TripAdvisor Q&A: The Future of Travel and the Social Web

TripAdvisor has been thinking about social technologies for a while now. Back in 2006, the Newton, MA-based Web company (NASDAQ: TRIP) rolled out a new social network, called Traveler Network, to help its users connect and share travel reviews with each other. The firm’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Kaufer, helped lead the project from beginning to end, even as it proved difficult to get consumers to sign up.

“It was a colossal failure,” says Adam Medros, TripAdvisor’s vice president of global product. And Kaufer owned up to it, saying the experience taught his team “a lot of things not to do.”

At least it failed quickly. In 2007, Facebook opened its platform for app developers, and TripAdvisor took advantage with its “Cities I’ve Visited” app, which lets users put pins in a map to show where they’ve gone, as well as share travel experiences with their Facebook friends. It was the start of a fruitful partnership between the companies; TripAdvisor has one of the most popular travel apps on the social network’s platform, and more recently it has built on that popularity to show users travel reviews from their Facebook friends (and friends of friends).

Now Facebook has just gone public, of course, and people are wondering what the ripple effects will be for social technologies and business models across various industries. Online travel is a sector we care about, especially in the Boston area where, besides TripAdvisor, we have companies like ITA Software (now part of Google), Kayak (reportedly getting ready for its own IPO), and Goby (now part of TeleNav), as well as upstarts like Hopper and WaySavvy. And seeing as TripAdvisor is one of the East Coast’s biggest consumer Web companies, period, it makes sense to check in with the 12-year-old company in our back yard.

While the Facebook IPO doesn’t directly affect TripAdvisor, it’s a watershed moment for the social Web and, as such, is a good excuse to ask questions about the future of social and online travel. “It’s been a very fun and exciting and transformative ride,” says Medros, who has worked at TripAdvisor since 2004, after getting his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Here are some highlights from my recent chat with Medros (see photo), edited for length and clarity:

Xconomy: What does Facebook’s IPO—and social tech more broadly—mean to TripAdvisor?

Adam Medros: It’s a huge validation of Facebook as a platform and the vision they have of making the Web more social. Travel is a big expense. It continues to be something where people are nervous about, is this hotel going to be great? We want to make it easier to plan that trip. What social does is it layers on top a wonderful amount of, not quite serendipity, but discovery of the hidden gems.

X: I’m glad you mention discovery, because I feel like a lot of websites are moving away from travel “search” and trying to do “discovery” instead—because a lot of times you don’t necessarily know what you’re searching for.

AM: We wrestle with this a little. People come to TripAdvisor with an idea of where they want to go, but within that city they want to know where to stay, where to eat, what to do. The next level above that is the inspiration level—where should they go? Social has potential to play a part in solving that, … Next Page »

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