How TripAdvisor Changed My Life

TripAdvisor changed my life. In a few weeks, my tour business went from a side hustle to a successful business all thanks to TripAdvisor San Francisco.

At 23 years old, I began building a tour business from the ground-up. When I first started, I had no idea that creating a page linked to TripAdvisor San Francisco would be the key to my success.

I didn’t start off trying to be a big successful tour company. I was still traveling the globe six months out the year. At twenty-something, I thought it would be fun to start a tour business, pull up to youth hostels with a stack of flyers in my old “soccer mom” minivan.

Even if my tours were empty, I still had my bartending gig in the evening to make ends meet, in case this gamble didn’t pay off.

I believed that by showing travelers an authentic and off-the-beaten-path experience of my hometown, I could establish myself as a choice for tourists who wanted more than crowded corporate tours of San Francisco.

But after five years I was still bartending in between tours, still traveling during the slow season, and still struggling to make ends meet.

I had begun to wonder if it was worth keeping my one-man, one-vehicle tour company going.


tripadvisor san francisco, tripadvisor logo

That’s when I stumbled upon TripAdvisor.

In the early 2000s, TripAdvisor was still a fledgling site and relatively unknown. It wasn’t until around 2009 that the site had begun to gain traction, and the world would soon discover how TripAdvisor changed travel. As a last ditch effort to launch my business, I thought it might be worthwhile to fill out a TripAdvisor profile for my struggling tour company.

That day I, pulled up the TripAdvisor business login and created the Dylan’s TripAdvisor page. The beauty of using TripAdvisor was that it only required about five minutes of my time to fill in the details about my company and connect to TripAdvisor San Francisco California. Those five minutes that it took me to create my TripAdvisor page, gave me an opportunity to establish credibility, and more importantly, to start competing as a legitimate business.

That summer, Dylan’s was on TripAdvisor things to do in San Francisco, and my business finally took off, changing my life forever.

tripadvisor san francisco, Dylan's sign
Dylan’s success has all been from searching TripAdvisor San Francisco.

In those first years registered as a TripAdvisor business page, the site created an equal playing field in the tourism industry. One that was based largely on customer experience, TripAdvisor rating and word of mouth. Not one that was based off who could spend the most money on advertising.

Word spread about the authentic experience I was offering customers. From Dylan’s Tours TripAdvisor business listing, soon I was booking dozens of reservations each day. The business flourished.

In a few weeks, my company went from a struggling operation that ran half-full buses three days a week, to one of the top TripAdvisor things to do in San Francisco, that allowed us to run multiple tours every day of the week.

tripadvisor san francisco, Dylan's, bike the golden gate bridge
TripAdvisor allowed Dylan’s to grow and create a variety of fun San Francisco tours.

The days of the old “soccer mom” minivan were long gone, and the days of Dylan’s being a top San Francisco Tripadvisor tour were just beginning. With over a dozen vehicles ranging from minibusses to minivans to electric tuk-tuks and an ever-growing collection of e-bikes, we are now able to take hundreds of tourists on San Francisco tours every day.

Today, I employ over 15 local tour guides. Along with these passionate local guides I now have a dedicated, supportive staff who help manage and market our San Francisco tours and help make Dylan’s the top TripAdvisor San Francisco Tours.

Dylan's san francisco tripadvisor, tuk-tuk tour Chinatown San Francisco
Enjoy a Tuk-Tuk tour in Chinatown, San Francisco.

Almost a decade after TripAdvisor changed my life; it’s starting to change my life all over again, this time in a very different way.


TripAdvisor is not the equal playing field it once was

Our company, and more broadly the tour industry, now faces new challenges. Challenges that have ironically been brought on by recent TripAdvisor changes.

Throughout the past few years, TripAdvisor’s growth strategy has involved a handful of important acquisitions. None having more of an impact on small businesses in the tourism industry than their acquisition of Viator in 2014.

Viator logo


Viator is one of the number one OTA (Online Travel Agency). They are a one-stop shop that allows travelers and travel agents to book tours and other travel experiences for hundreds of places around the globe. This model hopes to make things easier for the traveler. But it has presented several difficulties for small businesses who try to provide local, authentic experiences to their customers.

First, when TripAdvisor integrated Viator into their website, they did so in a way that disguises which company the consumer is purchasing their tour from.

A majority of customers I have asked do not realize they are booking through Viator and not directly from us. Which means they never get a chance to use our promo codes like, BOOKDIRECT, for 10% off most tours.

This challenge is compounded by the commission that TripAdvisor takes for each tour booked through the TripAdvisor/Viator website. This, of course, takes away from the bottom line of all companies but can be especially difficult on smaller businesses.

Second, TripAdvisor changes since adding Viator have established a “pay to play” model for businesses using their booking services.

This means the more commission a company is willing to pay, the better placement their tours will receive. This model makes it difficult for small businesses to compete with major tour operators since larger companies tend to have much heftier advertising and marketing budgets.

Finally, TripAdvisor has begun to spend vast sums of money on Google Ads. So when travelers search Google for small tour operators, they are typically driven to TripAdvisor rather that each company’s website.

TripAdvisor Changes, business paper
The TripAdvisor changes have made it difficult for small business to continue to succeed.

For small businesses, this new paradigm will require new ways of thinking and acting.

Tour operators must now figure out how to navigate in a world where we still appreciate TripAdvisor for all of the notoriety it can bring to our businesses. While at the same time finding ways these recent TripAdvisor changes don’t continue to chip away at our financial viability.

I must figure out how I can continue to utilize TripAdvisor to drive word-of-mouth. While also getting the word out to customers that TripAdvisor is no longer an unbiased review site.

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