“Attractions should look at OTAs as leverage to expand their branding globally.”


We sat down with Joy Ghose, Vice President of Partnerships at Headout for an insightful chat on the role of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), what Business Intelligence means for the Tourism industry, and what Attractions, Tours, and Activities can do to compete in the new digital economy.

Read the full interview below.

Interviews on Tourism Insight

Interview 1: Joy Ghose, Vice President, Partnerships at Headout

Jenny

Hi, Joy, thank you very much for coming. So after working in the Tours & Activities industry for so many years, what’s been the biggest change in this industry over the past five years?

Joy

If I go back five years down the memory lane, I mean, at that time I was in Attractions, so I was working at Madame Tussauds. And before that, I was in Singapore and Universal Studios. I think that in the last five years, the industry has become way more digitized. And so, if you think about the sales channels of a typical attraction five years back, they would still rely on group tours. They would still rely on walk-in guests.

Jenny

Yeah, attractions didn’t even have much of a digital system five years ago.

Joy

Yeah, right. So there was not really a sense of OTAs, digital selling, and the exposure you can gain if you work with an OTA. That sense has changed quite a bit now, I dare say. And if you look at industry stats, you’ll see 60% plus, is through digital sales channels of OTAs. Bookings happen on mobile phone apps. If I look at my booking data, 90% of my bookings happen on a mobile device or an app.

Go five years back, and it’s definitely not like that, still it was ‘www’ right, that’s where all the bookings would take place. So I think, tech penetration – people using more technology in life and with the baby boomers and the millennials getting more used to their mobile phones caused the change.

Jenny

Yeah, I absolutely agree. What do you think is the main cause, or the biggest change for the tourism industry to digital transformation, and what’s the impact for this industry’s business?

Joy

Globally, only 17% is the penetration of digitization in this industry. It’s very low. So there’s huge work to be done. People, if you ask me, are feeling it, and attractions are seeing it. Because there’s a paradigm shift in the way guests are booking attractions. So the first thing Attractions should notice is they’re giving out more commissions to online agents. And their door sales suddenly become lesser and lesser. They need to change their ticket pricing policy of how they’re looking at things, right? They need to choose which OTA to work with if they have not done this yet.

OK, let’s talk about more developed countries like if you look at Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, maybe compare them with Bangkok. Bangkok is definitely not as digitized, and I think people in Bangkok, attractions in Bangkok, are still probably thinking ‘OK, I can still keep doing business the way I’m used to,’ but I hope the coronavirus effect changes things. I hope it changes. And they also open up to more digitization.

Attractions know that they need to do something – but how many of them have DONE it? That is the question.

Jenny

So if they’re aware about digital transformation, what’s the reason they haven’t take action yet? Is it because of the budget or the mindset or –

Joy

Mindset.

Jenny

It’s mindset.

There’s still a very traditional mindset in some countries when it comes to data and digital business sense. But, if you look at Singapore, the tourism board of Singapore has already taken a lot of effort.

They have a reputation.

Joy

Yes.

Jenny

And everybody’s talking about them.

Joy

So they’ve taken an effort towards digitizing all the attractions. They’re going contactless, they’re even giving out tenders for companies to build the technology of the ticketing systems for all the attractions. And with that data, they can also market so much better as a tourism board.

Jenny

Exactly. All right.

So now, you’re the Vice President of Partnerships for Headout in Asia. Can you introduce your role and what’s the background of Headout

Joy

Tours & Activities in major cities around the world is the concentration of the company, and we look at the journey of a guest from the point of view of what’s most important for the guest to do. They have concentrated, as a company, on the top line. Headout focuses on top Tours & Activities, top Attractions, MUST things to do -rather than going very broad and hitting everything and making it a very big, long tail of products. If you compare that to other companies like Get Your Guide or Klook, those companies have very long of products which is their strategy.

I feel that what Headout has done is very concentrated effort and that helped be profitable and become one of the only OTAs in the industry that is actually profitable. Partnerships here is both supply and demand. So typically, partnerships would entail only if you’re working with a bank for example, right? Doing a partnership with Marriott, for example. But here it’s a bit different. How the company looks at partnerships is you need develop your supply partnerships with your vendors, like Disney and Ocean Parks and –

Jenny

Your merchants.

Joy

Yeah, your merchants, but we call them supply partners.

Jenny

Right.

Joy

And, of course, there’s your distribution partnerships, when you distribute the products that you have to other companies like in Korea or Indonesia or anywhere in the world. So that’s distribution partnerships.

Jenny

So when you are discussing cooperation, no matter the brand, what help or benefits do they hope to get from a partnership with you?

Joy

Attractions should look at OTAs as leverage to expand their branding globally.

Because OTAs inherently have more web traffic, and more budget for marketing compared to one individual attraction. And it makes sense because they’re selling a plethora of products for the destination. So for an attraction who works with an OTA,

I think they benefit from higher brand exposure, and targeting a group of customers which they probably can’t gain on their own.

Jenny

Yes.

Joy

You cannot, as an attraction, target the entire world.

Jenny

You cannot advertise like OTAs do.

Joy

Correct.

Jenny

They have a huge amount of budget for advertisement.

Joy

Correct. And the other thing to consider is how you define your products on your own website and how you define your product as an attraction listed on an OTA should be slightly different.

Jenny

Yes.

Joy

So that you still have the advantage for someone who is booking on your own website. But what is the probability of someone landing on your website as compared to the same person landing on a Booking.com, or an Expedia, or a Headout right? So it’s a much higher probability. As an attraction, you should think of that.

And I think you should also explore and leverage the customer base of an OTA. Because they have already been gathering so many guests details, which is in their database now. As an attraction, you want to target that database to send your products and your promotions out to that database. So these are the things I think any OTA can bring on board to any Attraction.

Jenny

Right. You just mentioned you’re taking care of different countries and you also already brought up some points on different destinations and their different level of technological intervention.

So if you compare all of them with Hong Kong, what are the advantages you think Hong Kong currently has, whereas what are the areas Hong Kong needs to improve?

Joy

Advantage is definitely Hong Kong’s location. But, Hong Kong is still lagging behind Singapore or Dubai, for example, in terms of the technical output of the country especially our tourism industry. I do not see HK is as advanced in terms of the advancement of technology as Dubai. Dubai Tourism Board, they take a lot of effort in championing digital initiatives for all thier attractions.

And look at Dubai right now. It’s open. Anybody can go to Dubai and is impressive how they’re managing their own crowds and all that.

Jenny

I’m interested to know more about that, can you give some more points about what Dubai is doing? What technologies are they using to help their tourism ‘Things To Do’ Industry?

Joy

So Dubai is completely open. First of all, for anybody to go there, you don’t have to quarantine. You have to take a COVID test though, you have to submit your test result to show you’re negative, and again when you arrive you take another small test and you’re free to go. They have now put a lot of touch points in the city where guests can just wave their Visa or Mastercard and get a ticket printed.

OK, it’s ironic that I said ‘touch points.’ They’re actually not real touch points. You don’t even have to touch anything to get your ticket. You waive your card and then your ticket gets printed. You select whatever attraction you want to go to. So every attraction is kind of united or integrated in some sense.

If you’re buying a ticket for a Dubai desert safari, they will also be trying to tell you that you should go here or there next, after your desert safari. You finish the desert safari in this camp and from there, you can get your next attraction ticket to go to say Burj Khalifa.

So you feel, as a consumer, your trip and the city of Dubai are very integrated. You finish one experience and the next one comes in to your lap.

Jenny

Have you ever heard of anyone in this industry using BI or AI to help them to drive business, manage operations, reduce costs, etc.?

Joy

When I was working in Universal Studios in Singapore, we actually had a business intelligence team. But what it did at that time is probably different from what our current understanding of BI and AI is now. So all we used to do was look at entrance data, Singapore Tourism Board data, and survey data, and we would try to make sense of this data. But the funny part is –

there was no external data.

It was all our own guest’s data.

So they would think (five years back or six years back) ‘OK, this is enough for us to find a trend.’ How many Indians are coming, how many Filipinos are coming, how many Malaysians, Indonesians? So at that time, that was BI for them.

In Hong Kong, I’ve seen some attractions analyse their own numbers, their own data. But I think it’s at a very superficial level.

Jenny

Yeah, but I guess in our industry, we’re probably still at a relatively low level in terms of using technology. If you’re working in bank or in Fintech, they’re already talking about blockchain.

Joy

Right, right.

Jenny

So is machine learning, AI, or BI a ‘must do’ for Headout , just like your activity products are a ‘must do?’

Joy

Yeah, for an OTA, definitely it’s must. But flip side, look at the attractions. They should also be paying attention. Attraction’s actually rely on OTAs to give them data to see how everybody else is doing.

Jenny

Exactly. And you actually mentioned a very valuable point, and that is external data.

Getting external data often requires exchanging data with third parties. That’s the way to help you understand what’s your real performance, and not only look at yourself.

Joy

Yes, you’re absolutely right, because you need to compare it against something.

Jenny

Exactly. Good point! So, what’s the trend? We’re talking about top ‘Things To Do’, including OTAs, including governments, including attractions. Especially under this pandemic, what’s the trend you see for this industry?

Joy

Hmm. So other than being domestic focused, I see that attractions & theme parks are converting to dated, timestamped ticket.

This is the trend. So last time, even when we would sell Madame Tussauds tickets, it was open dating. Guests would buy the ticket, and could come any time.

Jenny

Yeah, right.

Joy

Cause, there was no restriction in the number of people you allowed inside the venue. Now suddenly that has changed. The attractions are now selling tickets with a date stamp and a TIME STAMP.

If you go to ArtScience Museum in Singapore, until last month, you can buy a ticket and go anytime you want. Now, suddenly, they have a new system that Headout has to integrate with to sell time-slotted tickets. Also, for example, we sold so many tickets of Wild Wild Wet Singapore that the attraction became full and now they’re thinking of having some kind of control measures instead open dated tickets.

Jenny

I tried to book Disneyland Hong Kong tickets recently. But they only require you to choose the day, it’s still not reliant on the hour.

I guess this is a similar trend for everybody in the future. But if this trend continues, can you imagine how you will survive is you’re an attraction or a consumer that doesn’t go digital?

Joy

Correct. Then guests have to queue up.

Jenny

And you may not even get to enter the attraction.

Joy

You know it’s funny that you mention this. The other day I was at a staycation in one of the hotels in Hong Kong, and they’re making you reserve the time slot for the pool.

It’s funny, at check in, you have to scan a QR code and choose your time slot for the pool.

Jenny

Wow.

Joy

It’s crazy. And if you cannot choose your timeslot for the pool, you go up and queue. So if you are in a bikini, you queue up in your bikini, waiting for a guest to not show up so you can have their slot. It’s exactly the same problem.

Jenny

Exactly.

Joy

If they do not digitise, the guests will have to queue up in front of the attraction and then HOPE they get in.

Jenny

Then this has become a circle. If you don’t adapt to this trend, you’re out of the game. Attractions really have to adapt to digital transformation.

Joy

Yeah. You need to, you must. It’s imperative at this stage to do it.

Jenny

If an attraction wants to reach a successful partnership with an OTA, what suggestion will you give to them?

Joy
To leverage your exposure on an OTA. So you should first of all think of your offering, which market segment is that offering going out to?

Segment your OTAs. Every OTA is not a global OTA. If you had a rate strategy for China, India, Malaysia separately, leverage your OTA to distribute the rate strategy in the market.

Have a minimum selling price restriction, it’s a must. So that your own product is not undercut. The reason why OTAs take the margin from you is because they are advertising the product on your behalf.

Jenny
How can I control the price?

Joy
If they see that the minimum selling price is not really met, cut the contract. Simple. You don’t have only 1 OTA, there’s so many OTAs.

Merlin does it very well. You cannot bid their keywords. You cannot sell their products below the minimum price that they will fix for you.

The other thing is, some smaller attractions will get into an exclusive partnership with an OTA— strict no-no.

Jenny
Really? That’s a good point! Why?

Joy
If you are doing an exclusive partnership, say you are a small attraction and you do an exclusive deal. You are the only one I’ll sell with and the OTA will say “Fine, I’m your only sales channel, I’m gonna buy 500 tickets every month from you for sure but I’m the only one who’s gonna sell.”

But what happens in the future?

First of all, by going exclusive, you have already annoyed every other OTA who’s out there. They will not do business with you and you are leveraging only on one channel to explore your product and take it out to the market. That’s a strict no-no.

And later on, if you want to change your exclusive partnership, there’s a big chance the OTAs will refuse you after that, because all this time you didn’t let them sell and now suddenly you break your exclusive and you want to sell at another OTA. That’s why it’s a strict no-no. It’s better for the industry. It’s fair game for anyone in the industry.

It comes down to marketing— how good your efforts are to take an attraction out into the world.

Jenny

All right. So thank you very much for coming, Joy. I’m totally inspired by our conversation.

Joy

Thanks for having me. Yes, it was a pleasure talking to you Jenny.


Special thanks to Joy Ghose, Vice President, Partnerships at Headout, for participating in this interview. For more information about Headout you can find him here or checkout their website.

Interviews on Tourism Insight is a series of conversations with Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality Professionals hosted by Jenny You, CEO & Co-Founder of YOU. Group, a HK based company providing automated data insight tools and AI-powered Business Analytics for Tours & Activities.