On the web it always pays to stay ahead. Paul Nelson talks to this month’s Sm@rt Agent winner, Global Holidays, about grasping video years ahead of the others and the company’s return to the bedroom.
Global Holidays’ success has come from being one step ahead of the rest of the travel industry.
The agency began in the spare bedroom of redundant insurance salesman David Brice, who was selling flights to friends and neighbours.
He then started selling from Teletext before opening a high-street agency in Leeds in 1996.
“I’d been playing at being a travel agent and it had gone quite well,” he says.
Brice says the travel industry suited him down to the ground as he “didn’t want to have to buy any product upfront” while “selling travel also meant I didn’t have to have any space to store stock”.
He quickly realised the potential of the Internet and launched Globalholiday.co.uk in 1997 – the year before online travel really took off in the UK with the launches of Lastminute.com and Expedia.
Brice says he got into the travel industry with the Internet “always in the back of his mind”. And a chance cold call from a website designer led to the site being launched soon after the high-street agency.
“I was a bit of an Internet geek who was using it back in 1992/93 for non-commercial purposes,” Brice says. “When I got the call from the website
designer it was perfect timing and he helped me put together a site the agency could work with.”
Globalholidays.co.uk had a mere five pages and cost only £200 to launch. Today it has more than 1,200 pages.
“It wasn’t interactive but customers could e-mail enquires to the agency where the bookings were then made,” Brice explains.
Five years later Brice was again leading innovation in the online travel industry by embracing Web 2.0 – well before the term had even started to be banded around – with the use of destination videos.
In 2002, the traditional big four operators – Thomson, First Choice, MyTravel and Thomas Cook – were still deciding between the Internet and TV as the most viable distribution channel.
Brice’s forward thinking is further illustrated by comparison to some big name operators, which have just started loading hotel videos on to their sites this year – five years after Global Holidays started using videos.
“We were one of the first to use videos on the Internet,” Brice says.
“Now the likes of Thomson have jumped on the online video bandwagon. I hadn’t even heard of Web 2.0 when we started using videos but just knew it was the right way to go.”
Brice says he quickly realised that to sell holidays on the web the agency needed more than just a booking engine, but
also an array of content that could create customer loyalty by providing as much information on the destination as possible.
The site now has more than 1,000 videos uploaded but Brice claims he has around 10,000 videos that could be used.
“I just haven’t had the time to put them all online,” he admits.
Brice believes small independent agents are able to compete with the online giants as “the great thing about the videos is they are all free. Hotels and tourist boards give them to us for nothing”.
The site’s content – which also includes detailed travel guides and customer blogs – sees it punching above its weight with the search engines.
A Google search for ‘travel agents UK’ sees Global Holidays as the fifth natural listing. The site appears on the front page of the search alongside Expedia, Thomas Cook, Thomson and First Choice. The agency appears two places above the Co-op agency brand and previous Sm@rt Agent winner Travelcare.
Global Holidays’ success on the organic search listing is necessary as Brice has already conceded the agency can’t compete with the major players when it comes to pay-per-click advertising. The agency has recently pulled out of the PPC market as Brice says the price of the advertising is now too expensive.
“We used to spend a fortune every month on PPC advertising,” Brice says. “However, prices have rocketed recently so we have had to stop.”
Brice plans to continue to innovate and lead the major online players into the world of Web 2.0 with the launch of two new websites – accommodation-only site Room2stay.co.uk and Buildatrip.co.uk.
They will continue Brice’s philosophy of ‘state-of-the-art on-the-cheap’ with customers being navigated round the sites by an ‘artificial intelligence’ animated character.
The character will talk to customers as they enter the site, tell them about the site’s features and relay written information about the holidays they are searching for.
It also has the ability to answer typed questions from customers. “It’s the way I have always thought the web would go. When I first launched the videos on the site I called it ‘Travel TV’,” Brice says. “It’s much easier to listen than it is to read. The television will converge with the Internet.”
The character cost a mere $40 to purchase and $15 a month to use, illustrating that innovation can be done on the cheap.
“You do not have to be one of the big players to do all this,” Brice says.
The success of the website has led to Global Holidays moving off the high street and focusing on Internet distribution. The agency moved to a Leeds-based call centre in 2000, which employed 15 agents. However, this year it has embraced homeworking, saving the company £30,000 in rent a year.
“The web is so much more efficient,” Brice says. “People are able to go and do their own searches rather than rely on somebody else to do it for them.”
Brice proves you don’t need big budgets and well-known brands to sell travel over the Internet. Global Holidays, which now employs five homeworkers, is a thriving company having completed a full circle, once again being run from Brice’s spare bedroom.
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor:
There is a lot to admire about David Brice and his company Global Holidays, winner of the latest Travolution Sm@rt Agent award.
Brice has certainly succeeded in combining an entrepreneurial spirit with an eye for selecting the most appropriate use of technology to help his business.
Many of us have seen widely praised, supposedly business-transforming pieces of technology come and then disappear quickly.
Brice saw very early on how the Internet was going to be a powerfully visual medium in its own right, prompting him to launch destination videos years ahead of some of the other key players in the market, who were keeping themselves busy by launching TV stations.
To assemble a collection of 1,000 videos online in just five years is an impressive achievement for a company that isn’t YouTube.
Perhaps a more remarkable success story is how Brice has managed to work carefully behind the scenes to optimise the Global Holiday website to ensure it appears above the likes of Thomson in Google when users look for ‘travel agent UK’.
To accomplish this feat, and have the guile – or is that courage – to withdraw their pay-per-click advertising campaign, deserves an enormous amount of credit.
But the most striking part of the Global Holidays’ story, is that Brice has taken the agency model back to the bedroom, where he first started the business in 1996 – taking on the homeworking phenomenon at the same time as moving off the high street completely.
I applaud such brave efforts – he is a worthy winner of this award.
John Harding is sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com