Lee Hayhurst visited the offices of the holiday add-ons provider in Kent and found a business organised to move forward on a foundation of innovation
The site on which Holiday Extras has its headquarters today on the outskirts of Newingreen near Hythe has something of a heritage of innovation in travel.
It was here that, in the 1950’s, the Royal Oak Motel was built, reputedly the UK’s first motel developed by Graham Lyon Motels, whose owner was inspired by a trip to the US.
Situated on the A20 near Dover, the motel was promoted as being “specially sited to serve cross-Channel tourists using Dover and Folkstone or the airports of Lympne and Lydd”.
Each unit offered a private shower or bath, private garage, a telephone, radio, tea-making facilities and valet service. How innovative, you might not think.
Okay, so the ‘motor hotel’ concept of providing functional accommodation on major arterial roads targeted at the first generation of private car owners, doesn’t sound particularly innovative.
But in this fastmoving hyper-digital age it’s easy to dismiss advances taken by our recent ancestors labouring in an analogue world as unremarkable.
Innovation is relative to the time in which you live, and today Holiday Extras finds itself very much at the confluence of travel and tech as it forges a Silicon Valley ethos within the Kent countryside.
The Holiday Extras’ story starts in 1983 when entrepreneur Gerry Pack spied an opportunity to provide airport hotels to leisure travellers via travel agents.
Given the innovation theme, the firm’s original name, Apple Booking Company (ABC), is apt but should not be confused with another large tech firm with a similar name you’ve no doubt heard of.
Holiday Extras moved into the Royal Oak site in 1999, a decade after the motel closed, and is now a direct and trade supplier of multiple product lines including parking, short breaks and insurance.
In 2018, it went through a management buy-out that valued the firm at £100 million and placed 55% of equity into an employee trust meaning, if sold, they will get 12.7% of the value.
An earlier management buyout, in 2005, saw a second-generation Pack, Gerry’s son Matthew, a technology graduate, join initially with no job title but as web and marketing director from 2007.
In 2010, he was made group chief executive and now drives the firm’s digital ethos. And with Pack junior at the helm, Holiday Extras, like its motel predecessor, is again taking inspiration from the US.
Pack has spoken of Holiday Extras’ ambition to be the ‘Amazon of holiday extras’ and, as with many digital businesses, the kind of approach taken by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos offers a template.
But Holiday Extras is ploughing its own digital course under the leadership of deputy chief executive Simon Hagger, a former Travolution Rising Star award winner.
Running a truly digital business can largely be a function of intangible factors like how you structure and empower your teams, the technology you make available and reporting structure in place.
But at Holiday Extras’ HQ the digital strategy is manifest in the physical working environment it has created in its two buildings that reflect how its approach has evolved over the years.
The Holiday Extras ‘campus’ comprises of The Wave, the older and larger of the two buildings that was built at the beginning of the last decade and won a Kent County Council award for design.
Inside it very much reflects the thinking of the time; that modern workplaces needed to be as open plan as possible with no internal walls or offices separating the employed from the employee.
On the main floor contact centre agents organised into product and channel teams contribute to the busy-sounding atmosphere as they deal with either direct or trade clients on the phones.
The Wave does have quiet break-out areas and training rooms where staff can collaborate, take a break or join some of the many extra-curricular activities and meetings that happen regularly.
On the Wave’s main floor, a number of some small meeting pods, where staff can have one-to-ones with line managers or meet away from their desks, hints at an evolving approach to workspaces.
Next door, in The Reef, this is taken much further. Opened in 2018 by British athletics star Kriss Akabusi, this is the building that houses Holiday Extras’ tech team.
There’s no return to partitioned managerial offices and no-go areas, but the building has been designed specifically to encourage collaborative, flexible working across teams and disciplines.
While there are conventional open plan desk areas, the building has a range of individual rooms of varying capacity where multi-disciplinary teams, or ‘squads’, work on projects, or ‘missions’.
Previously, developers had been organised into ‘scrums’, a more conventional approach to agile software development.
But there ended up being so many of these smaller teams a decision was taken to create larger ‘squads’ with the right talent to focus development on a specific project.
Simon Wood, associate director of technology, said the technology team in Kent now incorporates approaching 90 engineers, up from just eight or nine 14 years ago.
The bulk are in Kent, but for the last three years the firm has also been working with a partner in Sofia, Bulgaria, where it has 17 engineers.
It has another partner in Lisbon which it uses to dial up developer capacity as and when it is required.
This scaling up is reflected in the output from the technology teams. “There are hundreds of updates deployed a week. Maybe more than 100 a day. It used to be two a day,” said Wood.
The Sofia team is treated “very much as an extension of its Kent business” and technology is provided that means remote working is as seamless as being physically present in the office.
This was put to the ultimate test when the ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap hit in February 2018 prompting Holiday Extras to close its HQ and all staff worked from home.
Wood said there are even times when IT staff choose to work separately in different parts of the building because using technology for remote working has become so natural it is preferred.
The drive to scale, at speed, and inculcate an approach that drives continuous improvement has also seen some significant changes in Holiday Extras technology architecture.
“We used to have a tech platform with a big monolithic PHP application that pretty much ran everything on the web,” said Wood. “Engineers were tripping over themselves.
“And it was high risk, because if you broke one thing you broke everything, so we wanted to break the whole thing into discreet services.”
Today, Holiday Extras has some 200 technology ‘microservices’ available to its developers which they can orchestrate as they create the new technologies required to complete their missions.
While it is imperative that new code is deployed to live sites constantly and at scale, there are safety measures in place to mitigate the impact of any errors or unforeseen outcomes.
The amount of traffic exposed to the new code is increased gradually as systems ‘listen’ for any issues that arise, and should it be required there is an automatic roll-back mechanism.
Technology and design lead Elliott Crush said, previously, code was deployed without much thought as to measuring its impact, but now a metric-driven approach has changed all that.
“Every engineer is tooled up and trained to deliver real time metrics for all the code they write. They are more close to the customer, creating metrics, graphs and signals tailored around key indicators.
“We now know immediately if a booking rate has taken a decline in a certain stream, and that has enabled us to work more quickly.
“You get really high levels of autonomy within the teams. It’s the inverse of top down direction so you have a team motivated by their own decision making.
“I have been in countless meetings with Matthew and he says just do what you need to do to get that done efficiently. It’s quite empowering.”
For this approach to running a technology-driven travel company to work, Holiday Extras needs to be able to attract the right talent in a sector in which there is a widely recognised skills shortage.
Wood said Holiday Extras has good record on staff retention rate, although he admits “turnover of staff is still a challenge”.
The company works with Kent University, bringing in computer science graduates who have to spend the third year of their four-year course in industry.
As a large employer with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million it is also liable for the new apprenticeship levy and so runs an apprenticeship scheme with learning provider Makers Academy.
This is bringing in entry level staff who are opting not to go to university or allowing existing staff to retrain and develop skills in areas in which the company is lacking.
“We have to be creative in how we attract, motivate and retain staff,” said Wood adding that the Kent lifestyle, away from the of hurly-burly of London, appeals to many experienced techies.
On top of this, Holiday Extras works hard to provide a fun working environment that encourages creativity, taking personal responsibility and a healthy work-life balance.
The campus has an appearance of a holiday camp with ‘cocktail’ signposting, a paddle tennis court and even paddle boarding in the grounds.
When the weather allows, staff are encouraged to make use of the grounds around the Wave and the Reef or even work outside, including at Matthew Pack’s beach house in Camber.
Every other Friday Project Lounge is an opportunity for engineering teams to work on one of their own projects and the firm runs regular hakathons with non-technical staff joining in.
These are not just an exercise in maintaining staff morale, but have seen genuine innovations like a holiday countdown app and ideas about how to use tech to assess the carbon footprint of trips.
Staff are inspired with regular visiting speakers giving TED-style talks – a recent one featured British Olympian Jack Green – and there’s an annual partners day and BBQ which over 100 attend.
Holiday Extras also runs an internal two-day conference with the staff setting the agenda. Mental wellbeing is a key focus and there are now 30 trained mental health first aiders in the business.
Wood says these extra-curricular activities allow staff to develop real expertise in a topic rather than going to large external conferences where the agenda is often biased towards the large sponsors.
“It encourages individuals to go into detail about a particular subject and they become experts,” he said. “That has a positive effect on driving people’s abilities.
“One of our values is being pioneering and Matthew does lead that from the top. It’s about being courageous, and all of this is encouraging that behaviour.
“Younger generations coming into Holiday Extras almost expect that, they certainly thrive from it.”
Wood added: “Our staff turnover, across the board, is below average but it’s a global market and we have challenges.
“But the right engineers are rewarded in the right way and they get to work on interesting problems, and they want to be here.”
There have been countless ‘manuals’ written for how firms in the digital technological age should run be according to an agile, test-and-learn, ethos.
But Holiday Extras has not simply taken a Silicon Valley cookie cutter approach, understanding that continual improvement only happens by empowering your own talent to adapt, learn and innovate.