Sm@rt Agent Winner December 2007 – Holiday Discount Centre

Operating and marketing two websites has won Holiday Discount Centre this month’s Sm@rt Agent award. Ed Robertson talks to managing director Steve Campion.


For many businesses in the travel industry, having more than one website is a must. Not only does having several allow you to focus on numerous markets or sectors but they allow the owner to experiment in what is still a relatively new media.


Lessons learnt can then be incorporated in other sites and it also allows the owner to try new ideas without necessarily spoiling the core brand.


However, for Steve Campion, managing director of both Holidaydiscountcentre.co.uk and Ulookubook.com, the need for two sites is thanks to the fundamental issue of marketing costs.


He says: “We set up our first brand Holidaydiscountcentre.co.uk five years ago as a backup to the Holiday Discount Centre, which we launched on Teletext selling traditional short-haul beach summer holidays. We knew early on that we would need a web presence purely to advertise the business. The site was non-bookable and contained a number of different lead-in offers as well as the phone number of our call centre. When we designed it, the site initially had one purpose – to generate calls. Our agents would then convert those calls into sales.


“However, even though the site only generated around 5% of all our business initially and Teletext was the core business, we recognised the web would be the main media in the future and wanted to be prepared, even though we didn’t know how long it would be until this transition took place.”


A year after the site’s creation, Campion started marketing the site through pay-per-click advertising, picking up search terms such as ‘cheap holidays’ for as little as 15p per click.


However, Campion, who was managing director for Thomson’s Team Lincola before setting up Holiday Discount Centre, says the change in consumer-buying practices quickly called for a rethink of the business model. “The growth in web traffic and the migration of customers from media such as Teletext towards the web meant we had to focus our attention on the web,” he adds.


“We thought this growth would happen more gradually. If you look back five years I wouldn’t have envisaged the decline in Teletext to be as rapid as it was.


“It’s been driven by the migration of Teletext-based customers on to the web, while the traditional high-street customer, rather than going through Teletext on to the web, has bypassed Teletext entirely.”


The growth in the number of callers who had visited the site was not the only benefit from the consumer migration. Campion says: “We sell more holidays on the same amount of staff; the customers are calling us further down the booking process to make their booking or they can now book online after we introduced a dynamic packaging feature a year ago.”


However, as the web grew in popularity and profitability, the key marketing of the site through PPC became more expensive. Campion says broadly generic phrases that had cost 15p were now costing as much as 50p to 55p and were no longer profitable as a result.


Instead, he began building up a key word bank by sponsoring key phrases such as a specific destination, resort and even hotel names to ensure the travel agency was still appearing on the first page of any Google search results.


He adds: “The problem with PPC is it is an auction. Sometimes people are prepared to pay more for the traffic than they actually make out of the traffic. They are doing it purely to quote the market share they take off the back of it.


“If, like us, you have a volume-driven business, you’ve got to be on page one to be profitable, but the cost of a general term no longer allowed for that. It does depend on the conversion rate for the site. You can’t make money on 55p per click and I suspect the big boys don’t when they are paying for these search terms.”


While Campion tried to market Holidaydiscountcentre.co.uk offline, he discovered the brand’s name was too Internet-focused to be effectively marketed in such a way.


Instead a brand that sounded less generic and had a catchy name that would stand out in the consumer’s mind was needed, leading to the creation of Ulookubook.com a year ago.


Offering broadly similar product, it has proved to be far more versatile when marketed through traditional media including radio, television and the national press.


Campion says other sites have proved how effective it can be to market a website through traditional media, adding: “Expedia spends most of its advertising budget on traditional advertising, such as the television and radio, as do Lastminute.com and Thomson.”


While he is cagey about revealing visitor numbers or page impressions for either site, he said the move is paying off.


Campion says that while the travel agency has also done some search engine optimisation to drive consumers to both sites, he admits he is cautious about becoming over-reliant on the practice.


“We’ve got to get a balance between optimisation of search engines and giving the customer what they want and you can’t always be consistent between the two,” he says. “SEO is very text-based and customers don’t want to see a lot of text, they just want to book a holiday.”


As a new generation of younger users start driving the Internet to meet their own needs, Campion is also keeping an eye on emerging marketing trends to ensure they can be used to drive either brand, as and when they prove effective.


He says: “We’re now considering viral marketing and social networking sites as they’re going to have a big effect on the way they do business in the future. We’re not doing anything at the moment but it is something we’re going to keep an eye on.


“In two years’ time there’ll be further developments, the Internet is fast-moving we’ll be seeing new elements we haven’t even thought of now.”



From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor


Steve Campion’s strategy highlights a number of areas the modern travel agent should be considering in this increasingly chaotic marketplace.


A key one – which many people often overlook, opting instead for unusual or invented names – is the need to make the web address relevant to the market and tailor the marketing programmes effectively.


But as online marketing becomes more sophisticated and expensive, Campion needs to be ever mindful of the relativity of the cost of generating traffic to his sites – in fact, the days of 15p per click for viable traffic are a thing of the past.


Equally the use of Teletext as an effective media in this market has been steadily declining and is very expensive.


SEO is a relatively expensive activity and, as I said in the last issue, needs constant monitoring to ensure it delivers within budget otherwise it can run away like water through a colander.


This industry must always be mindful that a constant freshening of the marketing plan to address new and emerging trends is absolutely necessary.


In fact, viral marketing and social networking sites will become increasingly important platforms in the next 12 months, as Travolution has been suggesting for quite some time and more recently at the ABTA Travel Convention in Tenerife.


Nevertheless, Campion’s current dynamic packaging model is very well structured and delivers customers the product they are looking for with easy and effective navigation.


However, I believe it’s always worth taking a punt on a new and untried avenue –  simply because everything is up for grabs now.


John Harding is sales and sponsorship manager at Hotels4.com

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