Tours shaken up by trips sharing economy

Masson: take a lot for new players to disrupt tour operations

Asian tour operators are reinventing tours and strengthening capabilities as bigger players like Airbnb foray into their territory.

Airbnb claimed 500 experiences in 12 cities worldwide at launch last mid-November and, although only Japan is among the dozen, tour operators recognise it’s just a matter of time before more Asian experiences will be offered and big players like Google enter the travel business.

Currently, the trip-sharing economy, which has birthed local players such as Vietnam’s, Singapore’s KKday and Thailand’s Local Alike, has yet to disrupt tour operators’ business. But Niels Steeman, Asian Trails e-commerce and marketing manager, expects it to “create a rumble”, just as vacation rentals has disrupted the hotel sector.

“Looking at the roll-out plans of Airbnb Trips, the focus is more on Europe, the US and South America, but Asia will soon be on their radar,” he said.

And just as in home sharing, there will be such issues as licensing and safety standards. Added Steeman: “What worries us is, as soon as you operate tours, hosts become tour operators and in many countries (where Asian Trails Group operates), you need to have an appropriate licence to be a guide or a tour operator.

“Another big issue is the insurance coverage of the organisers, should anything happen. At Asian Trails, we offer immersive local trips that are off-the-beaten track, but with the security of operating fully licensed and fully insured operations.”

Matt Masson, managing director of Buffalo Tours Singapore, believes it would take a lot for new players to disrupt tour operations. “There’s a lot of attention in the tours and activities space. That’s the strong ground of tour operators and DMCs.

“But I think, specifically with Airbnb, it’s a big challenge from letting out a spare room to actually committing to giving a half- or full-day, some even two or three days. A lot of training needs to go into that to deliver the kind of experience DMCs deliver. I know the amount of effort we put in – guide training, driver training and audits to make sure all our experiences are safe. There’s a lot of intelligence behind and it will take other players time to build up that knowledge,” said Masson.

In the last three to four years, Buffalo Tours has reinvented the meaning of a tour guide – from just someone who stands on the bus and gives historical facts to “real-life” people, be it a restaurant owner or a curator of an art gallery who takes clients behind the scenes.

It launched the Local Life range of tours in 2014, featuring tours that connect clients with local communities and a low environmental footprint. A lot of these tours are done on foot, bicycle or other forms of public transport. It also launched the Essence range, which offers more private touring in 2015, and Masterclass last year, designed to give customers even more experiential moments.

Being on the ground, knowing the hidden places, and having local contacts, “is where DMCs can control that experience better than an OTA,” said Masson.

Steeman foresees that in the near future, Airbnb too will recognise this, become more “lenient” and add DMCs to their platform.

Asian Trails has also reinvented tours by developing the Explore Asia programmes to deliver out-of-the-ordinary tours for couples, families and those seeking new roads in existing destinations. “The market demand (not Airbnb) constantly pushes us to deliver something new,” he said.

As to why a customer would still want to book a tour through a retail agency who gets the tour from the tour operator, when he can now book direct on the trip-sharing economy, Steeman said: “The online B2C/C2C travel segment remains a very fragmented segment. Customers need to go to various sites to get a total package, spending a lot of time and effort searching for the right deal.”

Masson also pointed out other reasons: “Security is one. You are buying from a trusted party who has met local regulations. That sounds old-fashioned but there will be cases in the next few years of online companies delivering a sub-standard service and not meeting expectations. That security of going to a trusted player still remains regardless of the generation.

“And most tour operators will evolve. They have been in the business for years and kept up with the trends,” Masson concluded.

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