Reservation technology is the backbone of the digitalization of the tours and activities space. Without it, there’s no shift from pen-and-paper to digital inventory management and e-commerce. And given that around 40 percent of in-destination providers still rely on some form of paper, there’s plenty of room to run in this segment.
During the inaugural Arival event, we sat with an executive from one of the players in the reservation technology space, Rezdy. In his positions as Rezdy’s COO and CFO, Chris offers a view into the tours and activities sector — especially about how his company takes a customer-first approach to guide the way they build solutions for tour operators with a variety of needs.
Chris: My name is Chris Atkins. I’m from Rezdy. I’ve come all the way from Sydney. So this is the first day that I’m likely to see it through to beyond 10 o’clock in the evening, so that’s nice to achieve.
Nick: It’s tough, that jetlag, it’s a far one.
Chris: It’s a long way but I think it just goes to show what a really important event Arival is, that first tours and activity focused event that we’ve got. I think there are loads of international people here. I think a third of the people are here from international. So it’s great.
Nick: So what brought you to Arival? Obviously, this is the first event. A lot of people want to check it out. Why are you here?
Chris: Loads of our customers and stakeholders are here is the simple one. We exist to sell our products to suppliers and help them run their businesses.
But critical mass is working with the agents and resellers and everyone’s here and we want to be with our customers that are already on our platform but also work with essential people to come on and join us in the journey if you will building a platform for the industry.
Nick: Seems like it’s been a long time coming, I’ve been saying all day. Are you happy that there’s an event like this to bring your customers together?
Chris: I think it’s brilliant. It’s almost like a sign of maturity for the industry that it exists. As someone that’s relatively new to the travel industry, as I’ve tried to research coming into it, you pick up some data and it’s always about hotels or car rentals or flights. There’s hardly a mention if you will of tours and activities and so forth. To get its own identity it’s fantastic.
Nick: It’s amazing because it’s a bigger business then car rentals by, you know, billions. Not just a little amount. You have a personally interesting story because you’re not from the industry. And sometimes in travel it’s always a revolving door of companies and people. Talk to the viewers a little bit about yourself and what brought you to travel.
Chris: I think there’s just a really exciting time in terms of what’s going on in the travel industry at the moment. My background covers a number of areas. It covers content and media, it covers working on technology and digital products. And also brand and really consumer-focused products. Those three really come together neatly in the industry at the moment and certainly what we’re trying to achieve at Rezdy.
Nick: Businesses are made of people — they consume your products, so in B2B you have to remember this. How does a consumer product focus translate to something that you sell into businesses, some of them are smaller and also sell to consumers, so B2B2C. How does that translate into your perspective at Rezdy?
Chris: From a personal perspective, I was a brand manager at Diageo for a while, and you have to put the customer at the heart of what you’re doing. So my first reference point for anything we’re doing is, How do I look at it through the customer’s lens?
And that applies to us building our product and it applies to the features that we might apply within the product or how the user experience works.
These are guys running businesses that are so diverse and different. We need to try and understand those guys and make sure that we’re embedding that. So not just in the product but then through the whole customer experience they have from sales, their contact with customer success, and so on. We have to embed it and become a fully customer-centric business to be successful in my view.
Nick: So as the COO and CFO, it’s good to have the operation guy in charge of the money. But how do you operationalize a business — just like there are so many different types of consumers there are so many different types of suppliers — how do you build a product set that allows you to play in different arenas when I think the needs are somewhat similar are also drastically different?
Chris: And I think you touched on it on the face of it there’s a lot of similarities but in terms of how individuals want to use it quite differently. So you might take two businesses that look exactly the same on the outside so their feature needs may be the same. But one person’s running it as a lifestyle business. The thing they value most is their time, rather than necessarily business growth.
Whereas the other guy sees it very much as a business: what they value most is growing their business. Even though the operations of their business are the same, they need quite different solutions and the way they’re going to use it can be quite different. So with our product, we try to provide a sophistication so they can set it up to empower them to run their business just the way that they would like to.
Nick: Does that also mean a lot of training? Churn is obviously always an issue across all of hospitality and travel. But if I’m a mid-size supplier, I have say 400 employees and a lot of them need to learn software or learn new ways to sell. How does training play into that? Is that a central part of it to make sure everyone’s up to date?
Chris: It has to be, particularly the way that we run our business. We want to be an enabler for this industry, so we want to enable a supplier to run their business, to be able to market their business online and through direct channels, but also to be able to reach through a broader distribution network. And in order to be able to do that, there are multiple ways that we need to be able to support them.
Nick: And what are some of those ways?
Training-wise, because you need to set it up in different ways, there’s a set of layers for the training that you’ll get. When someone signs up, one of the first things we want to understand is what does success look like for you. I referenced those two similar businesses with different needs from their owners. We need to understand that [distinction], for us to be successful in delivering to you as a customer.
So that sets the tone for both what the training will be, but then also what the ongoing journey within Rezdy will be. So, first of all, get yourself a product set up, learn how to make sure that you can do that for maybe the one product or 10 products or the other 40 products you might have as a business. And then make sure that you’ve got that bookable on your website in a really smart way.
And that’s where we feel, in a way, we’re almost a consultant when we set someone up. Many of our businesses don’t have that experience of making sure their website is getting the traffic, making sure that they’ve got the right visuals.
We’re in a fantastic industry here where we’re selling experiences. And experiences aren’t sold by just text and then a price. Pictures of people enjoying the experience, that’s what’s going to help people connect and making sure that message comes across is a really important thing for us. And so it needs to be embedded in the training.
Nick: There was a lady next to me during check-in, and she was actually complaining to the desk agent that the room that she saw on her phone had a bathtub basically. None of the rooms here have bathtubs. And she was trying to find this image on her phone and she was just so insistent that she remembered this image of a bathtub and had an expectation from one image she saw somewhere on the Internet. Those are the moments that occurred to me that it’s really hard to be a supplier. So how do you guys approach not the image problem, but the visual matters, and helping us suppliers keep it accurate and updated?
Chris: We’re an increasingly visual age. And you know you see that all around with particularly the move to mobile. The more you can have an image that represents what you’re doing as people flicking through, the more you’re going to cut through because people don’t want to see text on mobile.
You need to almost design your web page for people to touch rather than imagining that you’re doing it to click on with a mouse. And so we have through all of our engagement with customers, we’re trying to encourage our use of the visual to be able to do that.
And it’s interesting you mention that lady’s story. But listen to Ben talk about TripAdvisor earlier on stage this morning, of all of the one star reviews that you see, it usually comes from a failure to meet expectations. Well, that’s a that’s a problem yes.
But what we have is a lot of people that aren’t really setting high enough expectations to get the sale because they haven’t got great visuals. They’re not presenting their product in the way that they really should do and that’s the journey we’re trying to get them on.
So in a way success for us would be having set such high expectations that occasionally they fail rather than people having a relatively bland or difficult to find experience on their website — when actually they should be getting thousands of people.
Nick: And then the accurate representation sometimes…people see the world differently. I believe that blue is not blue for everybody. Let’s do a quick SWOT analysis for tours and activities, I’m more thinking of your view on the industry in the wider sense. What are some of the biggest strengths and weaknesses, where do you see the opportunities, and are there any existential threats to tourism activities? Is there something that maybe you were not paying attention to? Maybe there’s nothing, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
Chris: The thing that attracted me to the tours and activities industry, and Rezdy particularly, was just the sheer amount of opportunity there is in this market. We’ve got a populous within tours and activities that the majority haven’t been online, or haven’t been online for very long. And so we’re able to shape a whole industry and that doesn’t happen very often.
The opportunity is just simply that there’s still probably maybe more than half of the tours and activity providers globally aren’t online. So that’s obviously a clear opportunity that we see.
What I’m seeing and been amazed by is just the potential virality that comes through the ecosystem that exists. I was just at lunch with one of our big suppliers, and all they want to talk about is getting more agents on our platform so that they can have more and more online bookings through a broader set of agents. They’re a global player. They’re based in South America. They’re just opening in the U.S. They’ve got plans for European and broader U.S. expansion. So they want agents that cover the globe and we’re adding agents every day to our platform. It’s easy to do with an API. Just building up that relationship and actually working that viral chain from a big supplier that gives you a list of 50 agents they want to work with, and then starting to work with those agents who give you the list of 50 or 60 suppliers that they work with that aren’t online and therefore they want to ease the process.
So suddenly before you’ve had three conversations you’ve got a list of 200 people that you need to engage with and work with to keep the platform growing. And that’s just really exciting.
But I think at the same time brings a bit of a threat if you will, which is that there is so much opportunity. You have to make sure that you’re really ruthless in your prioritization. Otherwise, you spread yourself too thin and you can’t achieve. And what happens, back to the expectations point, is that I think people’s expectations are here and you’re doing too many things and then you deliver underneath that. So that’s what we’re very mindful of to make sure we’re doing it in a staged way.
Nick: Expectations are the hardest thing to manage but it’s one of the most important jobs of anyone.
Chris: There are two really big words I would use: expectations is one, because they set the most important other word, which is context. I set the context for the relationship. If we work very closely with obviously all the big OTAs. When they send someone to us, we’ve immediately got a context that is a positive one because it’s been a recommendation. It’s been a referral. You need to work with Rezdy, they’re great to work with. That’s fantastic. It’s a fantastic starting point. Whereas if you’re just coming cold, you’re having to do a lot of work over potentially a lot of time to even get to that starting point. It’s really, really important to have those expectations, be positive. But then to be able to deliver too.
Nick: So we have a global industry. Obviously, tours and activities can really only happen in a place. It’s not a commodity that can easily be replaced. So fragmentation is the way it’s built. Is that an opportunity or a threat? Or is it just the way it is and we just deal with it? Is consolidation possible with things that are so fragmented?
Chris: I think one of the beauties of our industry is that they’re really specific experiences, often very local in their origin. They’re often connected with the natural beauty or the surroundings of a certain place. And so trying to find a way to almost homogenize, it feels like it’s ruining the experience to some degree from me. And so, from a supplier side, you might get some more connectivity from a management perspective, for the operations piece. But I hope it doesn’t start to really pervade and you start getting — my apologies to Starbucks — but a Starbucks experience for tours and activities, because I think that would be a really retrograde step.
Chris: Where you’ll find that there’ll be the most opportunity for aggregation or changes is just within the ecosystem. In a way we’ve got a reference point with how hotels and flights and car rentals have moved over the years in terms of that journey. First of all online but then also of the mix in terms of where the customers are buying from. And I think that’s a reference point for us to watch and see because I think that will then provide some of the landscape changes I think. And they’ll be the interesting ones to watch.
Nick: I guess you could call it the Airbnb cycle, where you start off really really authentic and now it’s all managed by property managers. It’s consistent now, but it’s much less interesting. And now you have tours they do too. So at some point the tours there probably also need to be quality controlled.
Quality is one of the biggest issues for OTAs. How can they assure their end customer, the consumer, that they’re going to get a good experience? Because if not, as an agent it reflects on you. And so I think that’s a really important thing.
We can play a role to help with that as well by providing an operating system for them to manage their business. And prompting them to think about the things they need to prepare their customers for: bring the right shoes, wear the right gear, make sure that kids are doing this or not doing that, think about safety. Or thinking about just the logistics of the operation. It helps to bring that up.
And then also in the communications. Make sure that people have got a clear idea when they need to turn up. Give us some time beforehand and find ways of getting that message across that isn’t just you know the standard one. Think about mobile etc. And in that sort of consultancy role that we can play in setting them up and training them, we can play a role you know that helps get that consistency. You’re really just trying to iron out the bad experiences because you to keep the individuality. They’re the things that make the difference
We’re in Australia so everyone’s going anywhere outside the front door. Make sure you’ve got some sunscreen and hat and some water. Particularly when you have a significant number of overseas visitors and people might come and wake up on a Melbourne morning and it’s seven degrees and think crikey it’s cold! But by 11 o’clock it’s already 28 degrees and there’s the sun there’s out there. If you’re out there for an hour you’re going to be burned.
Nick: And they may leave a bad review. And all you had to do was tell them to wear a hat!
Nick: Mobile. Part of me wonders what is the end point of mobile? Where is the sweet spot? Mobile is never going to be 100 percent of everything. But at what point does mobile even out and like 70 percent of bookings happen on mobile? Is there a point where you’d think there would be an equilibrium?
Chris: I’m not a technology Futurist. But interestingly, sitting there this morning, I referenced back to my digital advertising agency background and just seeing some of the data of how people are engaging there. Seeing that data come through again today, it’s the same sort of journey. I can only see it continuing. The devices are more and more powerful. The apps that people are investing in enable you to do more and more on that. So I think that for the foreseeable future, it will be an inexorable move to make sure that you are able to deliver both your engaging story to attract the customer but then the whole experience in a nice visually friendly, clean, and attractive way on a mobile device. If not, you’re going to be falling behind. We certainly make sure that that’s a critical part of how we do any of our updates. And when we think about our user experience from a platform perspective to make sure that that works.
Nick: What about on the supplier and management side? Is mobile you 90 percent? Are most of these people are out and about, managing tours on mobile phones, that’s really where mobile comes into play.
Chris: I mean it’s just as true if not more so from the logistic side from a supplier. But obviously, we’re seeing the data from a consumer perspective.
If you think about the fact that you might be checking people onto a whale watching tour, you’re standing at the quayside with a gangplank and you want to be checking the QR codes there or swiping people off. If you’re collecting people on the way to a winery tour from different hotels, the driver wants to be able to use this app, tick those people off to make sure he’s got everyone he should be having. And that he’s returned them where they came from!
You don’t have to refer to the sheet. Of course, so much of it being outdoors as well. The old-fashioned sheet getting rained on from the clipboard…you know it takes all of that away. You’ve really got so much power in your pocket. So both for the consumer, because they’ve got the QR code, they know where to go and what they needed to bring. But also a supplier to better manage the event and give them a great experience.
Nick: So looking ahead to the next 12 months for your company, what are some of the things you’re most excited about and some of the challenges that you’re really tackling you’re really putting resources into.
Chris: For us, I go back to my point before. It’s “customer, customer” for us. A massive focus for us is just broadening our sweep of support from a customer success perspective in a number of areas. So making sure that people get a great onboarding experience when they come onboard that they know the power of the platform, and that they’re able to use it for the the way they want their business to use it.
Chris: But then all the way through the touch points that we have with the customer through the lifecycle and making sure that we’re there to support them when they’ve got technical issues. But just as importantly to work with them to help grow their business.
Chris: So when they move through what we talk about the different phases of maturity. They’ve got their operations working, they’ve got their marketing right through their website for direct bookings, and then they’re starting to maybe look at broader distribution channels that we can offer through our channel manager. That’s the conversation that uncovers whether they’re ready and how we can help them.
Nick: How do they approach that kind of onboarding process? Do you standardize it, so you can identify themes, or does every one of the people dealing with onboarding do their own kind of vibe? Do you keep it the same?
Chris: When someone signs up they’ll have an immediate call within the first 24 hours of someone in customer success. That’s all about understanding what success looks like for you as a customer. And then what that does is tailors the first onboarding training session.
Chris: So if getting bookings through our marketplace and the various distributors we have around the world is a really important thing, then it will be weighted so that in the training. If you really just want to take the old diary and throw it away and move to just a simple online calendar to tell your bookings, then we’re very much focussed on setting up an effective and sensible way for you to run your business.
Nick: Let’s close this out with more about customer service. We don’t talk about this enough. What are some lessons you’ve learned in this process that other vendors or other people in the industry that can maybe learn from?
Chris: Well you know I go back and reference again my background in creative agencies. We’re selling experiences but the visual medium is a tremendous way to get a message across and not just the experience side of things but also some of the more practical elements.
Chris: You know we’re regular travelers here, we see how the in-flight video has changed, the safety video, in terms of it becoming much more of a character and aligned with the different brands. Quantas has a number of people around different parts of Australia explaining segments of the safety piece. There’s real creativity in that.
Chris: I think that that’s a lesson that we can learn in terms of servicing our customers. So making sure that we’ve got really useful how-to videos so that people can be as effectively on-boarded us as they can be. But they’re on their own terms, so if they’re time-challenged they can go online and see those videos. But then also helping them in selling their story and running their business to use video, to use the experience that they sell and package it up effectively so they are marketing their business as well as they can.
Nick: So as they train with you guys, maybe they can learn some good onboarding of a tour person. Even if it’s just a two-hour tour, you have to on-board them into your experience and your rules.
Chris: It’s all a customer experience. There are different goals and there are different elements that need to be ticked off. But if you think about that end to end experience, and look at it through the customer’s eyes, then when you think about the different touchpoints you have to try and get their message across, then you can really think to enrich the way that you that you market and communicate with your customers.