Big tech is winning using AI for destination experiences. The sightseeing sector needs to talk

October 18th, 2023

by Alex Bainbridge

Last week I went to the Arival conference in Orlando and I was surprised by the reaction to the content. Some tour operators were saying too much AI in the schedule. Well I have news for you, your upstream big tech partners are winning AI and you are not part of their plans.

Tomorrows experience economy doesn’t need urban tour operators in their view, in the same way that Uber ridehail worked with taxi drivers rather than taxi companies.

Big tech is here

  • Google (Waymo) now operating daytime experiences in the the high density tourism zone in North East San Francisco. This is the most significant AI news of the week, it has taken years to unlock North East San Francisco daytime….. now happened and Google was the company to do it
  • Amazon will be operating experiences in Las Vegas (via Zoox) before next years Arival (2024)
  • Cruise (GM / Honda / Microsoft) are in the arena and 2024 will be a big year for them in North America.

How did we end up in this sorry situation where some tour operators are not only not engaging in the AI related conference content but saying there is too much?

We have lost a generation of startup founders

My hypothesis is that we have lost a generation of startup founders. And founders historically were the best individuals to tell the tech story in a way that tour operators would engage with and then act.

But how did we lose a generation of founders? The pandemic is one cause but there is another structural aspect.

10-15 years ago, us founders all happily pitched at startup slots at conferences. The incumbents in the audience were interested in the problem (there are rarely new problems in travel) but had wildly different traditional solutions. The incumbents had no capability to execute on the new ideas they saw from startups so incumbents had to partner with startups, and partner they did.

The side effect of all this conference pitching back in the day is that founders were known to tour operators socially and as clients. Deals were done.

Now the environment has changed – larger incumbents are digital, and they buy or compete and just shut the startup down if the startup begins to look too threatening. Listen to Steve Hafner from Kayak describe how they think about it:

“We have plenty of time to course correct if we get it wrong. We pay a lot of attention in startup land on whats the latest greatest, a lot of these are companies that create features that we can easily copy and scale. As we see good ideas start to get traction, we pounce on it, we improve on it then we scale it.”

Yikes! So startups naturally put their defenses up, creating tech that is not easy for anyone to copy or even sometimes understand, or they become less willing to share their vision in public. This doesnt make it great to talk about on conference stages, and therefore founders are no longer known to tour operators.

Last week at Arival in Orlando all the AI founders were in the bar while all the rez tech and tour operators were in the restaurants at private events. A crazy separation of communities. AI founders are great people but we shouldn’t have been talking to each other every night(!)


We need all parts of the sightseeing sector to talk together like we used to.

We need to get a few startups beyond the point that Steve Hafner from Kayak (and others with that mindset) can take them out of the game.

We need to see more conferences understanding that just because a startup is throwing off defensive measures, doesn’t mean they can’t work with your attendee community. See beyond the defensive measures.

If we don’t get startups & tour operators collaborating again like we did in the past we are going to see big tech win this next (AI) round and there won’t be much we can do about it, individually or collectively.

ps – we now are operating 26 experiences using publicly available autonomous vehicles in 4 US cities. Which is 26 more than the entire incumbent tour bus industry combined. You want to talk about how you transition tour buses to AI, well its a little late in the US, but talk to me

pps – Also got this new AI tour guide capability which I think is pretty neat, if you have read this far, you can watch the video. No autonomous vehicles required for this tech so works globally. Also is just what local tour operators need 😉


Image: Bing AI / Dall-e-3

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