The slow death of TripAdvisor vacation rentals

Posted on March 30, 2018

In 2000, some guys had a cool idea: Let’s build a website where professionals can post reviews of popular establishment. Soon, they realized that reviews by random people visiting the shop, restaurant or hotel instead of a professional actually took off much more. And born was TripAdvisor as many of us have known and used it.

In 2007, some other guys founded FlipKey, a home swapping and vacation rental website. Back then, Airbnb wasn’t a thing, and the only competition was pretty much HomeAway (which had acquired VRBO a year previous). Great idea, and it took off accordingly.

Then, only a year after it was founded, TripAdvisor acquired FlipKey. And somehow, things went down from there.

Fast-forward 10 years. It’s 2018, and short-term rentals are a big thing. Airbnb boasts over 4.5 million listings. HomeAway (now owned by Expedia, which – ironically – purchased and then spun back out TripAdvisor a few years back) speaks of over 2 million listings. And booking.com, formerly known as the go-to place for booking hotel rooms, is approaching 1 million vacation rentals on their site, too.

Where does TripAdvisor stand? They say at 300,000 listings. Which is a lot, but still pretty slow growth compared to the others. But it’s not the quantity that’s problematic – it’s the quality.

From the very beginning, FlipKey felt like the red-haired stepchild of TripAdvisor. No love, no innovation. One example is the fact that it’s taken them 8 years to offer calendar exports – meaning that for the longest time, incoming bookings through TripAdvisor had to be manually synchronized with whatever central calendar or other platforms people were using. And even though we can’t prove that statement with numbers, we dare say that there’s not many people left who only list on TripAdvisor, making this missing feature a real pain for the majority of users.

But nevertheless, they’re considered one of the “big 4”. Pretty much everyone who lists on multiple sites does so TripAdvisor, too. But given where the site has gone and where it seems it’s going, one has to wonder how much longer that’ll be the case.

At GoNitely, we’ve always considered TripAdvisor the least important platform for our business. An assumption that’s based on simple numbers: We get less than 2% of all bookings from there. As long as it’s a painless integration, we are fine with that number – it’s more than nothing, it adds value to our business model. Also, people really don’t seem to like the company, a quick google search reveals:

TripAdvisor_GoogleScreenshot

Even in a world where it’s a known fact that haters post quicker than people who love the service, those results are pretty abysmal. But as long as it worked for us, we didn’t care much.

But recently, we’ve experienced painful episodes on both the host and guest side, which does make us reconsider our engagement.

As with many companies, the trouble starts once you need to get a hold of someone. Consider this guest, which stayed at a GoNitely property a few weeks back. She could not get a hold of anyone at TripAdvisor no matter how hard she tried, leading her to tell us just “how much better VRBO is”. Ouch.

TripAdvisor_screenshot_VRBO

But that’s a one-off – so we let it slide. Then, this happened:

TripAdvisor_DoubleBooking

 

We synchronize our central GoNitely calendar with every platform – which works great. It’s pretty straight forward: A night is either OPEN or CLOSED. And platforms work with that just fine. They allow bookings for OPEN nights, and don’t allow them for CLOSED nights. Except TripAdvisor, which for some reason allowed this booking in spite of the calendar being CLOSED (the property is already rented out otherwise).

Since the other booking had been there for a while, we tried to contact TripAdvisor to tell them about what we can only assume is a bug. After many unsuccessful attempts, we got someone on the phone – who even after a good half hour did not understand the issue. So we resorted to e-mail, hoping for a better outcome. The answer was this:

TripAdvisor_Screenshot1

 Wait – what? They system allows bookings for closed dates, and we have to cancel and pay a fee? That does not sound right. We answered, hoping for that agent to understand the situation. We don’t know if they ever did, because the next answer came from someone else – and was equally illogical.

 TripAdvisor_Screenshot2

We called again, and spoke to someone else again, who apparently had no idea of the case in the first place. Then, we got another e-mail response:

TripAdvisor_Screenshot3

 

After two more calls and multiple more e-mails, every time with a different person who seemed to be completely oblivious to not only the technical issue but also the case at hand, we gave up and contacted the guest directly. Luckily, the property was still open for the week after his initial dates, and the guest was willing to change his reservation.

Then, something funny happened: TripAdvisor seemed to have staffed up in their support team. As much as we’d like to attribute the fact to our little incident, it’s most likely just coincidence. But in the last few weeks, they’ve tripled the amount of (somewhat repetitive) e-mails they send when setting a new listing live. For example, they now offer help in setting up your listing in the first place:

TripAdvisor_createad

Not only that, but they also call at least twice now, sometimes only minutes after finishing the set-up process of a new property. What was inexistent before now has almost become a nuisance: The connection quality of their calls (and sometimes level of communication) is so low that it’s hard to understand what they really want, and even telling them “we don’t need any help setting up the listing, thank you, it’s all done, no need to call again” won’t stop them from doing so again within a few days. 

So it looks like they’re feeling the pain. They’re hurting – but are they hurting enough? In a world where Airbnb offers an amazing user experience on their platform and booking.com has the best phone support for hosts we’ve ever seen at any company, it’s a stiff competition out there. TripAdvisor better improve soon, or they’ll inevitably face the point in time where it’s simply wiser to shut down former FlipKey and focus on their core business – which is what people love about the company in the first place.

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About the Author:

Picture of Markus
Proud father and husband, humble leader. Currently revolutionizing short-term rental management with GoNitely. Living in beautiful California close to San Francisco.

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