C&B Maddocks Travel Consultants is the fifth winner of our Sm@rt Agent award. Paul Nelson talks to owner Colin Maddocks about his current strategy and future plans.
Independent high-street agents have long been advised to get a web presence or specialise to survive. However, they might be better advised to follow husband and wife team Colin and Barbara Maddocks and go solely online.
The former owners of three-shop Liverpool agency Poseidon Travel now run a string of specialist sites from their Formby home in Merseyside.
The Future Travel homeworking team have seen their business take off since deciding to launch a portfolio of specialist and niche sites four years ago.
Turnover for C&B Maddocks Travel Consultants has risen six-fold during its eight years, with 70% of trade coming from its country or resort-specific sites, which include Goaholidays4u.co.uk, Egyptholidays4u.co.uk, Caribbeanholidays4u.co.uk, Nilecruises4u.co.uk and Cuba-Cuba-Cuba.co.uk. The company even runs a mini call centre, employing two agents with high-street selling experience.
Colin Maddocks says the secret of its success is spotting big ticket, high-value destinations with tourism potential. A website, he argues, doesn’t cost much to set up and can run into profit easily with cost-effective search engine optimisation and pay-per-click marketing campaigns.
The information-rich sites, which include videos and in-depth content, are backed up and linked by offers site Instantholidays.co.uk, question and answer site Holidayandtravelforums.com and blog site Virtualtravelcast.com.
Maddocks believes the firm’s travel portfolio could eventually increase up to 15 and 30 sites, with Kenya and Dubai sites already in development.
He admits that the portfolio needs breadth and depth in its product range to ward against a natural disaster or political crisis ruining the overall business.
“My biggest fear is an event wiping out the business in one destination, for example terrorism affecting the Nile cruise site, which is one of our most popular,” he says. “This is why we develop new sites so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.”
The Maddocks sold their high-street business to Pickford Travel [now Going Places] in the mid-1980s. Maddocks couldn’t see a future on the high street due to the rising discount culture of the industry. The final straw came when a rival agency regularly attempted to sabotage Poseidon Travel.
At one stage Maddocks was forced to guard his retail estate agency overnight before key brochure launch dates to stop a competitor glueing his agency’s doors shut. The experience led them to leave the industry with both deciding to teach at Liverpool Community College.
Following 10 years of teaching the next generation of travel professionals, Colin and Barbara both took voluntary redundancy and jumped at the chance to take part in the emerging homeworking sector with new company Future Travel.
“There was no way we could go back to the high street. Homeworking had just started with Future Travel and Travel Counsellors, and we’d always dreamt of working from home.”
As a self-confessed technology freak Maddocks was an early user of the pre-commercialised Internet. However, at the time he didn’t see the potential of the web for selling travel.
After four years of running a Teletext-based business they decided to test the power of the Internet and launched travel deals website Instantholidays.co.uk.
Following the site’s success the Internet became the business’s only distribution tool and specialisation became a key strategy.
C&B Maddocks Travel Consultants has grown predominantly by some canny search engine optimisation and pay-per-click marketing. Maddocks operates a two-tier PPC marketing strategy that sees the firm paying for high search places to key terms when launching a new site. After a couple of weeks the PPC budget is reduced with the focus on cheaper ‘long tail’ search terms.
“When launching we will pay for the number one position on Google. Nobody wants to be paying £1 a click through, but it’s a good way to see if the interest is there,” Maddocks explains.
“Then we move more specific terms such as ‘Goa holiday deals from Manchester’. They are cheaper than the shorter generic terms and people who use long tail search terms are far more serious and ready to purchase.”
The SEO strategy involves continually linking the portfolio of sites – as search engines pick it up when sites have lots of links to other products – as well as an array of information and content.
The destination sites contain a raft of features including downloadable e-guides, videos and information covering currency, weather, sightseeing, details about the culture and the people as well as passport and visa requirements.
“I’m keen to do more video,” he says. “In many ways the more amateurish the better as people would be more likely to believe that than a polished one.”
Owner Lee Harrison won the award as the blog – Selectworld.travel – led to visitor numbers doubling and bookings increasing by a massive 80%.
“I am now blogging every day,” Maddocks says. He also plans to take it one stage further by moving into podcasts.
The Maddocks have “mixed feelings” about introducing online bookings to their sites as customers still want the reassurance of an agent when booking high-value niche holidays.
Specialisation on the web may be a prosperous business model but Maddocks still believes overall success cannot be achieved without the knowledge, experience and sales technique of highly trained agents.
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor:
Congratulations to Colin and Barbara Maddocks, the latest winners of the Sm@rt Agent award. Reading through the article, I was struck by the detailed and committed application of the techniques used to bring the concept to life and found myself ticking all the boxes!
Their strategy highlights exactly what you need to do to make niche marketing a success. Careful monitoring of pay per click and search engine optimisation strategies, coupled with video coverage to give confidence through third-party endorsement, is a necessity. The next move to set up a blog is a natural extension of this philosophy and guarantees them increased visits by building awareness of up-to-date content that potential clients will rely on.
Interesting, too, that they generate real buying desire through the website but fulfil the booking through their call centre. The website answers most questions with authority and allows them to concentrate on building on the confidence generated to effect a high call conversion.
Important too to build a varied portfolio across many products, destinations and holiday types to avoid the pitfalls of local disasters affecting the total business plan.
In previous columns, I have highlighted the need for high-street retailers to react to the opportunities presented by the Internet, and the Maddocks have taken this one step further to build a lead for themselves.
I liked the comment on the competitor who glued the locks – having worked in Liverpool for some years and driven to the office through Walton, I can assure readers that this is true – security takes on a different meaning on Merseyside.
The value of the Sm@rt Agent feature in allowing enterprising agents to benefit from ideas and experiences of other like minded entrepreneurs is impossible to assess. I have been truly impressed by the diversity of marketing skills that abound in maintaining the leadership of the independent retail travel agent in website development.
I look forward to the next issue to learn of other tactics in the ever changing and challenging routes to market.
John Harding is sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com