A well-planned strategy built on solid relationships has won Stewart Travel the Sm@rt Agent award for October 2007. Ed Robertson talks to managing director Willie Stewart.
The growth of the Internet has been heralded as one of the key drivers behind the shrinking of the modern world.
As communications become virtually immediate, so the outsourcing of jobs, such as building a website, has regularly gone to the lowest bidder, regardless of their location.
However, for Scotland-based Stewart Travel owner and managing director Willie Stewart, having made the decision that the agent must have a strong presence online, the need to be geographically close to those providing the technology was paramount.
He says: “I always try to build business on the back of relationships. You want to know how each other can help breed success and through building up a relationship, which is easier when you are close to one another, you can see how you can make more money together.
“It is people who sell to people and that’s what’s important. You’ve got to know your accountant, your bank manager and your technology company. They are equally important, and you have to impress on them how important it is to you and make them realise you’re relying on them to deliver.
“You also want to be able to find them quickly if the technology’s not working. In this business you need every pound you’ve got, and the technology firm has to understand its importance and what you’re going through if it’s not working.”
Stewart says when he decided to relaunch the agency’s key website, Stewarttravel.co.uk, for the second time in 2003, he chose Traveltek, which was based just 25 miles away.
He adds: “We had been involved with Traveltek before as it had been doing our IT, although it had never done a website.”
Despite this seeming lack of experience, Stewart was confident the company would be able to meet the agency’s needs, thanks to its employees’ understanding of the travel trade.
Stewart first launched the site in 1997, when he had begun to notice the emergence of online retailers such as Amazon, and thought the speed, fluidity and global access that it offered would be ideally suited for the travel industry’s needs.
Initially, Stewarttravel.co.uk had been designed as an online advert and was fundamentally static.
However, it proved the worth of the web to Stewart, who then took the opportunity in 2000 to upgrade the site and relaunch it complete with more destination-based details and information, as well as further advertising the Stewart Travel shops and business.
Then in the early summer of 2003 Stewart overhauled the site once more – this time realising its true potential by making the site bookable.
Despite having originally planned to spend three months analysing how best to develop the site, this quickly became a year-long process in order to ensure the site would meet the business’s needs, while new ideas to be explored kept on cropping up.
He adds he had factored 25% extra into the budget for the website’s development, which has now cost a five-figure sum, meaning the additional time spent didn’t become a financial issue.
The new, bookable site focused on search engine optimisation as a means to push the agency’s long-established brand to new customers.
He added: “It was very important to try to make our web pages look as if they’re adverts in the Scottish dailies; our adverts are clean – ones that people want to look at. This ensures our products are read about, too.”
However, Stewart faced the perennial problem of how best to gather as much customer information as possible without appearing intrusive. While he initially considered making users provide some basic information, he finally decided to only ask for the necessary details once someone made a booking.
He added a number of competitions, with prizes including free flights and a weekend break in London. These were planned to coincide with the relaunch and would also require entrants to register their details.
In the end, the bookable site was relaunched in the early summer of 2004, although it is still undergoing a number of upgrades.
The latest of these will allow customers to dynamically package their own cruises, including staying additional days in port before or after the cruise.
While he’s not releasing any specific details regarding the site’s figures – page impressions, revenues or sales – Stewart does admit that cruise was a natural target for such online innovations.
He says: “Cruising is one of the most open markets and cruisers are often very comfortable travellers.
“They want to do a lot of tailor-made and they can’t get that in brochures. So, we do it – we’ve got the whole product and our cruise customers are confident enough to book online.”
While Stewart won’t reveal how much is spent on marketing the site, alongside SEO, a lot of traffic is driven via his 10 other specialist sites, which offer everything from honeymoons to horse-racing breaks.
All the sites are cross-branded, allowing web surfers to click through to each of them according to their needs. In the future, any deal placed on one site, which is pertinent to another, will be automatically posted on that site too.
While Stewart adds the site was created to secure more of the agency’s bookings, so freeing up some of his staff’s time, it hasn’t worked out that way.
He says: “There is still an awful lot of people who won’t book online.
“We’ve had lots of business as a result of the website, but with customers ultimately wanting to fulfil the booking over the phone.”
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor
Willie Stewart’s innovative approach to his business is legendary, and creative use of technology has always been at the forefront of his innovation.
I was struck by his reference to the suggestion you need to create and establish a meaningful relationship with your technology company in the same way as you establish a relationship with your bank manager or your accountant.
These days it is probably more important that the relationship with your technology partner is nurtured above everything else, as without the understanding of what actually drives the business money, resources and revenue can quickly be lost.
It is also safe to say that you need to keep on top of CPC and SEO contracts and costs as they have a tendency to run away from you as soon as you take your eye off the ball. Clicks mean nothing unless there is a realistic conversion and it takes a lot of research to ensure that the right vehicle is being used to generate demand that is translated into bookings.
At Hotels4u.com, we are constantly investigating CPC ratios to ensure we get our technology partners to maximise the conversion for our spend. This is new-age marketing. It is my belief that no one company has yet achieved sufficient experience to assume ‘expert’ status in this aspect of the industry and everyone is on a steep learning curve. I have always lived by the maxim that if something looks either ‘odd’ or too cheap, then it probably is.
Regular meetings to review and challenge trends with your technology provider are vital to retain a hold on the budget and check the viability of distribution channels. In most cases it is a learning curve for both you and your technology company. Any company that is not prepared to listen and offer alternative avenues should be questioned on their motives!
And then, of course, there is the fact that some people like to speak to a human voice before buying, but a skilfully structured website can usually help with the obvious questions, freeing up the staff to get on with the important job of confirming the booking.
Stewart Travel is asking the right questions and managing its expectations to be successful in its quest to provide online accessibility for the prospective traveller, widen its appeal and increase its market share.
John Harding is sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com