Travo Start-Up Summit: Praise for Expedia and Airbnb, but Google criticised for COVID response

Travo Start-Up Summit: Praise for Expedia and Airbnb, but Google criticised for COVID response

Viator founder Rod Cuthbert tells delegates the search engine’s standing in travel has gone down

Expedia and Airbnb were praised for how they have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Google’s standing in the travel sector has gone down, according to Viator founder Rod Cuthbert.

Speaking at the Travolution Start-Up Summit last week, Cuthbert was asked which current leaders in the travel industry he most admired and were coping well in the current situation.

He said: “Expedia and Airbnb would be two examples of companies that, while they haven’t done perfectly and I challenge anybody to do perfectly in this environment,…have done really well.”

Cuthbert said in the current environment it is challenging to do right by all stakeholders including staff, end customers, supplier partners and shareholders.

“You’ve got a lot of people to keep happy, but I think both of those companies [Expedia and Airbnb] have done really well.”

Cuthbert added: “I would contrast that with Google’s travel division which extracts billions of dollars out of our industry each year and has had a completely tin ear to the fact that whilst they would have earned billions of dollars in revenue in Q1 the pandemic rendered it all useless.

“They didn’t give any of it back, and yet they’re absolutely in a position to do so. I think they’re standing as sort of good citizens has definitely gone down in my view.”

Cuthbert said one of the key aspects to the culture of Viator that he instigated was that it would always get back to people, even if they were not interested in doing business together.

“If somebody wanted to sell their products through us, for example, or wanted to partner with us as an affiliate and we just felt they were wholly inappropriate and we weren’t interested, we didn’t ignore them.

“We would write to them and we’d say thanks for your inquiry. And the reason for that was quite selfish and commercial was just I knew that today’s minnow can be tomorrow’s shark.

“Whether it was the company, or the individual, the person might turn up a year later at Expedia and you want to do business with them and if you blew them off 12 months ago then you’re in a bad position.

“So, that was an example of a leadership trait that I really pushed into the company’s approach. I don’t expected to find it in a lot of companies. It’s probably a little idiosyncratic.”

Cuthbert agreed with earlier speakers about the advantages of being open and honest with staff who will often be happy to help out when times are tough.

“I remember very well when 9/11 occurred and it became very clear that travel was going to go into a down cycle it could be quite significant.

“I immediately wrote to the team and said revenues are going be down they’re going to be down for a fairly long period, we’re going to have to cut headcount.

“I don’t know how many people, I don’t know how quickly we’re going to have to do it, but we’re going to have to do it, it’s just simple mathematics, it’s not personal.

“And immediately a number of people came to us and said, you know, I was thinking of leaving anyway to have a baby or to start another business or to do something else.

“It really helped that we had been open with them, so I very much endorsed that approach.”

Cuthbert also said start-ups benefit from being based in and among other start-up businesses in hubs where innovation can flourish and ideas exchanged.

“When you’re doing a start-up you have to make hundreds of decisions; hiring decisions, product decisions, software decisions. There’s all sorts of things that you’ve got to do.

“If you can bump into somebody at the watercooler or at the coffee shop or at Friday night drinks and discuss two or three of those things and save yourself tens of thousands of dollars or weeks and months of time then that’s a tremendous benefit.”