Adventure specialist addictedtotravel.com was formed in 2006 after its three founders bucked the trend for consolidation to help smaller operators compete in the online arena. Nathan Midgley talks to one of the founders, Nick Anstead.
Back in 2002, First Choice bought specialist operator Exodus, creating an adventure and activity division that began buying up similar players.
It was here that addictedtotravel.com founders Nick Anstead, David Havard and Colin Richards were brought together in late 2005. By now, First Choice believed its adventure division to be the largest company of its kind in the world, but the three saw an opportunity in the way consolidation was reshaping the sector.
“After the First Choice acquisitions there were lots of smaller companies left without the resources to compete,” says Anstead. “Our idea was to create a site that would help them to promote themselves.”
With backgrounds that cover development, finance and tour operations – Nick spent 15 years with adventure operator Explore Worldwide – the three began to develop a business plan in 2006.
“We’d seen a gap in the market,” says Anstead. “We’d been looking at a lot of aggregation sites, and there were sites that were great for networking, talking, chatting, but less so for the commercial elements. We wanted to create an outlet for specialist operators.”
Their model blends country guides and community elements with related product from operators – about 90% of which are in-resort businesses. ATT provides an enquiry form, but plays no part in the booking. Revenue comes from partner fees and commission on sales.
All this has changed very little from inception to launch, partly because the team was able to bring its travel experience and contacts to bear on the development process. “We had a firm idea of what we wanted early on,” says Anstead. “We did a fair bit of modelling beforehand, research, chatting to friends in the industry, talking to operators and finding out their needs.”
The plan withstood the search for funding, which comes partly from Anstead and Richards themselves, plus investment from a “European business angel”.
Site development began in late 2006 and was done in-house, with look and feel outsourced to design consultancy Moodia.
“Early on we decided we would take it on board and build it in house, because David had the skills and it gave us greater flexibility. We looked at some test models, but to get what we wanted the cost of outsourcing was too high. Prior to going live there was six months of development.”
ATT launched in summer 2007, and the company embarked on an online and offline marketing campaign to build its user base. “We advertised in some of the key adventure magazines like Wanderlust for about nine months. We also had stands at the major destination shows, like the Holiday World Show in Ireland.”
Online, a pay-per-click campaign targeted the top 20% of ATT’s destinations. This was originally managed in-house, but the company is in the process of tying up a deal with an online marketing specialist. Nick also credits strong, natural SEO for bringing traffic to the site, pointing in particular to niche destination guides such as Mauritania and Sudan.
Today the site has around 6,000 active members – a figure Anstead is pleased with, pointing to the relatively small size of the adventure market. “Six thousand is above our expectations for the first year. We’re not looking at WAYN numbers. It’s a niche market. Around 100,000 users would be great for us.”
But, as is generally the case in the adventure sector, ATT is about yield, not volume. Anstead stresses the value of the site’s small user base: “It’s a loyal market – regular travellers and repeat bookers.”
The emphasis on discerning users means product quality is key. “The trick is picking the best operators,” Anstead admits. Although the team’s experience comes into play here, its goal of listing every country in the world (the site currently has around 80) and carrying 4,000 products means it occasionally has to start from scratch.
“All of the team brought in a wealth of contacts, so it’s normally not a problem to find operators for new destinations. But if it’s a place none of us has dealt with before, we go out there. We do a fair amount of vetting. We’ll visit operators and look around their offices, right down to checking the tyres on their vehicles.”
As the roster of countries grows, ATT will increasingly look to its community members to keep destination content fresh. Anstead explains how the balance currently works, and how it is changing: “We map out a destination, look at the places that are potentially interesting to travellers, then write about them, which is done in-house. Then we link those places to the products that we load. That becomes the showcase for each country.
“Eventually, users will be able to add places we’ve missed. We recently added the facility for users to upload their pictures and videos through YouTube – the plan is to suck that content into the guides.”
Operator partners could also take on some of the content burden in the future. Firstly, there are plans to open up the database through the site’s front end, allowing partners to queue up updates to their product listings, which the team would check and publish. This is “probably a six-month project,” says Anstead.
Secondly, ATT wants to use its partners’ specialist knowledge to add value. “We’re working on having a panel of travel experts, and bringing those experts into the community. That also offers the operators an opportunity for a soft upsell.”
Other developments in the pipeline include flight metasearch – Anstead says ATT is “talking to a number of companies” – and taking the company’s model and technology into new markets, with France currently in the frame. This could mean launching other sites, or licensing the platform to third parties.
“We’ve built the platform in-house, so we own the code,” says Anstead. “For France, we’d look at taking it on ourselves – we could cope with that in-house. Anything else, for example Russia, and we’d have to license it.”
In all my many years in this amazing and challenging business, it has always been open to pioneers to identify a gap and fill it or to see an opportunity to create a breath of fresh air and revitalise a vacuum.
The enterprising team at addictedtotravel has done just that. Where there was once a thriving and varied range of independent operators in the adventure and activity sector, following some of the major players being acquired by First Choice, it became difficult for the smaller players to assert their presence in the market place.
It was also evident that in the sector there was an increasing demand for the more esoteric, or fringe, activity product and there was a lack of awareness by the public as to where to go to satisfy their increasingly inquisitive search for ‘soft’ and real adventure. The gap in the market was definitely there but it needed an additional catalyst to help realise the dream.
The answer was to incorporate the burgeoning demand for social networking with the need to have easy access to additional and reliable information and present it in an easily navigable way. Combine that with the presentation of a wide and interesting range of adventure products and bingo, you have a business.
No doubt with the enterprise and vision shown by Nick, David and Colin, the realisation of 100,000 users is an easily achievable target and this will fuel the expansion of the website to the point where they too will be approached and the whole process will start over again.
There’s never been a better time to sit down and consider where the next gap in the market is – I’m already exercising my grey cells on this right now!