Mann Link Travel, the first to scoop one of our Trustaccommodation.com-sponsored Sm@rt Agent awards, radically transformed its business model to utilise the Internet. Neal Baldwin spoke to managing director Brian Kelly to find out how the Isle of Man-based company succeeded.
Brian Kelly fears for the future of his fellow independent agents. The reason? “They spend too much time promoting their brands on the Internet,” he insists.
It might seem a strange thing to say given he’s being interviewed by Travolution, launched last year to explore all that’s happening in the online travel world.
But then the managing director of Mann Link Travel – the company Kelly founded as a gung-ho 21-year-old back in 1984 – has never been afraid to ignore conventional wisdom.
“Say, for example, you own Joe Bloggs Travel in Oldham,” he explains. “You can spend thousands developing a great website but you are wasting your time. You might be big in Oldham, but your name means nothing everywhere else. Why would people come to you to book?”
Instead, Kelly advocates a more local approach to the web borne out of his experience with his own online brand, Manxflights.com.
Established in 2001 as an offshoot to his traditional retail operation – three shops and a corporate travel department – the booking portal has now become the first place anybody on the Isle of Man looks when thinking about booking a holiday or travelling for business.
Much of this is down to the existing strength of the Mann Link brand. Promotion of the website has focused deliberately on the fact it is a local company meeting the needs of local people.
But that’s not where the real story lies – and what has won him the very first Travolution Sm@rt Agent award.
Last year Kelly founded a new company, the Online Regional Travel Group. He has spent the past six months buying domain names that, over time, will be the bedrock of a network of city-specific booking sites marketed solely at their immediate area.
“The first site began as an extension to the shops,” he admits. “When we started with Manxflights.com we were able to tap into some of the island’s patriotism. British Airways had just taken over Manx Airlines and people saw it as a threat to the island’s identity.”
The site’s simple user interface, and heavy local advertising, has helped it go from strength to strength over the past four years. It has been used to book more than 100,000 seats (technology comes via Telme.com’s ticketing software).
In addition, the site offers car hire with Holiday Autos, hotels from Superbreak, plus package deals and car parking.
“When we launched, almost all the bookings were by people leaving the island, but now 40% of the business is inbound,” says Kelly. “We’ve made the most of natural search by having a huge number of links in and out of the site to things such as local restaurants and tourist attractions. That gives us a good position on the search engines. We also get VFR traffic, expats returning to the island and people arriving for events such as the TT Races. We’ve had people from as far away as Australia book their travel with us.”
Kelly claims the seamless nature of the booking process on the Manxflights.com site has been a real benefit to its growth. Just like established travel giants Expedia and Ebookers, customers searching for trips in or out of the Isle of Man are presented with full details of their journey.
For example, a client travelling from Douglas to New York is shown both the regional and international flight sectors.
But what of the Online Regional Travel Group? In the past month Kelly has put the finishing touches to a relaunch of his first three region-specific portals – FlyLiverpool.co.uk, FlyManchester.co.uk and FlyBelfastCity.com – along with a separate site created solely for clients of a large accountancy firm with offices in London and on the Isle of Man.
Each of the city sites follows exactly the same model as its Manxflights parent, and is being promoted in the catchment area with a mix of print and radio advertising, PR campaigns, plus links from each regional airport’s own website. Kelly is making his first foray into the world of paid-search too, in an effort to find out what keywords are likely to work for future launches.
Kelly explains: “We intend to roll out a further 20 portals with the ‘Fly’ prefix this year, including the vast majority of cities with regional airports. FlyDerry.com, FlyBelfastInternational.com and FlyLuton.co.uk will come next because the business model is centred on providing travel products, whether inbound or outbound, to users of regional airports.
While the £25,000 development cost for each site might seem prohibitive, Kelly is convinced he has struck a goldmine. Manxflights.com turns over £1.8 million annually, with a profit margin of about 10%.
“I’ve set up everything with the help of a local web design firm, so others shouldn’t worry about investing in technology,” he says. “Big companies have already approached us about selling advertising on the sites and we’ve started to explore that area. It is very healthy additional revenue.
“If we can repeat this across the country, the potential is unlimited.”
Snapping up domain names
Think the best Internet domain names have already gone? Well, think again – be creative and there’s plenty of scope for innovation.
Kelly has paid between £10 and £35 for each of the 20-plus site names he plans to launch into the market over the next 12 months.
With an eye on long-term expansion, Kelly has also snapped up domain names with worldwide appeal. Included in the treasure chest are: Flyworldcup.co.uk, FlyMiami.co.uk, FlyLondon2012.co.uk and FlyLondonOlympics.co.uk.
”We are not a huge company and don’t have unlimited resources, but I found a mechanism that switched on a light in the Isle of Man. There’s no reason why it can’t work for others,” he says.
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor
In the world of travel it takes commitment and vision to launch a new publication, not to say a lot of hard work too. But with the launch of Travolution I have no doubt that the commitment and vision will pay off because it targets a new and specific sector of the industry that is destined to set the standard for future prosperity.
That’s why Trustaccommodation.com is delighted to be involved as a principal sponsor with Travolution in specifically recognising and rewarding innovation in the use of technology in all aspects of travel.
The recognition of Brian Kelly’s Mann Link Travel, based on the Isle of Man, is particularly appropriate and we applaud his vision and creativity in developing a product that revitalises and repositions his business.
Kelly has identified his strength in local knowledge and used it to empower his customers and give them an alternative means of contact. In fact, he seems to have broadened the scope of product previously sourced by his corporate contacts to improve his bottom line. That’s creating advantage out of adversity.
At Trustaccommodation.com we recognise the importance of the independent retail agent as fundamental to our continuing growth.
This has been reinforced following the positive announcement of the judicial review in favour of ABTA for agents to be able to get on with dynamic packaging without interference from the authorities keen to maintain the outmoded status quo in a changing market place.
I find it indefensible that the Government will not take notice of the Civil Aviation Authority’s recommendation that a new simple and economical method of consumer protection (payable by the consumer) is necessary. This decision surely reinforces the need to face the reality of the situation and review the present system.
The industry has come a long way since the Package Travel Regulations were framed in 1992 and the public’s buying habits have changed also.
I urge all agents to grasp the opportunity now before them and engage positively in the exciting future of dynamic packaging.
John Harding, sales and marketing director at Trustaccommodation.com