Tours and activities: instant web bookings still largely a dream

When one reads articles like Tnooz’s recent piece on Foursquare accepting instant restaurant bookings, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion (as our dear editor did) that tours and activities must be next.

After all, a popular app enabling instant bookings of tours and activities nearby is just so obvious that a casual observer might wonder why FourSquare (or indeed any of the popular location-based mobile services) hasn’t done it yet.

Turns out, while there are some great efforts towards this already, it’s still incredibly hard for most tours and activities companies to deliver on.

In a travel industry where electronic ticketing for airlines is (for the most part) a reality, where you can make a hotel reservation literally in the lobby and then stroll up to the desk to check in, the activities space is still comparatively in the stone age.

But why?

The consumer problem, part 1

Let’s get under the hood of a typical booking for one of the most popular activities sold online today: The city bus tour. Let’s say you book this bus tour online on your favorite activities site. You choose your date, the time, and the route.

You then enter your credit card information and check out. A few clicks later, and you’re confirmed. After this, in many instances, you’re sent a voucher.

This voucher is a PDF that contains all the instructions on where your bus tour starts, when it departs, etc. You’re requested to print this voucher and bring it to the bus tour’s office to start your tour.

The above is already problematic for a consumer. He just booked online, and then is instructed to print something out and bring it along.

This often means added expense and/or hassle for customers that are already in-destination, leading them to the obvious conclusion that booking the bus tour online requires more effort than just turning up at the bus tour’s office and booking there.

The consumer problem, part 2

Since many activity suppliers have to plan for the upcoming day’s bookings (imagine the bus operator having to allocate drivers for the coming days, or the kayak operator having to allocate guides), the activities sector still throws yet another hurdle at the consumer: booking cut-offs.

While decreasing in occurrence, it’s still more common than not to encounter a minimum 48 hour booking deadline to book an activity online. Again, problematic for the consumer. The industry is telling him to book online, but at the same time, preventing any sort of impulsive buying.

For the consumer it’s more tempting to turn up at the supplier’s office and book there in person than even think of using a mobile app.

The supplier problem

With the assumption that the consumer was convinced to book ahead, print out the voucher, and actually remembers to bring it, we end up with a customer showing up at the suppliers’ doorstep with a piece of paper — the magic voucher.

Incredibly, his piece of paper may look very different from the piece of paper the next customer is holding. Or the one after that. In fact, some popular activity suppliers have entire binders of all the vouchers they’re able to accept.

There could be dozens of variations. But either way, without this magic voucher, the supplier won’t let you board.


Because that’s how the supplier gets paid. That’s right: The very piece of paper the customer is holding is collected by the activity supplier and added to a redemption report.

This report is then sent back to the online seller of the activity, who then pays the supplier for all the vouchers that were redeemed.

“Paper currency”

Much like the airline sector with its paper tickets, the activities sector invented its own form of currency called vouchers. It’s been this way for decades. And like any established system of currency, getting people to change is hard.

Really hard.

From the inherent inefficiencies (online sellers of activities love breakage: selling a voucher that’s never redeemed) to the well-oiled operational efforts that suppliers are used to, changing to a new form of currency looks near insurmountable.

Where we are today?

Established players and startups alike have been working on this problem for years. Some have made great headway into solving the consumer problem: allowing him book instantly and just show up with a photo ID.

But so far, these efforts have been both commercially and technically fragmented. For example, each major seller of online activities has their own extranet for activity suppliers to manage supply and inventory on their site.

So, today, an activity supplier may have to divide their available inventory between the extranets of all the online sellers that are delivering him sales.

And if something changes (say the activity supplier’s kayak guides call out sick), he has to log on to every one of those extranets and adjust his availability for that period.

Some activity suppliers are doing this with up to 25 extranets. Day to day, a herculean task. And on the redemption side, having to log in to a variety of extranets to verify whether the customer standing in front of their office has actually paid can be quite the hassle on a busy day.

Learn from industry peers

Strewn with problems, is this situation solvable? Absolutely. The activities sector need not look very far: Both air and hotel sectors have worked this out for their incredibly complex, and, in the case of hotels, very fragmented spaces.

In air, electronic ticketing started in 1994 but was languishing with only 20% adoption a decade later.

Things only really got moving after IATA, the industry body that represents the supplier base in the airline industry, set an aggressive deadline of 100% adoption in four years.

They mostly got it done. And it happened with a standard that every supplier talked to, no matter their underlying technology system.

While air’s solution is not entirely appropriate for the activities sector, the idea of any supplier or distributor being able to sell and validate a ticket is an important one.

Just do it

As mentioned above, current efforts to solve these issues in the activity sector have been led by resellers of activities. While all noble in their intent for the consumer, they’re creating further silos and barriers for an efficient distribution market.

In an industry with hundreds of thousands of suppliers, the fragmentation for back office and technology systems will only grow as suppliers move their business online, meaning it will be incredibly hard to establish a commercial standard.

The sector desperately needs a common, neutral way to handle these issues. So far, only a select few have stepped up to the plate to offer a solution. Even fewer have bothered to pay attention or to try to run with those efforts.

Perhaps it’s the industry’s biggest suppliers that need to come together via a standards body like OpenTravel to solve this incredibly important task.

A task that, all sector hype aside, is the true key to unlocking the tours and activities sector.

NB: Tour bus image via Shutterstock.

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Alex Kremer

About the Writer :: Alex Kremer

Alex Kremer is co-founder and head of product at Redeam, an electronic ticketing platform serving the tours & activities industry. He was previously Senior Vice President of Partnerships at Nor1, a leading hospitality merchandising provider. He joined Nor1 after it acquired Flextrip, a B2B tours & activities distribution network he co-founded. Alex is a 15-year veteran of technology startup companies, previously co-founding Cruvee, a business intelligence company for the wine industry where he led Business Development. Prior to that, he co-founded FanAxis, one of the world's first fan club management and merchandising firms in the music and entertainment industries. Alex is based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at axk.



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  1. Brenton Davis

    Hi Alex,
    Great Article.
    Any suggestions on a booking system for activities that has come the closest to achieving customer and operator friendly, flexible and integrated with the rest of the world.

  2. Simon Lenoir

    Hi Alex, quick update: one of our customer recently went live with realtime booking. I thought it might interest you as they are “red buses” very much like the photo you used to illustrate the article:

  3. Kirill Sermyagin

    We are relaunched! Please have a look on our recently updated site –
    This relaunch also address to topic of this article. It could be several solution for last minute booking. One is as discussed – just improve IT systems and try to force providers use this software and support live inventory. But from our experiences it is really non-friendly style. It can work for some really big companies and still not flexible.
    What we offer on Excursiopedia for any kind of booking – 2 months in advance or extreme last minute like 1 hour before tour – is direct communication between customer and provider through our on-site messaging system. Through this direct communication, including individual invoice feature, provider and customer could clear all details about tour, check availability even half hour before departure, arrange absolutely tailor-made tour. Join our community and follow us on Facebook for updates about future development of our social marketplace for T&A market.

    • Greg Solovyev

      Kirill, I really like the idea. Was just checking out the website. The one thing that jumped out at me right away though – why does it look so much like AirBnB? Did you guys hire the same designer?

      • Kirill Sermyagin

        Greg, thanks for nice feedback. Currently we change design of our site to support our strategy to develop Excursiopedia as social marketplace for T&A. But it is really difficult to make something different from already successful experience. It is like every hotel booking site looks like, every social marketplace get something from AirBnB – first player create usability standard for entire industry 🙂 But we will ave more changes in next version I hope, because of differences in our markets and products.

  4. Tor

    We are in the process od debeloping and launching a web site in which we aim to resolve these issues. As our slogsn staes: Travel the world – Not the web. More info on our demo site. BETA launch planned for feb 2013.

  5. Andy

    Good points Peter. I like Simons ideas with Rezdy, its definitely a big challenge, but it seems he is keen to tackle it, which is good to see.

    • Peter

      Hi Andy

      We already have a product installed similar to Redzy which is Tourcms, it is an advance for sure but does not address the issues of the multiple distribution channels as not all my distribution partners are going to sign up to my systems they want to use their own systems as as we are the small guys we have to fit in.

      I have just spent 12 days in Switzerland with over 600 adventure tour operators, trade channels and tech guys , this was a major discussion and no one I spoke to had the solution. We are all working towards one in separate silos, which to me means their will not be one as any tech solution needs standards that are adopted industry wide.

  6. Peter

    Great article

    Coming from the supplier side it is a management nightmare for us. Believe me we want to have as many distribution channels as possible but with no laid down standards it is impossible for us to keep up.

    We do take last minute bookings up to 30 minutes before departure, however, if the critical number of clients is not booked the tour cannot go. Not because of business or cost but because of safe guide client ratios required. Remember the tours and activities industry in developed countries is regulated with health and safety inspections.

    On any given day I can have clients arriving with paper vouchers, vouchers on their mobile, pin numbers to give us, forgot their print outs, forgot who they booked with!. We have then got an admin nightmare of matching numbers and vouchers and pins across many systems from the old fashioned invoice with voucher in the post to countless online systems that we have to log onto. Remember at this point we are have gone in to a cash negative situation as we have delivered the tour and we need to get all this admin down in order to get paid from the distribution channels.

    We are fairly up to date with online reservation system etc but if the industry keeps growing in this manner we will have to be very selective in who we work with due to the admin nightmare. We want to scale by moving our 3 figure distribution channel to a 4 figure distribution channel ( there are over 1000 routes to market for us online) but it is impossible with the current state of play. Frustrating does not describe it.

  7. Eric Anderson

    There’s a website out there that covers almost all these issues. I’ve bought from them a million times.

  8. Daniele Beccari

    The stream of comments in this article uncovers the real root problem: fragmentation of supply.
    This means not only fragmented IT systems, but also unconsistent quality of service, unconsistent pricing, unconsistent payment practices etc.

    Standards are utopic here, and “solutions” are mostly local or proprietory.

    The only option to get something adopted in meaningful numbers would be for the 4-5 biggest tour and actiity resellers to come together, define a simple operating mode, and roll it out. Suppliers would be happy to have only one way of interfacing. Smaller sites would piggyback.

    But are any of the big guys ready to interoperate? And to adjust their IT systems?
    Probably not: what’s in it for them.
    So the only standards remain Google for search, and maybe Passbook for tickets in a few months.

  9. Tui

    These a small tech company operating out of Sydney who is developing technology to do this, they are called Livn Group. They already have around about 900 Australian tour products integrated and via an API distributors can map and have available live inventory, rates, descriptions, conditions etc and also the ability to book, confirm and ticket via their Network all in real time. Very cool… URL:

  10. Tor

    The solution is on the way. Keep an eye out for our website

  11. Alice Neves

    Nick, I’d love to talk to you! I’m one of the founders of Kuotus (, a GDS for local tours and activities. We’re currently running a pilot in Chile and the response has been quite positive! We’re also in Latin America and would be very interested in hearing about your particular challenges in Mexico! Let’s connect on LinkedIn ( or twitter (@AliceBrasuca) and talk?

    Alex, thanks for starting this much needed discussion! We completely agree with the urgent need for standards rather than stand-alone websites that try to connect travelers and suppliers directly. It’s just crazy to expect local tour providers will be able to handle so many potential sales channels at the same time, with their rather limited resources. Not to mention that for travelers it creates friction in the purchasing experience, as they need to wait for final confirmation for the tour, when it should be as quick and easy as possible. As a consequence, tour providers miss sales opportunities. Now, the essential part of setting a distribution standard is making sure the reservation system tour providers use is designed WITH them to perfectly fit their routine and needs. We’ve been dedicating considerable time from day 1 for design research and customer development to get that right since we started Kuotus – a GDS for local tours. Another point we found through practice is that, while online bookings are definitely a trend, a good portion of bookings is through hostel/hotel front-desk/concierge staff. Thus we offer a front-desk interface which helps front-desk staff offer better and faster service to guests and increase upselling opportunities.
    It’s a big challenge – but a well worth one!

  12. Nick

    As a Manager at a Tour & Activity provider in Mexico, I find it interesting that the article did not point out what is, by far, our biggest challenge, greater than technology, in generating last-minute or in-destination bookings – the local resellers. THEY determine our restrictions and limitation, and if we do not follow them, they threaten to stop selling us. We could easily take last-minute bookings, as we have excellent technology – we could even offer Hotwire-like discounts based on available inventory – but, instead, we have a 72 hour booking blackout period on discounts or special offers at the powerful “request” of the DMCs and resellers.

    Though we consider them a valuable customer, or even partner, at times it seems we work for them. They impact and limit our strategies across the board (promotions, distribution, mobile…).

    Even if the right technology solution was implemented and available, would we, the tour suppliers, be “allowed” to use it and take real advantage? – or is this just an issue in Mexico?

    • Greg Solovyev

      Nick, this seems to be the question of negotiation between you and your local resellers and weighing pros and cons of such restrictive terms. If travelers are able to find and book your activities at any time on their mobile devices, would you still need the resellers?

      • Nick

        Hey Greg, you are correct, to a degree. We do agree to the terms, yet the negotiations and seem a little “gun to the head”-like when setting the marketing restrictions. As someone with a marketing background, who does not oversee the Sales contracts, it is extremely frustrating to not be able to merchandise our product on our terms and per our needs.

        Based on the % of sales the resellers generate for us, it would be very risky to turn our backs to them and go rogue. Could we try it? Sure. Will we? No.

        You are correct, we help create this environment, and it is hard to see a why out without taking a hardline approach like the airlines did with the OTAs. I am sure this varies around the world; it could be a good storyline for one of the travel pubs. We could always use more articles on the tours and activities segment. More than answers, I was hoping to hear from other on this particular issue. Thanks for your feedback.

        • Pawel

          Hey Nick, I’m curious which part of Mexico you’re in. My wife runs a popular tour in Cozumel, Mexico and, if anything, we’ve found it difficult to find good outlets to distribute her tour. Are you referring to offline or online resellers, or both?

          • Nick

            Pawel, since I am kind of “calling out” our resellers, I’d rather not broadcast it here, as it could ID us. If you want to post an e-mail address or way to contact you, I can follow up. As far as the restrictions I am talking about, it is with the in-destination, offline resellers – the guys in the hotels and on the streets.

          • Pawel

            Fair enough. Send me a message on Twitter @konczykp and we’ll chat.

  13. Geert-Jan Brits

    Rezdy looks interesting. Perhaps I’m glossing over it but could you explain in a little detail the on-demand vs. inventory debate? I’m guessing the latter can max-out and can be confirmed instantly?

    • Simon Lenoir

      It’s simple. Inventory based products have a limited number of seats (availabilities) VS on-demand products required a confirmation from the tour operator.

      • Kirill Sermyagin

        And on-demand products have great flexibility for both side and this exactly what we offer on for providers and for customers. And this way e-ticket issue could be solved easily also.

  14. Geert-Jan Brits

    Great article Alex.

    Another problem from a supplied standpoint is (might be?) the minimun required persons for an activity to go ahead. I’m sure I’ve seen this around.

    Isn’t this another of the reasons why suppliers require at least an 24-hour window between booking and experiencing the activity/tour? i.e: to be able to cancel the activity and give the people already booked a heads-up before showing up.

    Personally, I believe it’s bad marketing to cancel underbooked activities, but I guess it’s understandable.

    Anyone with more knowledge on the subject want to confirm/deny this being part of the problem?


    • Lindsay

      Hi Geert-Jan,

      I think that in some cases, you’re right – there are minimum numbers to be met, and cancellations happen when those aren’t met. Really disappointing (it happened to me in Panama City and we ended up on a terrible tour – far worse than the one we originally wanted).

      Urban Adventures is one of the exceptions in that all departures are guaranteed (provided at least one person has booked more than 48 hours out). Because of that, the adjustment was made to allow bookings on those tours to come in within the 48 hour period.


      • Ken Frohling

        HI Again All

        It is correct -some tours do require minimums. Things like sightseeing passes, hop on bus tours and often general sightseeing tours usually do not have this restriction. And, in fact, the vast majority of the Viator products do not have minimum requirements for departure.

        When we do find a product that has this restriction – we note it very clearly on our product details page. Can that overcome the traveler’s disappointment if the tour does not go? OF course not – but giving full disclosure up front helps set expectations.


    • Simon Lenoir


      It’s more than bad marketing to cancel an under-booked activities, or to be unable to accept last minute reservations: It’s losing customers and revenues. Hopefully a new generation of softwares are solving this problem very well.

      The problem can be related the minimum required persons, or the necessity to quickly allocate staffs, equipement, coaches etc… we call it resources.


      – Minimum participants: Block reservation for only 1 person. Most software have this feature and it’s bad for your business.

      – Minimum book-head time: allow you to block bookings within a certain period of time (24h, 48h, 1 week). This basic feature works well for tours and very small businesses. It doesn’t help you to increase your revenues, but might save some operational headache.

      – Booking modes: For each product, your tour operator software should allow you to choose from the following options: simple enquiry, on-demand, real-time, unlimited.

      – Booking modes workflow: One of Rezdy most advanced feature is the ability to switch from inventory to on-demand 24h prior to departure, or from on-demand to inventory if you have 4 persons confirmed, but still 8 seats available on your bus. It helps hundreds of our clients to increase their occupancy rates and revenues.

      – Resource dependant calendar: This advanced feature is the difference between an appointment/scheduling application that try to works for tour operators, and a specialised software like Rezdy. Resource dependant calendar allow you to manage your ressources and block bookings when all your seats are booked, or when all your instructors are busy. It allows you to maximise your revenues (can’t do more than 100% full), reduce the risk of customers disappointment and refunds, and streamline your operations (yes, full automation is possible).

      To conclude, resource dependant calendar, in addition to online upfront payment and booking mode flexibility are THE KILLER FEATURES all activity providers should have: 100% of your inventory can be booked, you are paid in advance, you have the resources allocated automagically to provide the services you sold.

      The technology is available, the implementation is intuitive, it’s low cost and give you time to do what you do best: running your tours!

      Welcome to a better world.

      You can see Rezdy in action here:

  15. Ken Frohling

    Thanks Alex for posting your piece today. Tnooz has been doing a great job of broadening the discourse for the tours and activities space.

    Back in the day (circa 1995 – pre-iPhone, pre i-Anything…), when everyone was trying to figure out how to sell flights and room nights online, the minds behind Viator were thinking – “but what about all the cool stuff you can do when you get there?” And there you have it.

    Today, we are getting closer to the dream of instant bookings than you might think thanks to determined suppliers, dedicated product teams and sound technical minds:

    • More than 80% of our partners accept e-vouchers. No printer, no paper, no problem.
    • More than 70% of our activities can be booked within 24 hours or less of local start time
    (>90% within 48 or less).

    In your hotel lobby, drinking coffee and wondering what to do? Chances are the Viator app will have some suggestions for cool stuff to do, bookable for the same day. We might know better than most just how fragmented the tours and activities sector is. We’ve helped convert small tour operators who had historically relied on paper ledgers and concierge referrals into businesses whose products have the opportunity to reach millions of potential customers a month. Without question there are still those types of old-school operators out there, as well as those who rely on the myriad vouchers and many who are completely automated. But it’s also that type of uber-localized and specialized operations – part of the “fragmentation” if you will – that makes our sector so exciting and unique.

    What’s at the core? Effectively harnessing even the most exotic and far-flung local expertise and presenting it to the traveler in a way they understand and trust, delivered via the channels they are comfortable with while continuing to innovate with options like in-destination bookings and e-vouchers. We certainly think of Viator as a partner within the sector that is offering solutions – providing suppliers with the tools and connectivity necessary to deliver what today’s traveler might want and need including the last minute availability and e-voucher functionality we mention above. – This isn’t a theoretical or something we hope consumers will use, it’s already happening: more than 50% of all our mobile bookings are made within 72 hours of travel date.

    While we can dream about a world with a common commercial standard (which undeniably would streamline the sector), the reality is that we have to deliver the goods. Successfully connecting the traveler with the tour, today, is the key.

    — Ken Frohling

    • Geert-Jan Brits

      Good to know we’re getting closer!

      “More than 50% of all our mobile bookings are made within 72 hours of travel date.”
      Any chance you could give us some (rough) numbers as to the percentage of mobile vs total bookings?


      • Ken Frohling

        We don’t break out what percentage of our bookings are mobile vs. online – rough or otherwise. But, I can tell you mobile bookings are meaningful and growing steadily and our apps have been very well received.

    • Simon Lenoir

      Thanks for sharing this interesting number Ken: “>90% of our activities can be booked within 48 hours”.

      I think we have to distinguish two types of activities, the “free sales” like Zoo or other attractions and the inventory based, for example whale watching, with limited availabilities.

      As most suppliers don’t have a Tour Operator Software offering real-time inventory management (disclaimer: I’m Rezdy CEO), I’m guessing that a very lower proportion of products with limited seats can be booked online within 48 hours?

    • Alex Kremer

      Thanks for the great comment and interesting stats, Ken. As I hinted in the piece, I was aware of the great efforts Viator and others had made in this area, and it’s awesome to hear that this is a priority. But the underlying issue of inventory/allocation management across distributors in the space remains right now, and will only get worse as the sector grows and gets its act together.

      On the tech side, some serious work remains. I’m staring at a 2D barcode on my boarding pass right now. Any airline’s scanners — the world over — can read it. No matter who sold me the ticket and no matter the commercials. There’s serious value to the traveler in that, and equal value to the airlines.

      Sometimes, being behind the times can save a sector several iterations of painful technology problems. I’m hopeful the existing generation of players can come together and solve the problem before it gets out of hand.

  16. Lindsay

    Good article – you’ve definitely identified the same consumer issues that we have, and we (Urban Adventures) are currently testing changes that are more consumer friendly.

    We still have a 48 hour booking close out, but only for tours that have no passengers already booked (it’s still a struggle to have services available just in case…). For tours with already 1 pax booked, they don’t have a 48 hour close out, but rather, in most destinations, 24 hour close out. We’re trialling a couple destinations (Melbourne, for one) with ‘book now, pay later’ options, so that pax can pay when they show up. We also have local phone numbers on the booking site so that people can call while in destination and potentially set something up with the local guys within that 48 hour window.

    We’ve also begun accepting vouchers shown on mobile (phones or tablets) as well as the traditional paper vouchers, as you’re right, most people don’t have access to printers while they travel (hey, I don’t even have one at home!). It’s very clear that many people book tours and activities when they’re already in destination, and this is something that we’re adapting to.

    It’s certainly an issue to focus on, and we’re pretty aware that we need to be more critical about our processes from a consumer standpoint, in terms of what they actually want (rather than what we think they want). It may take some time, but we’ve seen success in response to the changes we’ve made so far.

    Great to have this dialogue open, Alex.

  17. Simon Lenoir

    Hi Matt,

    What Alex is explaining is that vendors like the on you named have financial interests with the vouchers systems. Like a bank cheque, they get lost…

    The solution can only come from Independents technology providers.

  18. Kirill Sermyagin

    Hi Alex,

    In general you’ve describe really big problem for our market… I mean, it looks like a big problem. But we in Excursiopedia already solved it. The problem is not about electronic or paper voucher, it is more about how tours&activities providers work in general. Next week we will relaunch our web site to make it more clear and easy. Please check our update on middle of next week to see how all these issues can be easily solved 🙂 We also will present it on Dublin Web Summit next week and welcome to discuss it in person.

  19. Matt Morris

    This is quite a simple one to solve… aggregators like Viator need to impose a condition on the end supplier that they will simply not be listed in mobile platforms etc – unless they accept alternatives to paper vouchers.

    • Greg Solovyev

      Matt, restrictions have to come with alternatives. Suppliers are probably as happy to get rid of the paper tickets as everyone else. However, In order to do so, there needs to be a streamlined real time reservation system that connects suppliers with their distribution network.


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