The trip that changed the world

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 08 Jun 2013

TripAdvisor founder and chief executive Stephen Kaufer.

TripAdvisor founder Stephen Kaufer, who gives a voice to travellers and shows them another way to plan their holiday.

TRIPADVISOR is about to reach a new milestone – its 100-millionth review posted by a traveller. And to think the world’s largest travel website began not so auspiciously – as a holiday that might have gone awry.

TripAdvisor founder and chief executive Stephen Kaufer, 50, was planning a vacation to Mexico when he was stymied in his search for the right hotel.

This was in the late 1990s, and the American picked up brochures at a travel agency like everyone else, then did an extensive online search, before deciding to book an inexpensive hotel that appeared gorgeous.

He had seen the same perfect photos of that hotel everywhere online. Still, he dug a little more and chanced upon a personal blog with candid photos of rusted beach chairs and the unglamorous rearview of the property. He dropped the idea of booking the hotel.

“On the way back from our vacation, my wife said I should consider building a website that would help travellers find unbiased opinions about where to stay and what to do,” Kaufer tells SundayLife! over the telephone from the TripAdvisor headquarters in Newton, a suburb of Boston.

By February 2000, he had left his job as president of software vendor CDS and set up shop above a pizza parlour and drycleaner.

“It was at least a year before I could eat pizza again,’’ quips the Harvard computer science graduate.

Those were heady days, with a couple of computers and seven employees who trawled the Internet for travel content and sought a way to monetise their idea. In the fourth quarter of 2001, as the start-up was running out of money, the team hit upon the idea of a cost-per-click marketing model.

TripAdvisor makes money mainly by charging hoteliers and travel suppliers each time someone clicks on their site. Clicks accounted for 79% of revenue in the third quarter of 2012. In 2004, TripAdvisor was bought by online travel agency Expedia in 2004, before it spinned as an independent public company in 2011.

The data-loving company trots out the numbers: TripAdvisor is visited by 60 million visitors each month. And travellers have reviewed or offered opinions on more than 680,000 hotels, 250,000 attractions and a million restaurants – and counting.

In a little over a decade, the travel search engine has also revolutionised the way people travel, for better or for worse. Today, more than half (53%) of travellers say they will not book a hotel that lacks TripAdvisor reviews, according to a survey last year commissioned by global travel research firm PhoCusWright on behalf of TripAdvisor.

Because of such levels of influence, Kaufer is clear that his desire for unbiased, trustworthy reviews that first spurred TripAdvisor still has to be paramount.

“We are only successful as long as there are folks who believe in what’s being written on our site,’’ he says.

That travellers come back to TripAdvisor repeatedly means that what they read on the site matches their experience, he reasons. “I am super proud and super careful to preserve that trust,” he adds.

Kaufer also points out that these reviews are updated far more than guidebooks as they come in at “such incredible frequency”. So if a restaurant hires a hot new chef, a hotel is remodelled or a business improves its service after responding to online feedback, reviews tend to reflect such changes speedily.

He says: “It is a relative miracle – when we wake up, we find tens of thousands more reviews.”

To keep out fake content – think glowing reviews penned by hotel staff or their chums – it uses automated tools to flag dubious content. He says that for 13 years, the company has peered at electronic fingerprints left by bad guys.

He thinks the sheer magnitude of reviews contributes to a “wisdom of crowds” that holiday-makers can rely on. Then it is up to travellers to synthesise the best and worst reviews and decide what to do.

Augmenting the crowd-sourced opinion is the “wisdom of friends”. This is a newer feature that lets travellers tap advice from their Facebook friends. Kaufer, who has a nice-guy image, dispels the perception that reviews tend to be nasty. The same PhoCusWright survey showed that 74% of those polled write reviews because they wish to share a good experience.

“We tap the intrinsic desire to share good and bad experiences,” Kaufer says.

Even as the company expands in Asia – its regional headquarters was set up in Singapore in September 2010 – he says TripAdvisor ideals have not changed since Day One.

Kaufer, who lost his wife to cancer in 2005, remarried last year and now has a blended family of eight children, wants travellers to have a “voice”. He seeks transparency in the travel industry, plus a level playing field for travel businesses whatever their size.

Set to visit Singapore next month for the first time, he observes: “Asians tend to be more complimentary in their reviews.” Also, it seems harder to get Germans to pen reviews.

Still, he spies little variation overall in review trends when he glances across the world. And it is a world he has helped harmonise – possibly homogenise – with the popularity of TripAdvisor. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

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