Ownership of Travolution and sister brands Travel Weekly and Gazetteers changed hands in August, passing from business publisher RBI to Clive Jacobs, the founder of Holiday Autos. Jacobs spoke to Ian Taylor about his career in travel and his plans for the TWgroup
Q. Why did you buy the TWgroup – Travel Weekly, Gazetteers and Travolution?
A. Until now, buying a publishing business would not have occurred to me in my wildest dreams. I have tried to acquire various businesses over the last five years working with banks or private equity firms, but for various reasons never got past the post on a significant transaction.
So I decided I would rather work on my own. I took a major interest in Totally Travel and in classified website freeads.net, as well as in a restaurant in Dartmouth, the New Angel. I have been on the lookout for businesses of a size I could acquire on my own without private equity or banks involved.
Former Travel Weekly publisher Simon Ferguson was looking for a potential backer for a management buyout earlier this year. I was called and told I should have a look at it. I did and liked the idea. The business was doing well. I could see the potential.
I had been looking outside travel, but I love the industry. Travel is exciting.
Q. You know the travel trade well, but doesn’t it feel strange to go into business publishing? What do you know of the sector?
A. Publishing is going through a torrid time, not just due to the recession, but because of changes in the way people take their news.
News is so readily available because of the web. We are swamped with news and it is dead in minutes. Old news is worthless.
Publishing falls into two categories – business to consumer publishing (B2C) and business to business (B2B) – and both are at a crossroads in terms of their business model.
Consumer publishing is being significantly hurt by the internet. But B2B has a strong future. It remains extremely relevant to the industries it serves. It is a tool of the trade, a necessity rather than discretionary.
I like the Travel Weekly business. Obviously, publishing is affected by the downturn, like every other business, but Travel Weekly is a solid business that makes money. It has been well run. [Former owner] Reed Business Information is highly professional. But the group has not had the investment it needs to face the challenges of the future.
Q. What changes might readers of Travel Weekly and users of Gazetteers expect?
A. I don’t like to discuss plans in public in advance of implementing them. But I believe we can provide more value to the industry through Travel Weekly, Gazetteers and Travolution. We can link the travel industry and encompass a much broader spectrum of news.
A business works when it provides customers with something they need, gives them value and a brand they enjoy working with.
It requires two ingredients – the right business model and a focused, driven team.
It is a cliché to say a business is about its people, but it is true. You need the right people, with the right leadership and the right product, at the right time.
The one thing I can say is there is going to be a buzz at Travel Weekly.
Q. What about the online directory, Gazetteers?
A. I would not have bought it if it was just Travel Weekly. The jewel in the crown is Gazetteers. It is a very good product, providing essential information for agents. But it can be significantly improved to help agents prove their value in an increasingly online world.
Its value is its impartiality. User reviews can be biased. The core strength of Gazetteers is that every review is factual and independent.
Businesses need information to remain credible, and Gazetteers offers professionalism. It can become a phenomenal online training tool.
My goal with Travel Weekly and Gazetteers is to recapture the imagination of the travel industry and improve the services we offer. I would not have written the cheque otherwise.
I like to take a business model to a different place. Holiday Autos rented the same product as car hire firms Avis and Hertz, but we revolutionised the way the product was packaged and delivered.
Q. So what was different about Holiday Autos?
A. Car rental was not sold through travel agents in 1987-1988. Car hire companies did not even have specific leisure products. Rates were in local currencies and prices were quoted per car, with everything else costing extra.
If an agent could be bothered to make a booking, they could wait six months for their commission. At Holiday Autos we negotiated rates with car rental businesses around the world. We packaged the deals into single rates including everything. Then we put them in a brochure and gave agents commission at source.
People were starting to travel more independently, the no-frills carriers came along, and our reinvention of the way car hire was sold converged with these changes in the market. We recreated the model internationally – selling in 30 countries by the time I sold the company to lastminute.com.
We were also among the first to see the web as an effective distribution channel for agents and consumers. We had a fully bookable website in 2000 and were probably selling 45% through the trade and 55% to consumers when lastminute.com came in.
Q. How were Holiday Autos’ relations with the trade?
A. It was massively popular with agents. Holiday Autos captured their imagination with a product that was completely unexciting.
I was fiercely loyal to the trade. We tried to help agents sell extras to enhance their income. But often we would find someone had offered more commission or outbid us in a deal.
It was ridiculous. We felt like we had been slapped in the face. The consumer market was opening up so we went after it.
There is a poignant lesson there – support the people who work for you. The travel industry has often been its own worst enemy. You have to do things for the long term.
Q. How did you get into the travel business?
A. I grew up in north London, left school at 15, and began my first travel business at the age of 21. It was a flight-only company called European Airtours. I started it in a recession – I have started travel businesses in two recessions – and it was bought in 1985.
I began Holiday Autos in 1988. It grew out of another flight-only company I set up called Aero European, which merged with a separate flight-only operator, Biggles Travel.
Biggles went bust in 1986 and I was out on a limb. The company was in a large building with a business-to-business publishing firm whose owner used to book flights with us.
The firm published magazines for the glass, glazing and cleaning industries and the owner suggested I take a desk in his office to handle travel for the sector. So I set up a company selling business, conference and incentive travel for the glass and cleaning industries – calling it Business and Incentive Travel.
It started to take off and we moved to a bigger office with a former business partner who had a company called Holicars. He and I decided to do something together and called it Holiday Autos.
There was a clear need for that type of product. It took off so well that I ran down Business and Incentive Travel.
Q. What does the future hold for agents?
A. People have been saying agents are finished since I started in the trade. Despite all the doom-mongers, there are still more than 6,000 of them.
Many are having a tough time, but people still want to go on holiday – just as people still want to pick up something to read rather than look on a screen.
Agents should give customers knowledge, advice and reassurance. Whether they work for a multiple or an independent agency, it is not possible for them to know about every destination. So information is essential.
Q. How do you see the future for travel?
A. I see an upsurge in demand, but with a significant section of people becoming increasingly environmentally conscious and concerned.
One outcome of that will be a need for the trade to take domestic travel more seriously. It is a great market – I spent a year as chairman of Visit Devon before resigning in August – but there are areas in which domestic tourism needs to improve significantly.
People like to take breaks – even in a recession. Many like to travel independently, yet there are still a lot of package holiday customers.
The travel industry will grow in the next 10 years – and there will still be a lot of travel agents. But you cannot just expect customers to walk through the door. There are some very good agents, but you can’t take anything for granted.
Agents must provide information and confidence to the customer. They are in the information business and have to be informed. It is no good Googling something. If staff use Google, they are just doing what their customers can do at home – what credibility does that lend a business?
Q.What would you say to someone concerned about the editorial independence of Travel Weekly under your control?
A. I am not a fool. The credibility and success of Travel Weekly and the TWgroup depends on the utter impartiality of its editorial. I have no desire to influence it or interfere in any way.
I have been in the industry a long time. There are people and businesses I admire, as well as people I don’t like and businesses I don’t rate. My personal views will never affect the publication – otherwise the business would have no credibility.
I had two roles in travel when I bought Travel Weekly – as chairman of Visit Devon and as a director of Totally Travel – and have resigned from both. I do not want any conflicts of interest. I will have no other interests in travel. Being the owner of a publication comes with a responsibility.