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Viator’s origin story – a tale of a prince and a girl from Tasmania

Rod Cuthbert, the founder of Viator, doesn’t claim to have had the idea for the tours and activities business.

It originally came from a contract with Sabre back in the late ’90s when the idea of selling tours and activities, via the travel agency community, appealed to the distribution company.

The deal fell away, but for Cuthbert it turned into something “tremendously good.”

Prior to building up the business and selling it to Tripadvisor for $200 million in 2014, there were some challenges to overcome, not least funding.

Sharing the story on Center Stage at Phocuswright Europe 2024 with Thayer Ventures co-founder and managing director Chris Hemmeter, Cuthbert said the company visited about 20 venture capitalists with no success.

Allan Thygesen, then of the Carlyle Group, was potentially looking to invest in travel at the time and Cuthbert seized on an opportunity to link his Tasmanian background to the publicity surrounding the Danish prince and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, also from Tasmania.

Cuthbert said he looked at Thygesen’s card and discerned he was Danish.

“I knew that all Danes are monarchists, even more than the Brits. They love the queen. And it had happened that Crown Prince Frederik had married a commoner from Tasmania, and I said, ‘You’re Danish. I’m Tasmanian, we should talk.’ And we talked for 20-30 minutes.”

He went on to acknowledge that the investment saved Viator, and the rest is history, as Cuthbert has gone on to work at and share his expertise with companies including Rome2Rio, Veltra and Tourism Tasmania.

Cuthbert and Hemmeter’s discussion went on to cover Google’s influence on the industry, how generative artificial intelligence might change travel search and regrets over selling Viator to Tripadvisor.

They also touched on overtourism with Cuthbert admitting that he didn’t have a lot of ideas apart from the need for industry collaboration.

“These are challenges that tourism boards, [destination management organizations], whatever, can’t solve on their own,” he said. “They need to solve them in collaboration with the industry. And I think the message that we as DMOs need to get out to the industry is, if we don’t collaborate on this together, we’ll lose the social license.” 

Watch the full discussion below.

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