And How To Change My Mind
As an attraction or tour company, you want customers to book direct, so you can avoid the commission charged by TripAdvisor, Expedia, and other OTAs (online travel agencies). I understand, and as a tourism marketer that works with tour and activity operators every day, I want to see that money in your pocket. Yet, I’m one of the millions still booking with the OTAs instead of you.
Here are the 7 reasons I’m booking with your OTA frenemies, and what you can do to capture more direct bookings, so more money ends up in your pocket. All of these reasons work together, but #4 is one of the first I evaluate when working with my clients, because it’s easy to overlook and relatively easy to fix.
(OTAs aren’t our enemy and are often a great channel. Our goal is not to put them down, but to help you attract, convert, and retain as much direct traffic and as many bookings as possible.)
- Get star ratings on your listings in search results
- Get in the map pack
- Improve your Google ratings
- Optimize your Google My Business listing
- Improve your rankings
- Bring customer voice into your site
- Create quality content that meets my research needs
- Help me find something right for my group
- Invest in a polished online presence
- Show me your customer volume
- Create your own Book With Confidence policies and procedures
- Make Book With Confidence messaging clear, concise, and timely
- Use positive policy wording
- Keep pricing visible and clear
- Keep calls to action readily available
- Select a booking engine that invests in good user experience
- Offer modern payment methods
- Invest in good mobile usability
- Offer me a perk, such as an add-on
- Offer a season pass or loyalty club
- Create an exclusive product or service
- Invest in retargeting
- Advertise on search—including for your brand keywords
Reason #1: I Find Them First.
Yes, this is your standard “they’re beating you in SEO” reminder, but there’s a reason I backtracked when writing this post and inserted this first. Even if you implement all the other recommended changes here, I might never know it. I—and your other customers—am not typically going to find you on TripAdvisor and then hunt down the same tour on your website to determine where to book. I’m going to follow the easiest path. The first trusted site to get my click is in a good position to get my booking.
What You Can Do About It
Get star ratings on your listings in search results.
I’m talking here about Google’s organic search listings, not the map listings or ads. Below is a screenshot of Google’s organic search results for “Chicago bus tours.” The listing with the star rating jumps out. While TripAdvisor is high on this list, Big Bus Tours has a good chance of getting the click because star ratings on search results can improve clickthrough rates by as much as 35%.
So how do you get those star ratings? There’s some bad advice out there, and rather than debunking it all, I’m going to give you the way that it should be done:
- Sign up for a first-party review service from companies such as Trustpilot or Whitespark. These review services qualify as acceptable sources of ratings that you can then display on your site.
- Install and configure their widget on your tour pages. The widgets handle 3 important requirements: 1) they display the reviews, 2) they allow reviews to be added, 3) they add the appropriate code to your page so search engines can “read” your star ratings.
- Direct some of your reviews to this service for a while (yes, that means reducing your TripAdvisor or Google reviews for a time)
- Wait until you reach a compelling number of reviews. That number is different depending on your situation. If you have a competitor with 500 reviews whose star ratings appear in the search results, then 500+ is your target. But if you have no competitors with star ratings yet, and it takes you a couple of months to generate 30 reviews, then you could stop at 30. After you’ve hit your target, you can redirect your review solicitations to TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google, etc.
Tip: Google will not show star ratings for your home page listing. Add these reviews to your tour pages instead.
Get in The Map Pack
You have a big advantage over TripAdvisor: you can show up in the Google map pack, and TripAdvisor can’t.
TripAdvisor’s venerable “10 BEST” listing shows up third for this “Chicago food tours” query, but TripAdvisor completely misses out on the first screen of results, giving tour operators the chance to get my attention first.
Of course, there are a lot of Chicago food tours, so the competition for these top 3 spots is stiff. To win a spot, check out Own the Map. The Tour & Activity Company’s Guide to Ranking #1 in Google Maps.
Improve your Google ratings
TripAdvisor or Yelp may be important to your business, but the battle begins on Google. Allocate at least a portion of your review requests to Google. Stay on top of your competitors’ review counts and average ratings, and be sure you’re keeping up with the pack, or leading it. In the example below, one of these tour operators is going to get a lot more clicks than the others.
Optimize your Google My Business listing
Your Google My Business (GMB) listing is your new home page, and it’s inching closer to TripAdvisor all the time. With the stiff competition in this stage of the customer journey, it’s imperative to make your GMB listing as compelling as possible.
Leverage the feature set to draw me in and stand out from the crowd. Own the Map. The Tour & Activity Company’s Guide to Ranking #1 in Google Maps digs into this further, but here are some key things to give attention to:
Products. Use clear product names, include pricing, and use compelling product images.
Photos. Be selective here. Most tour companies could stand to invest more in photos and videos, and this is one of the places where it pays off. Compare these two highly-rated Smoky Mountain zipline companies. Notice how much CLIMB Works stands out due to better photo composition and color, and how Smoky Mountain Ziplines does little to showcase their view. CLIMB Works’s attention to detail starts to position them as the premium option.
Offers, Events, Etc. GMB offers multiple types of short-lived posts—a great way for you to keep current information in front of customers. If you have a current offer or upcoming event, that’s something you should be competing with, while the prospective customer is shopping the competition on Google.
Improve Your Rankings
It’s possible to outrank TripAdvisor, but it does take work. The tips covered above fall under the Local SEO category, and they can help your organic search rankings too; but traditional on-site SEO work remains important. Watch your title tags, meta descriptions, page speed, keyword usage, etc.
Reason #2: They Help Me Research
Most tour companies are great at giving tours. TripAdvisor is great at helping me find and pick one. Their 10 BEST collections, their massive database of customer voices, and the filters they provide for tours, attractions, and reviews, help me find a tour that I can book with confidence. You may be assuming that I want to know about you and how great your tour is. What I really want to know is what my options are (not just my options with your company), what I need to know about your area and tour category, and what’s going to be the optimal value for my family.
Granted, TripAdvisor is ideally positioned to do this. You’re not going to line up dozens of competitors, collect reviews for them, and run a Q&A platform for everyone. But there are things you can do to serve me at this stage of my research.
What You Can Do About It
Bring customer voice into your site.
I want to hear from customers that have gone before me; I don’t want to see only ratings. Yes, ratings are helpful, but I also know that companies sometimes skew the ratings by directing only the happy customers to the review platforms. And while you can certainly cherry-pick testimonials, I still like to hear what other people are saying.
When selecting testimonials, follow these tips:
- Select a few quotes to cover your top audiences, and provide enough information that prospective customers can identify with the person you’re quoting. TripAdvisor provides a reviews filter for Traveler Type. There’s a reason for that.
- Add review titles for scannability. Assume that you have your prospect’s attention on this block for 3 seconds. Long testimonials with no titles can’t convey much in a few seconds. Help them digest the highlights and find the 1 or 2 quotes they want to read.
- Use reviewer names when you can.
- Use the best 100-200 characters of the quote, to get to “just right” size. Use ellipses to be honest about the fact that this is edited.
|“Awesome time! So much fun! Definitely recommended.”||Family Fun|
“My 9 year old and 2 teens couldn’t stop talking about how much fun the 14-line tour was…. They were scared at first, and hesitated at line 12, but it was so worth it.”
– Jim from Atlanta
Positive sentiment. Concise. But no information about the person. Was this group anything like mine? Was it just a friend of the tour owner? Which tour did they go on?
Ah, so they chose the 14-line tour and the 9-year-old enjoyed it. That helps me decide what to book. This sounds like a positive family experience. And the “Jim from Atlanta” part adds some legitimacy.
Create quality content that meets my research needs
TripAdvisor comes to the table with curated lists (THE 10 BEST Colorado River Rafting & Tubing) and traveler forums. You’re an expert in your market, your industry, and your product; you’re in a great position to help me make a decision. Write quality articles that are directly applicable to your prospective customers (Which class of rapids should your family take on when whitewater rafting?) Need some inspiration? Just start with questions you’ve been asked via phone or email, draft a great response, publish it on your blog, and then link to it from various parts of your site. Some people will find it on Google and end up on your retargeting list (bonus!); others will find it on your site while trying to make a decision. Either way, you’re helping people get closer to booking.
|THE 10 BEST Colorado River Rafting & Tubing||River Rafting near Colorado Springs – Colorado Springs Forum||Which class of rapids should your family take on when whitewater rafting?|
|TripAdvisor’s list of great tour operators in your area—including your top competitors.||TripAdvisor’s customer forum, filled with customer Q&A and peer recommendations.||Your own high-quality blog post to draw people to your site and/or serve guests already on your site.|
Help me find something right for my group
TripAdvisor presents applicable filters so that I can find something that fits my timeframe, budget, and situation. The example below shows the filters for Charleston SC tours. Some of their listings for outdoor activities show options like Good for Kids, Budget-friendly, and Good for Adrenaline Seekers.
On your own site, consider providing more than one way to explore your tours/activities and packages so that I can find exactly what’s right for me. Create pages or packages for different events (bachelorette parties, graduation celebrations, birthdays), group types (couples, families, corporate groups, youth groups, newbies), and timeframes or budgets. Then make those options easy to find through your navigation, including links throughout the site. Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures created a short zipline course for anyone wanting to save time or money, or just see whether this adventure is right for them. It’s been hugely successful, accounting for most of their recent zipline revenue growth.
Tip: It’s extra work to create these additional pages and packages, so make the most of your investment by using those new pages as landing pages for targeted advertising. For example, you can target people on Facebook who are engaged, with your bachelor or bachelorette page.
Reason #3: I Trust Them
I trust TripAdvisor as a company, due to their size and popularity. I also trust that the experience they provide is going to be good. Specifically, I think that their site is going to be easy to use, the checkout experience will be as smooth as it can be, and cancellation and modifications will be self-service. And all of that is true for mobile devices as well as desktop devices. In most cases, I do not have that same confidence in your company and your website. It’s not your fault. Is it?
What You Can Do About It
Invest in a polished online presence.
Even if your brand is fun, and even if your business is a small, family-owned one, your site needs to convey a certain amount of professionalism to instill confidence. Your website is your storefront; what it looks like tells me something about the quality of your operations. It’s not always fair, but it’s true.
Which site do you trust with your money? Both of these are highly-rated boat tours in Florida, but I’m more confident that I’ll have a good checkout experience on TripAdvisor.
Show me your customer volume.
Ratings are a good way to gain some trust, but only a fraction of your customers have reviewed you. In addition to showing me that 247 people have reviewed you on TripAdvisor, you can gain additional trust by telling me that you’ve served 250,000 customers since 1987.
Always use HTTPS.
All sites should be secure today, and customers have been trained to not provide sensitive information on non-secure sites. Even if your booking engine handles payment information securely, your site needs to be secure for optimal customer confidence.
Reason #4: They’re Lower Risk
TripAdvisor knows that I’m commitment-phobic. My plans may change for any number of reasons. I want to lock in a reservation, but I don’t want to be locked into a price or time slot that turns out to be less-than-optimal. Tour operators want to count on the money, but TripAdvisor puts my convenience and my preferences first, with 3 main things:
Generous and clear cancellation policy
If TripAdvisor provides free 24-hour cancellation and you don’t, I’m booking with TripAdvisor. Period. The discrepancy shown below happens far too often.
I’ll shop far too long to find a bargain. Just seeing the Low Price Guarantee helps me pull the trigger, rather than shopping around.
Reserve now & pay later
TripAdvisor offers the ultimate option for noncommittal customers, and they nail the description. “We’ll reserve your spot today, and you can cancel up to two days before your experience without making a payment. Secure your spot with ease, stay flexible, and never miss out.”
What You Can Do About It
Create your own Book With Confidence policies and procedures
Match or beat TripAdvisor’s generous policies with your own (cancellation/refunds and price guarantee). While you’re at it, evaluate your competitors’ policies related to cancellations and refunds, and make sure that you’re not ceding an advantage to your competitors.
Below is a simplified version of a comparison we conducted for a client. To their credit, once this was noticed, they quickly switched from having the least-flexible policy in the market, to the most-flexible.
|Us (Website)||Us (TripAdvisor)||Competitor A||Competitor B|
|Cancellation (on-site)||Non-refundable||24 hours, 100% refund||1 hour, 100% refund||24 hours, 100% refund|
|Rescheduling||1-hour before tour||Not mentioned||0 minutes before tour||Not mentioned|
Make Book With Confidence messaging clear, concise, and timely
Flexibility and best price are high on my priority list, and TripAdvisor knows it. So rather than burying the cancellation policy in an FAQ or in small print at the bottom of the final booking page (see Medieval Times above), they place these confidence-boosting promises all over, and especially at my points of decision.
Contrast AirBnB with the website of the tour provider, Sea Sydney Harbor. The cancellation policy cannot be found on the tour page or booking page.
To see this in practice on tour websites, see Old South Carriage Company and Red River Gorge Ziplines.
Let’s compare the refund messaging for the River Runners Browns Canyon Half Day tour, on their site and on TripAdvisor.
Cancellation policy visibility comparison
|River Runners Website||TripAdvisor|
|Step 1: Browsing the Tour||F|
Located in 4 places
|Step 2: Availability||C|
Located in one of 7 accordions (user expands accordion to see policy), not near button.
Called out near Book Now button
|Step 3: Shopping Cart||F|
2 locations, both next to the buy buttons
|Step 4: Checkout – Contact Info||F|
|NA (1-step checkout)|
|Step 5: Payment Method||B|
Located in an accordion near the buy button (user expands accordion to see policy)
|NA (1-step checkout)|
Use positive policy wording
Show the right posture by using positive wording. Some companies manage to make their generous cancellation policy sound negative. The way you word your policy sends a message about what it might be like to deal with your staff if I have to cancel.
Notice TripAdvisor’s focus on the positive (emphasis mine): “Free Cancellation. Risk free 100% refund if you cancel by Jun 15.”
Maui Zipline is on the other end of the spectrum, taking a similar policy but focusing on the negative aspect. For the rewrite, the “we’ve already started preparing for your visit” wording is modified from Navitat’s well-worded—albeit less generous—policy.
|Maui Zipline – Original||Maui Zipline – Recommended|
|Cancellations made within 24 hours prior to tour departure will be charged full tour price. “No-shows” will also be charged full tour price. Charges will be applied to the credit card provided.|
Maui Zipline Company reserves the right to cancel tours due to inclement weather, foreseeable hazards, insufficient bookings, or events beyond our control. If we know in advance that we will be closed, we will try to contact you at the contact number you provided to us when you booked your tour.
|Plans sometimes change. We get it; it happens to us too. So we’re happy to provide a hassle-free, 100% refund if you give us 24 hours’ notice. |
Inside of 24 hours, we’ve already started preparing for your visit, and can’t easily fill your slot, so we sadly can’t provide you a refund in that case.
Rarely, we’re the ones that have to cancel. We’ll try really, really hard not to, but if we do, we’ll ask if you prefer to reschedule or have us send you a refund.
Reason #5: They Make It Easy
If you haven’t read Steve Krug’s excellent book Don’t Make Me Think, here’s a synopsis: build your website for lazy people in a hurry.
OTAs have done that. A lot of tour companies haven’t.
Clear, easy-to-find pricing and reviews
TripAdvisor has rich, information-dense (but still very usable) pages for your company and your tours, with pricing and reviews on every page.
Pricing is missing from the home page, and is wrapped beneath all 3 tour cards on the Book Tours page. It’s even missing from the next page of the booking process.
Boston Duck Tours on TripAdvisor
Pricing is clearly displayed on each tour, and in every step of the process.
Pricing is not available on the tour page. The customer is being asked to click with no pricing information.
eBike Tours on Get Your Guide
Pricing is available next to the button
OTAs also make pricing easier by showing pricing in my currency and allowing me to pay in my currency, so I don’t have to do currency conversions in my head or on another site. I’m in the U.S., and Klook is showing me the price of this Salzburg tour in U.S. dollars.
Tiered pricing is important to customers. I could easily walk away from the Panorama Tours site thinking that the tour would cost over $200 for a family with 2 adults and children ages 4 and 10, when in fact it would cost about $130—which Klook makes clear.
Panorama Tours does not show child pricing on the tour page or during the booking process, even though child pricing is applicable on this tour.
Klook shows child pricing on the desktop version of the tour page, as well as during the booking process.
Calls to action in the right places
Find the call to action on sanfrancistolovetours.com below.
Found it? How about on mobile? The call to action appears only briefly and is off-screen for 95% of the page.
When you first land on the page
When you’re scrolling
Compare with TripAdvisor. On TripAdvisor’s page, you cannot view any portion of this page without a call to action being visible.
When you first land on the page
When you’re scrolling
Flexible payment options like Google Pay
When I’m logged into a Google account—which I am nearly all the time—TripAdvisor defaults my payment method to Google Pay, removing the most painful step in the checkout process.
Great mobile usability
51% of travel website traffic is mobile (source). OTAs such as TripAdvisor have invested heavily in mobile site design, and—as some of the examples above have already shown—a lot of tour companies haven’t. Additionally, OTAs capture a lot of mobile traffic through their mobile apps, which are typically faster than their websites and yours.
Bottom line: if your mobile experience isn’t good, your prospect is moving on. They have plenty of good options.
What You Can Do About It
Keep pricing visible and clear
Be up front with pricing. Don’t use the infomercial tactic of explaining your tour and making them wait for the price. This isn’t a captive audience. They have a lot of options and little patience. Put your pricing on your home page, your tour listings page, your individual tour pages, and your landing pages.
If you have a lot of international traffic, consider having your developer add dynamic currency conversion for all prices shown on the site.
If you have tiered pricing that is broadly applicable (e.g., child pricing), make sure those discounts are clear on the tour page and during the booking process.
Keep calls to action (CTAs) readily available
Consider a persistent booking button on your mobile site, so that a customer can research freely, and pull the trigger at any point when they’re ready. TripAdvisor also uses “sticky” navigation to house the booking button on your “desktop” device while you scroll.
“Sticky” CTAs can be tricky when you have different pages for different tours, activities, or packages. Do you use a global booking button that opens all of your listings no matter what page the customer is on? Or do you switch the behavior of the button on each page, so that the button is specific to the tour they’re looking at? Either option may be right for you, but if in doubt, use a global button, which has 2 main benefits: a) consistent behavior for potentially less confusion, b) simplicity of implementation.
Select a booking engine that invests in good user experience
TripAdvisor’s ultra-streamlined checkout process is difficult to beat. Your booking engine should get pretty close, and should keep the process to 3 screens or fewer for basic bookings. Booking engines like Peek (left) and Xola (right) invest heavily in simplifying the checkout process, keeping each step quick and each field understandable, on all devices.
Offer modern payment methods
Offer Apple Pay, Google Pay, and other options that don’t require typing a credit card. These options are especially welcome on mobile. You’re dependent on your booking engine for this feature, and unfortunately, many of them are behind the times on this. Kudos to Xola for supporting both Google Pay and Apple Pay.
Offer customer-friendly features that TripAdvisor doesn’t
TripAdvisor is so often a step ahead, but in some cases they’re a step behind you. Your booking engine may already enable one or more of these features that TripAdvisor doesn’t yet handle.
- Bill splitting / shared reservations. If your tour or activity is one that is often shared among people from different households, make it easy for people to share a reservation while each paying their own part.
- Down payments. If TripAdvisor offers down payments, I’ve never seen it in action. However, some booking engines, such as Peek, do allow online down payments.
- Streamlined, one-stop shopping. If your activity requires additional interactions such as waiver signing and check-ins, you may be able to offer a simpler overall experience for your customers. Take the time to set up digital waivers and simplified check-in, and add messaging like “Streamlined check-in. Book direct and we’ll automatically send a digital waiver to each participant and put you on the fast track for check-in on the day of your tour.”
Invest in good mobile usability
This is a broad category and it’s been touched on above, but to simplify: determine which of these categories your site falls into for mobile usability, and make necessary adjustments:
The mobile site has errors, such as important elements being inaccessible or some text being unreadable. In this example, the main call to action gets hidden behind text.
When elements wrap for mobile, usability is compromised. In this example, the headings no longer line up with the prices.
The site was built with a priority on mobile usability, and adapted to desktop after the fact. Browsing and booking are easy and unencumbered.
Tip: Your site loads at a different speed on mobile devices than on desktop devices, due to differences in the power of the device and the speed of the internet connection. Check your mobile site score on Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool.
Reason #6: There’s No Downside To Booking With Them (And No Upside To Booking With You)
If the TripAdvisor browsing and booking process is so smooth, and their policies are guest-friendly, why wouldn’t I book with them? If you don’t have an answer today, you can create one.
What You Can Do About It
This is where you leverage your power as owner or manager of your company. There are at least 3 ways that you can give me a reason to book direct.
Offer me a perk, such as an add-on
Your $99 zipline tour carries an $18 booking fee with TripAdvisor. Between your photo package, GoPro rental, water, a t-shirt, or a second free-fall experience at the end of the tour, you have add-ons that I value, but that cost you between 25 cents and $6. Offer me a Book Direct Bonus. I’ll walk away a happier customer, and you get a direct booking with a higher margin.
Discounts can be another perk, but in our experience, owners strongly prefer add-ons over discounts.
Offer a season pass or loyalty club
This type of offer works only for local or regional customers, but is something that TripAdvisor doesn’t offer.
Create an exclusive product or service
Creating a tour, activity, package, etc. that you don’t offer on TripAdvisor carries some risk but some reward. If you list the tour on TripAdvisor but don’t make it bookable, you’re banking on the fact that the TripAdvisor browser isn’t going to click their clever Show Options button (which has appropriate context, but only if people read, which they don’t) and see a list of competitors.
But exclusive tours can theoretically drive people to your site—or keep them on your site. On your site, call out the exclusivity of the tour so that customers know they have to come back if that particular tour intrigues them.
Reason #7: They’re Advertising To Me—A Lot
I almost never book a tour, trip, or activity after visiting one website one time. That’s where retargeting comes in—showing ads to people who have already visited a site. And the OTAs use retargeting all the time.
Unfortunately they’re always going to be able to outspend you on retargeting. It’s not because they have more money; it’s because they have a higher chance of converting me, because they offer a diverse range of experiences. For instance, I was researching both Branson and Hawaii as possible vacation destinations. TripAdvisor sells experiences in both locations, so their retargeting ad has something relevant for me, regardless of which destination I choose.
I also searched for ziplining in Costa Rica, and TripAdvisor’s ads started showing up on Facebook.
OTAs are also quite active on search advertising. While Salzburg Panorama Tours is the featured snippet on Google for “Original Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg,” Viator bids on that search term while Salzburg Panorama Tours does not, which allows Viator to swipe the sale.
What You Can Do About It
Invest in retargeting
You have access to many of the same platforms that the OTAs are using, so after I visit your site, you can be showing me your ads when I’m browsing Facebook, CNN, or other sites and apps. Our retargeting guide can help you get started right away.
Advertise on search—including for your brand keywords
Other companies, including OTAs, are bidding on your top keywords. While some people will scroll past any ads (I’ve seen this first-hand with real people in usability testing videos we’ve commissioned), some people won’t. Unlike display ads, search ads cost you money only if people click, making it easier to beat the 20% acquisition cost that OTAs charge you.
TripAdvisor and the other OTAs are venerable, but not unbeatable. It’s possible to win some business away from them, and the payoff can be significant. And the payoff isn’t only yours; many of these changes make the experience better for your customers, which we know you’re already passionate about.
If you need some help as you tackle some of these ideas, let us know. We’d love to lend a hand.