Sm@rt Agent winner June 2006 – Coachtrips.com

Coachtrips.com is the third winner of our Sm@rt Agent award. Paul Nelson talks to managing director Tony Radstone about his efforts to get the coach industry to embrace the web


Tony Radstone is on a one-man crusade to drag the escorted coach tour industry kicking and screaming into the online world.


Despite the sector’s reluctance to embrace and exploit the Internet, his agency Coachtrips.com has flourished since Radstone overhauled his Willesden Green agency and launched the site six years ago.


Since Coachtrips’ launch, parent company The Travel Corporation’s turnover has doubled, with the site accounting for 60% of the business despite it being predominately non-transactional.


It sells 1,345 tours from more than 20 operators. However, only Cosmos Tourama’s product can be booked online thanks to a recently launched XML feed that allows the site direct access to the operator’s stock.


“Cosmos Tourama is the only coach operator in the 21st century,” says Radstone. “I am always pushing suppliers to give us access to their stock online. However, they are trying to find their feet on the web, and don’t believe their clients want to book online.”


The Travel Corporation was a business and leisure agency when Radstone launched Coachtrips in 2000. He has successfully replaced business travel revenue with coach tours.


Radstone bought the domain for £30 three years earlier when he decided there was a need to move away from the high street to a niche sector.


Radstone is known in the trade as an innovator for his ability and willingness to break new ground – highlighted by his motor grand prix, Superbike, and boxing tours. But he could see time was running out for the traditional high-street travel agency.


“The agency was on sound ground but I wanted to move away from business travel as I hated giving credit, particularly with the airlines cutting commission,” Radstone explains. “I could also see there would be a need to specialise and move away from mass market leisure.


“I wanted to point the business in a direction where people would come to us because of what we were offering, rather than because we were in a good location for people to pop in to ask about a cheap deal to Benidorm.”


Radstone has worked in the travel industry for 37 years, joining Thomas Cook as agent at the age of 16. At 18 he moved into the independent sector with Rickmansworth Travel, followed by a stint at Colindale Travel before becoming a manager at Travel Corner. Ten years later the agency split and Radstone bought the company, renamed it The Travel Corporation and has since remained at the same Willesden location for 18 years.


Radstone decided the future of the industry was online and his Eureka moment wasn’t long in coming.


“Around five million people go on coaching holidays a year,” he says.


“Yet I sat down at my computer one night to surf the web and realised nobody was doing it. Coach tours may not be sexy but the demand is there. It was a bit like the cruise market – it needed to be served but nobody was exploiting it.”


Coachtrips’ massive success is surprisingly delivered by just Radstone and two other agents. But he plans to expand staff levels to help the site continue its impressive growth.


However, he admits to struggling to find employees of a high enough standard and so plans to bring another modern day travel industry phenomenon to the coaching sector – homeworking.


“I’m trying to find more staff but it’s hard, so I’m looking at virtual staff by using Voice Over IP and having calls redirected to homeworkers,” he explains. “There are lots of good former agents who have started families. They would love to come back to work but can’t because of the kids. There is no reason why they can not log in to the system from home.”


The site’s success is predominately based on marketing through search engine pay per click. It has six campaigns running throughout the year with up to 20 search terms on each.


Radstone admits his PPC strategy hasn’t changed much throughout the years. But he admits to “continually tweaking to focus on phrases that lead to the most conversions”.


He has also learnt not to use key words, where the price is driven up by organisations other than his competitors.


However, Radstone is set to overhaul and extend his marketing mix by focusing on more cost-effective strategies. He fears the coaching sector could follow the mainstream leisure sector, with the larger operators increasing the competition and squeezing agencies by slashing commission and going direct.


This threat has led Radstone to look again at the design of Coachtrips to optimise the search engine’s natural search listing.


“I’m going to revisit the optimisation of the site,” he admits. “There are a number of companies coming into the sector, including the larger players – Thomson, First Choice and Thomson Cook. We must make sure that we are above them in the natural listings.”


Direct marketing is also a key marketing strand for Coachtrips, with Radstone desperate to make sure he retains customers in the increasingly competitive sector. He also plans to overhaul the site’s ad-hoc e-mail newsletter by increasing its frequency in a bid to retain the 8,000 customers on the database


Radstone has started the revolution of the coach touring industry, only time will tell if the rest of industry follows and helps him to “make the unsexy sexy”.


 


From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor


Having known Tony Radstone for many years, usually seeing him walking off with one or more awards from suppliers at a WorldChoice conference, it did not surprise me that he has found another niche area in which to thrive.


Although the market place as we know it is constantly changing, the possibilities for enterprising entrepreneurs to flourish in the travel industry does not diminish.


In this particular instance, the juxtaposition of web-based technology being applied to source escorted coach tour products is particularly appealing.


The package tour industry was founded on coach touring programmes, before charter aircraft appeared on the scene, let alone no-frills carriers who have been at the cutting-edge of the dynamic packaging revolution.


So, congratulations to Tony for providing a service that has created a market in previously uncharted territory. I am sure he will find a lot of customers and the suppliers he supports will once again be rewarding his efforts.


It’s been an innovative and exciting time for us at TrustAccommodation too.


We’ve relaunched ourselves as Hotels4u.com in recognition of the need to present a more modern and responsive image to the retail trade.


We’ve also invested a six-figure sum in updating and enhancing our website to improve our product range and accessibility while continuing to commit ourselves to a “trade-only” sales strategy.


At the recent Triton conference, it was clear that investment in technology is of paramount importance for the independent sector to regain its rightful place in the market. It was reassuring to hear that there is, I believe, at last a realisation that support for preferred suppliers is fundamental if those suppliers are to commit resources and rewards to the retail sector.


I would be happy to see a target level of 80% support to be committed to preferred suppliers allowing a reasonable margin of 20% being retained by agents to respond to specific requirements outside any preferred policy Now…that would be progress.


John Harding is sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com


 

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