clear. But that innate desire to explore, to go on an adventure, to bring some of the wonder back into people’s lives that they’ve been missing for these last 18 months, is stronger than ever.

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Q: What’s changed?

A: Well, some of it is a function of the industry at large and how the pandemic has affected the industry. Some of it is a function of decisions we’ve made along the way that have put us in the position that we’re in. It’s a bit of both.

Certainly, the general population of travelers are going to slightly different places than they were before. Because of the still-substantial restrictions on international travel, local travel and domestic U.S.-to-U.S. travel, and to some degree intraregional travel within North America, as well, has been very, very strong in the last nine months.

Even though our whole business is well above pre-pandemic highs, well above 2019 levels, we have seen the highest levels of demand to be reserved for places in North America, mostly driven by North American travelers — places like Tulum, places like Cabo San Lucas, other Caribbean destinations. We’ve seen people going to slightly different places not just geographically, as well, but the kind of places where you do more outdoor, more water-based activities. Nothing surprising here given the nature of the pandemic.

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Q:What were the main drivers behind the strong year in 2021?

A: We found a combination of internal and external factors that have led to a very, very strong resurgence during 2021. In part, it’s down to the dynamics of the market, the recovery and the pent-up demand that was left over from 2020. But I think, in part, it’s also down to the actions that we’ve taken to put ourselves in the best possible position, whether that’s in marketing, or whether it’s in new product launches, or whether it’s on the supply side with things like our Accelerate program [which enables operators to adjust their commission to boost visibility on the platform].

Q:Travel advisors can book Viator experiences and earn commission. What are you seeing from that segment?

A: We’re seeing recovery there, just like the rest of our business. There is less recovery in the long-haul space, more in the intraregional [area] — the Caribbean, North America and Mexico, Hawaii. But, in general, we’re seeing a recovery, if indeed a switch from one type of travel to another. We have plenty of interesting things planned for the evolution of our travel agent business coming in 2022.

Q: So 2022 looks like another strong year?

A: There is just this incredible appetite at the moment that we’re seeing for [the experiences] industry in particular. The appetite for travel is high, of course, but people have been really starved of the adventure and the wonder that this industry in particular can bring. We’re very happy to see the trends we’re seeing, because it means people really are getting out there again and having these fantastic, memorable experiences. 2022 is looking very positive for us, as it is for this industry in general, but particularly for us. And we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to fully capitalize on those tailwinds. 

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