Sunmaster, the second company to win one of our Sm@rt Agent awards, launched 14 years ago – but has used the Internet throughout in order to expand. Lucia Cockroft speaks to managing director Adrian Walton.
When Adrian Walton redesigned his last-minute holiday site, Sunmaster.co.uk, in 2002 he was acting on the premise that a clean, simple design will score points with busy users.
His reasoning makes business sense: earlier this month, Google, one of the web’s plainest sites, was voted Britain’s favourite online brand by 1,400 consumers surveyed by the Superbrands Organisation.
For Walton, managing director of Bradford-based Sunmaster, the redesign marked a significant change; the initial version, launched in the mid 1990s, was modelled on the busier feel of Amazon.co.uk.
Walton’s rationale was clear at the time: “I read that people’s patience in all aspects of life was reducing. I wanted them to get down to the business of finding a holiday as quickly as possible.”
There’s no ambiguity about moving around Sunmaster.co.uk – in the space of six option boxes clients seeking a last-minute deal specify where they want to travel and how long for.
Online booking is not an option yet (though it’s on the cards, Walton says) – clients use the site to see what’s on offer before ringing the call centre.
The business model works by operators selling unsold holiday deals through Sunmaster – and giving the company a good rate to clear it on their behalf. It works to high margins, with a no-discounts policy. Availability is gathered from Sunmaster’s partner tour operators at least once a day.
It’s a straightforward concept, but one that’s reaped considerable rewards. When Sunmaster began life as a telephone-only travel agent business in 1992, Walton ran the company as a one-man band, operating from his Bradford home. In his first full year the business turned over £300,000.
Fourteen years later, sales have soared to £14 million; 25 staff – none of whom are paid under £20,000 a year – are employed in a 2,000sq ft call centre; and Sunmaster is now part of the Global Travel Group after it was snapped up in a multi-million pound deal last year.
Sunmaster has not always been a web business. In the almost-forgotten pre-Internet days of 1992, Walton’s idea was to form a phone-based company focusing on selling an accurate holiday quote, fast.
He left his job selling time-share, came back to the UK and settled into his basement at home with no financial backing but an agreement with flight business Avro and The Flight Company to sell their product.
Business grew steadily and within a couple of years Sunmaster had moved into an office in Bradford. Walton says the web part of the business took off almost by accident: it soon became clear the pages relating to car parking at airports were scoring highly on the Altavista.com search engine. The parking pages then became a model to build general travel content that would generate good search engine rankings. He adds: “I realised the way Altavista worked was simple – the more keywords you had, the better ranking you were able to get. I knew I could make money easily”.
The year 2002 marked a change in strategy: the busy design modelled on Amazon was replaced with the simple format still live today and Walton moved away from avenues such as Teletext, redirecting all advertising online.
Despite the risks involved, Walton says reliance on search engines carries dangers of its own. “Search engines are independent businesses with their own agenda”, he says. “If Google started a travel arm, what would happen to all the companies relying on it for their business?”
His reluctance to create brands that don’t rely on search engines is soon to be emulated in his latest venture, Icelolly.com. Launching in the UK in May 2006 and in the US six months later, the site will target specialist agents who can upload offers on to it.
Sporting a sophisticated interface that recognises what device has been used to visit it – whether through a computer, mobile phone or playstation – Icelolly.com will be aimed firmly at female users aged 30 upwards.
“Our research found women decide on 80% of all holiday purchases.”
Walton has ambitious plans for his new venture: as well as an Icelolly.com-branded online TV channel to launch in September 2006, there’s talk of a Voiceover IP option – allowing clients to click a link and talk to another person instantly. The aim is to create a lifestyle community and brand. He says: “I want to create a vertically integrated marketing machine: a website, a TV station, a community and a lifestyle site, worldwide.”
It’s a tall order perhaps, but one that Walton, with one successful venture behind him, has every confidence in pulling off.
The focus for the launch of Icelolly.com will be by unusual methods, to ensure the site can reach consumers in a heavily competitive marketplace.
Walton says the campaign will not rely on pay per click. “We want to make sure we are picking up the words Icelolly, but the rest of the marketing will be related to TV and publicity stunts,” Walton says. “We want to plough our money into more worthwhile, quirky things”.
Icelolly.com plans to sponsor a driver in the Mongolian car rally – an event that sees participants travel from the UK to Mongolia, via Russia, in cars normally only fit for the local shop run.
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor:
When I said in the last issue “I urge all agents to grasp the opportunity now before them and engage positively in the exciting future of dynamic packaging”, I did not expect such an immediate reaction.
There’s a booming market out there that has resulted in Trustaccommodation.com experiencing a phenomenal increase in its distribution network of almost 50% in just four weeks.
The majority of call centres, which have always formed the bedrock of the dynamic packaging distribution network, have been booking with us since we started our trade-only operation some 30 months ago.
But in the past two months we have seen a massive move by independent high-street agents to join the ‘Travolution’ and benefit from the myriad new possibilities now available.
No doubt the commission cuts by the major operators has caused a revisiting of the bottom line by every retailer, yet this is not the only reason for the move. The ability of the public to access the full range of suppliers has resulted in an element of confusion as to who offers the best price? Who is financially protected? Who can confirm instant availability?… alongside lots of other questions. And the answer can only be provided by the independent high-street travel agent who is prepared to do the necessary research and satisfy their demands.
The major potential risk area is the provision of financial protection so long assumed to inherently apply to all forms of travel booked through an agent… but not so now. All the more reason for agents to ensure that any dynamic packaging undertaken does not expose them to any financial liability for a holiday they may package themselves.
Very few accommodation-only suppliers are bonded or guarantee full financial protection and this applies to most of our major competitors… so now is the time to run a checklist of those you currently deal with to ensure they offer the same level of financial security as Trustaccommodation. You’ll be surprised at the result.
John Harding, sales and marketing director at Trustaccommodation.com
Click here for more information about the Sm@rt Agent Award scheme