Catherine "Cat" Seda

Thursday, December 11, 2008

VirtualTourist Interview

How did VirtualTourist, created by two travelers in 1999, become the colossal community it is today with over 1 million registered members? According to Giampiero Ambrosi, VT’s general manager, the key is to listen.

What is VirtualTourist?
VirtualTourist is a worldwide travel community where travelers and locals share travel advice and experiences. Among other things, we offer tips and reviews about everything from hotels to restaurants to nightlife, but aside from that we also have a real world community with active forums and offline meetings.

How many visits a month does your community have?
1 million registered members, 6 million unique users per month, 30 million page views per month, and 25 marriages (that we know of).

What are your community’s most popular features?
Our forums are hugely popular--85% of our forum questions are answered within 48 hours and each question receives an average of seven replies. We also monitor our forums very carefully, so unlike a lot of other forums, there’s no free-for-all arguing or “advertising” to wade through.

Our off-line meetings, which are entirely member-organized, are a big part of what makes us so popular. Sometimes the meetings are just a small group of people who get together for a day of sight-seeing and sometimes it’s a group of 200 who gather for an entire weekend. A lot of really hard work goes into them, and it’s something our members really look forward to.

How did you, and how do you today, grow your community?
It’s really the wealth of information on our site that grows our community. We also just use good old-fashioned customer service. We listen to what members have to say, use their suggestions, and do whatever we can to make their experience great.

How do you measure your community’s success?
Certainly we keep track of things like traffic and press mentions, but, although it sounds hokey, we really measure our success by things like member feedback. We’ve had people tell us that the site has changed their lives, that they were inspired to travel because of the site, or that they can’t imagine not being a member.

At what point did VirtualTourist become a successful business?
The business was started in 1999 with a lot of optimism and the dot-com bubble burst in March of 2000, so it was really a rough road. For a while we were running the business out of an apartment and surviving on coffee punch cards. It’s been profitable and successful for a long time and the future looks really bright. In July 2008, VirtualTourist was acquired by TripAdvisor.

How does VirtualTourist generate revenue?
Advertising is our main source of revenue, but that said, there’s a very clear line between editorial content and advertising. We don’t spare an advertiser bad reviews and we wouldn’t include a positive review just because someone is advertising with us.

Can you share a “sneak peek” at what you might do in 2009?
Aside from a whole new look, we’re going to make the site much more user-friendly, interesting, and above all, fun. Additionally, we plan to give our community more options to participate in sporting or charity events around the world. We had sort of a dry run this fall when we sponsored a VirtualTourist team in a motor race across the Caucasus Mountains and we’re already putting together a few more off-line events like that. We’re also in the planning stages of creating awards for some of our top contributors, which is something we’ve wanted to do for a while. All in all it should be a very exciting year.


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