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Fried scorpion may not be his thing but helping travellers have better vacations is: Steve Kaufer on TripAdvisor’s great end game
12/09/2017, by Featured,Marketing,Mobile,Regions,Sectors,WIT Thoughts

12/09/2017, by , in Distribution

Steve Kaufer, CEO & founder of TripAdvisor, could hardly remember what he ate for dinner the evening before. “It was something interesting,” he said. I was curious because he kept talking about how TripAdvisor wants to help travellers have awesome experiences in destinations – from tours to activities to restaurants – and I wondered what kind of traveller he was himself.

Clearly, like all of us, he has a different persona when travelling on business or leisure. He was in Singapore only 24 hours before flying off to Tokyo where TripAdvisor signed a partnership with Japan Airlines to spread inbound tourism across Japan with the launch of a multi-media platform. This time, he combined both because travelling with him was his 18-year-old son.

So your son must have been just one when you started TripAdvisor, I asked him? “Yes,” he said, somewhat taken aback by the recollection.

Most founders would have left by now – it’s been 17 years since you started TripAdvisor – what keeps you going, I asked?

And you can tell from his answers throughout the interview that Kaufer remains deeply passionate about the company he started and travel in general.

“There’s so much more that TripAdvisor and the travel industry can do to help travellers have a tremendous time. The world’s gotten smaller, travel has picked up steam. I’d like to think that TripAdvisor has played a modest role in making people feel comfortable travelling abroad.

“But we are still at the early stage yet – airplanes haven’t changed that much, a bus still looks like a bus. But you can now have a completely new experience when you land because of the smartphone – imagine combining 500 million recommendations with location awareness, imagine the power of TripAdvisor to combine all that to make great suggestions and help travellers have awesome vacations.

“If you think of why people go on vacation, it’s not to stay at a hotel but the experience of being here – who you are with, what you are going to do in terms of activities, tours and restaurants.”

His vision is for TripAdvisor to offer “the complete package to enable our 400 million users to experience much better vacations”.

“In five years’ time, with the TripAdvisor app, you will book and search in ways you haven’t done before, we will make recommendations as you are walking down the street. We will help you get there – get you the best deals – and help you have the best possible vacation.”

Yet all travel brands struggle to become high frequency apps due to the infrequency of travel, I asked.

“There’s nothing any travel app can do about getting people to travel every single day – but we have 400+ million users, we’re the world’s largest travel website, we have been there for some time in almost every part of the world so even though travel is not a daily use case, we have incredible engagement.”

With 550 million reviews on the site, he’s clearly proud that TripAdvisor has achieved scale and changed expectations and mindset of travellers. “Everybody reads reviews now before they book.”

Here’s a summary of our conversation. 

Q: What was your most challenging moment in the last 17 years?

We’ve had a long corporate history but the part when TripAdvisor was purchased by Expedia and then spun out was memorable.

The lesson from that is that being acquired by a much bigger company doesn’t have to change anything by its nature. It was a successful acquisition and we continued to pursue our vision of helping travellers globally under their umbrella.

It’s one of the reasons I stayed with the company. Of course there were high anxiety moments, like wondering what would happen, but in the M&A trade, it worked extremely well.

Q: What do you think of Dara (Khosrowshahi, CEO of Expedia) moving to Uber?

They’ve got themselves a very capable boss.

Q: Or is it the most challenging time now? Mature businesses are harder to run than startups?

The most challenging part was to get the company to profitability in early days. How do you modify the original vision of the company enough to succeed? Very rarely does the original vision work out and it didn’t in Trip. Our original idea was to build a business to business site – we were looking to supply travel search results to existing travel portals. That business model didn’t work so we  found a different way to grow the business.

Q: Your most recent pivot – from reviews to meta. Knowing what you know now, would you still do it? How would you do it differently?

The way I try to run the company is always to be running as fast as we can, by leveraging all the things that work really well, and looking for areas we need to change.

One of the things people don’t realise is our hotel shopping engine – where to find the best price. So we ran a campaign to highlight the incredible pricing on the site and to teach people that we have this functionality, so they shouldn’t just come to us for content but use our price comparison engine to save $20 and get the right trade-off for a hotel that may not be well rated.

Q: But it was hard, wasn’t it?

It’s easy if you are selling tennis shoes but in travel, you have to switch behavior.

Q: So anything you could have done differently?

We probably pushed that functionality too hard to begin with versus helping consumers understand that using our price comparison engine could save them money.

We believe in the long term vision – for people to use our app, not only for content but also booking, and using instant booking for the best price from any site and finishing that transaction with credit card stored on TripAdvisor. That’s the great end game.

Meantime, we need to make sure that our audience understand that we have the best price comparison engine there is out there and it doesn’t matter if you book on Trip or other partners.

Q: There are founders who start businesses who may not be good at running them. What are you better at? How have you had to change as a leader?

Trip is the third company I’ve started. The first one, I was one of the founders and not very good at leading a larger business. I have improved over the years, I’d like to think that.

The biggest change between company 1 and 3 is the drive to never rest on what’s working, always trying to improve what you have. If you get complacent when you are successful, you won’t be positioned for longterm growth.

With Trip, we looked hard for what was going to come next and made changes along the way that may be painful to revenues but are the right long term success moves. Moving from high growth hotels to restaurants and attractions – those investments are beginning to pay off.

Q: Let’s talk about Asia – brands like Expedia, Kayak, Skyscanner say to win globally, you have to win in Asia. How will you win in Asia?

It’s a super fast growing market. Travel is a phenomenally strong product with global network effects. Uber’s big presence in other parts of the world helps every country, it brings scale to the equation.

When I think of the opportunity ahead and how valuable Trip is as a marketing vehicle to suppliers – we’ve barely tapped into it yet.

We have physically been in Asia for some time, we have product development teams focused exclusively on Asia first initiatives. Our commitment to the region is strong – it’s not like we just woke up. We have been here a while and it is our fastest growing market.

Q: What would it take for Asia to be really attractive to global online travel?

It is already very attractive though it is fragmented. Our product is a natural fit. We have tons of local content in local languages but of course, there’s more that can be done.

We’re certainly not done yet.

Q: Will growth be organic or via acquisitions?

We have a lot of acquisitions in our history. The strength of our company is we know how to acquire and take in large acquisitions and it’d be fair to assume in our future there’ll be more of that.

Q: Other than TripAdvisor, which other company would you consider running right now?

I am very happy with Trip – there’s so much opportunity in the food and activity sector still. We are good at marketplaces, managing supply and demand and enabling that match that makes everyone happy. Anytime we do that well, it makes owners and travellers happy and there’s great word of mouth references, it builds network effects. It’s a fantastic business.

Q: Who do you watch more – Google/Facebook/Amazon/Alibaba?

I genuinely spend a lot of time looking hard at what our research says our travellers want to do and spend time thinking about products to solve their problems. Do I think anyone else is solving them better? All these companies have very distinctive advantages in the internet ecosystem – but who is solving real travel problems? None of them are really focused on that. Our north star is to solve great travel problems, help people have great vacations and they will  reward you with repeat visits, more traffic and more revenues.

Q: Are you adventurous when it comes to food?

I enjoy new food wherever I go. I like to try new things. My wife is a great cook. In Japan, a few years ago, I simply pointed at something in the menu that looked interesting and it turned out to be a frog leg appetizer. I might stop short of fried scorpion though.

Q: How do you relax?

Doing crossword puzzles and scuba diving.



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