If you work in travel, chances are you're not having the time of your life. Whether you're a hotelier, an OTA, a metasearch, or a web agency, I doubt you'll remember 2020 as a year worth exulting about. That being said, some companies were already struggling before this pandemic hit, and, for them, the virus simply sped up the inevitable.
Now, I took a personal oath NOT to make any prevision on what a post-coronavirus industry could/should/would look like and, if you want to know why I don't crave to play this nonsense fortune-telling game, you can read my motivations here. Still, I do have a feeling that, when we'll regain some of our mental clarity (and stop even considering shooting up disinfectants like some kind of germophobic character from a Danny Boyle novel), we'll be able to see the big picture.
We're on this apocalyptic thing together, true; yet, some companies will have it worse than others. And, in my humble opinion, TripAdvisor is amongst them.
The following article is the result of a conversation I had with three different sources (that for obvious reasons, asked to remain anonymous), part of the unlucky 900 that were forced to leave the company last week, so this is entirely off the record, unofficial, and not confirmed by anyone in TripAdvisor. You can read the (justified) resentments on the words of the interviewees, and I had to tone their statements down on more than one occasion. Yet, if confirmed, it does cast a dim light on the future of the company, maybe even more nebulous than we thought.
So, enjoy the read, consider the emotional burden of the interviewees and, as customary, don't shoot the messenger.
THE JOB CUTS
The conversations started with the obvious topic of the recent layoffs. The impression I had from the interviewees is that they felt the whole operation was more by design than by chance. "It is a deliberate action," one said, "cutting so many jobs would have required at least two-three years,while everything happened in just a few weeks."
When asked about the real numbers of layoffs, they implied that the actual figure could be even higher: "We were summoned in an emergency call, and we were given the usual rap: the company is financially solid, we only have to cut expenses for a few months, blah blah. I mean, we were already not traveling anyway, so it's not like we were having dinner with clients over Skype, so no biggie. But after a week, here's another emergency call, saying that we entered what they call phase two, slightly worse than phase I, but still okay-ish. We were basically taking advantage of some government subsidy programs for Europe and cut some sales positions at The Fork division. Flash-forward one week, and here it is: phase III (meaning: the recent 900 employees layoffs, N/A)."
While I can humanly understand where this resentment is coming from (don't forget that these people left their job almost overnight), if accurate, it would be arduous for the company to justify going from "Hey, let's just cut some expenses, and we're gonna be fine" to firing 1/4 of the company in the span of just a few weeks. But I digress.
I then moved to the topic of the infamous Kaufer's internal memo, and how virtually all the major travel blogs published it in its entirety. The "deep throat" source of this breach was something that always bugged me but, almost unanimously, they made me understand that it was likely the company itself that handed the memo to the journalists.
"The worst aspect," one said, "is that some of the things in that memo can easily be taken out of context, like when it refers to shutting down the Boston office. On paper, this looks like a major cut, as we're closely associated with Boston, but I've personally been in that office many times. It's basically a basement with one engineer working by himself. It's like closing a home-office position, really."
Another one was even more categoric: "I think the message here was: come and buy us. We cut down all redundancies, closed big offices, fired most of our employees. We're cheap to buy now. This is the message we, well... They wanted to spread by sharing the memo. That does not mean that cuts were light, we are the evidence, and offices such as the one in Madrid have been decimated, probably because it is effortless to fire somebody in Spain rather than in other Countries. But it was not great to see that memo on every single blog. It was harsh. It still is."
ON GOOGLE, TRIVAGO, AND OLLIE
When asked if the cuts were only at C-level, they answered that no, the layoffs involved pretty much every department. According to them, however, mostly Heads of Sales were fired, and, in some cases, Directors were downgraded to HoS.
If you're familiar with tech companies, this is really nothing new: most of them are pretty casual with firing underperforming execs, it's standard practice, just look at Expedia. Anyway, what always struck me as odd is that, over the years, TripAdvisor insisted on hiring former Googlers. If you think about it, that's a paradox: you're a company trying to increase its traffic, yet you hire from a company that never really faced that issue. I, therefore, openly addressed the elephant in the room.
"You know the funny part?" one asked, "back in 2016, when it was clear that Google was becoming more aggressive in the travel space, our main concern was Trivago. We monitored every move Trivago was making, both in terms of algorithm changes and traffic volume. And advertising, of course. Remember that Ollie commercial? If it seems derivative to you is because it is..." I nodded. "The main idea behind that was: let's rip the Trivago guy commercial off but, instead of having Tim Williams talking about the company, let's put the owl Mascotte on it. Our marketing department does not seem to like taking risks. You can see it happening again now: we basically shut down any form of communication with the industry".
ON REVENUE STREAMS
Based on the data I have and all the reports out there, the metasearch market share of TripAdvisor dropped dramatically over the last 15 months, and I don't personally see other viable revenue streams for the company the moment. So I was curious to know if, in their opinion, TripAdvisor could live off of the media manager platform alone, especially now. When there's volume, in fact, display ads are a pretty good source of revenue, but, after the COVID-19 pandemic started, it is safe to assume that volume dropped quite dramatically. In moments like this, a subscription model would have been more helpful in terms of generating cash-flow, yet, according to the interviewees, the Business Advantage department was heavily cut as well.
"This is so TripAdvisor," one said: "We tend to focus 100% on one thing and forget about all the rest. First was the Instant Booking' disaster, then the social-à-la-Facebook approach, and now this obsession with display. It's history repeating itself: something works, so we cut jobs there, as we're so stubborn that we think that if it does work is not thanks to the hard-working people in the department, but despite them. We have a brand recognition egomaniac issue, and this comes up from the top. I mean the top of the top. And around the top's top, there are only yes-men."
"The best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise", I said, quoting author James Surowiecki, and one of the interviewers smiles: "That's like the TripAdvisor anti-mantra. Collective decisions are kryptonite around here…"
ON A POSSIBLE ACQUISITION
The idea I am slowly getting at is that, at least according to them, TripAdvisor is aiming to be perceived by the industry as a company with focus. An agile company, almost a startup: fewer employees, fewer products. So I dropped the acquisition bomb question openly.
"Last year," one said, "we entered a joint venture in China with a pretty big company, but we had so many names over the years that I wouldn't bet on it... Not sure if this time will be different, but I think we'll know this pretty soon. I doubt the company can go on for more than 6-9 months if things do not change. The only thing that makes me reflect is that APAC offices have not been as severely slashed as the ones in the west. Not sure if there's a correlation, but it makes me think."
The question in my mind remains if the most recent TripAdvisor decisions were planned as part of a bigger scheme, or if the company is stubbornly betting on a dead horse, so I insisted, and the answers I've had tend to confirm the latter. "We're so afraid of Google today that we're focusing on the only product we have that is not Google-dependent, and that's display," one said. "But we used to be scared of Trivago as well, that's why we entered the meta space, and we were scared of Facebook, that's why we became some hybrid social network. Do you see my point? There's no direction. If you want to describe TripAdvisor in one word, that would be it: a follower".
I'd be lying if I told you this was an easy interview, because it was not. Far from it. I had to leave a lot of the speculations out of this piece, enough to write two, maybe three more articles. Some of the claims I omitted were jaw-dropping, but I felt not comfortable putting them here. They stay in my archive, though, and it will be intriguing to observe if they'll become a reality anytime soon. To make the interview more uncomfortable, moreover, was the fact that I could feel the emotional strain during the whole duration of the call, and that's a bad feeling to have while interviewing someone, as it clouds your judgment and puts things out of focus.
What all of the three interviewees hinted, however, is that, in the next few months, it will become apparent what TripAdvisor really is but, more importantly, what TripAdvisor is not. According to them, the company we came to know and love (or hate, depending on where you stand on the subject) over the years won't see the light of 2021, and the reasons may have little to do with COVID-19.
While I was hanging up, one of the interviewees thanked me for the opportunity to speak up but wanted to salute me this pearl of wisdom: "A few months ago, a colleague and personal friend of mine told me: love your wife, love your kids, but don't love this company. I didn't listen. Today I am still married. I still have my kids, but now I am out of job…"
And, whatever your feelings towards TripAdvisor are, if you have a heart, this is always a piece of bad news because, as John Donne wrote, we're all involved in Mankind, and whenever the bell tolls, it does for all of us.