Select World Travel is the fourth winner of our Sm@rt Agent award. Paul Nelson talks to owner Lee Harrison about how blogging has boosted the agency’s bottom line.
Content has always been described as ‘King’ in travel. However, after 10 years of online travel, content is no longer used to describe flights, accommodation and excursions but editorial content such as blogs, user reviews, maps and videos.
Large players have invested heavily in evolving their sites into true examples of Web 2.0. That’s not to say canny independent agents can’t hold their own online. Vast sums of money are not necessarily needed to create an array of features to encourage consumers to research and book holidays on the web.
Nobody knows this better than Select World Travel owner Lee Harrison. The one shop, husband-and-wife agency in Malvern, Worcester, has a highly successful blog at a running cost of less than £200 a year – £120 for the hosting of the site and a small fee for photo-sharing site Flickr, which allows picture libraries to be downloaded.
The agency launched its blog at Selectworldtravel.blogspot.com last October. However, as the address was “a bit of a mouthful” it was changed in March this year to the dot-travel
The new address has seen visitor numbers soar by 100% while bookings at the agency, made in person, on the existing website, or via leads from the blog, have also climbed 80%.
Harrison says: “It has been done for peanuts. The two digital cameras I bought to take pictures for the site have more than paid for themselves with staff using them as part of their education portfolio blogs.”
The blog is a mix of operator news and offers, destination features, hotels reviews and holiday diaries from both staff and customers. Its practicality was highlighted by the diversity of the postings on August 10 2006.
The first story informed viewers the agency was staying open until 10pm for the next two days following the failure of operator Tapestry Holidays. The second posting gave detailed updates and information throughout the day on the travel problems at airports following the foiling of an alleged terrorist plot. The next two posts covered children’s passport regulation changes in Bulgaria and a preview of the Munich Beer Festival.
“It’s designed to be an online magazine to show what Select World Travel is all about,” Harrison explains. “Most blogs are just diaries, but ours is more about content and information.”
Harrison’s ability to replicate the essence of his agency with the blog has led to strong search engine positions.
For example, the agency recently had the first four organic listings on Google for the Asifya Hotel in Turkey, beating TripAdvisor into fifth place – and it doesn’t use pay-per-click advertising with any of the search engines.
“Not many people were finding the old site,” Harrison says. “But the content and the links in the blog to the operator’s sites means the search engines are now picking it up. We’ve even had a call from a man in Hong Kong for a hotel in Turkey because he clicked through to our site from a search engine.”
Harrison launched his high-street agency in 1995, and almost immediately looked to the Internet as a potential avenue to expand the agency.
“A year or so after the agency opened we started to think about the web,” he says. However, it was five years until the site was launched as Harrison initially focused on establishing his high-street agency. He concedes that by 2005 he “had not got that far” with the site.
Surprisingly, his inspiration for the blog was ex-football player Andy Hunt. The former Charlton Athletic and West Bromwich Albion striker left football for the travel industry and set up Belize Vacations, which runs trips to the Central American jungle.
Harrison’s Eureka moment came when he came across Hunt’s blog – Belizevacation.blogspot.com.
“There was a Charlton supporter blogging about the team and semi-related matters. It was the first time I’d come across a blog and I found it interesting to read somebody else’s thoughts,” he says.
It was then Harrison realised blogging had the potential to overhaul his own company’s web operations. He says: “It is the use of pictures, descriptions and video that makes it such a brilliant blog.”
Harrison plans to again draw inspiration from Hunt with the addition of videos, starting with footage from a recent trip to Mauritius.
“Videos give viewers a greater insight into a hotel or resort than pictures in a brochure ever can,” he believes. “Customers will get a better impression from an amateur video than they would from a professional one.”
He also plans to get his four agents more involved in the site, writing guest blogs as well as reports from their various fam trips. Harrison is also trying to pursue operators to adopt secure white links to the Select World Travel site.
The site already has white links with Somak Holidays, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and 365-degree views of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, but Harrison feels some operators are slow to adapt. So, he wants to lead a high-street invasion of the web by sharing his knowledge and experience with other agents.
However, he is still critical of many websites. “A lot of agency sites are so out of date,” he argues. He is confident blogging could be the answer as it quick and cheap to maintain.
“A blog only takes 20 seconds to load and can be written before the shop opens or during a quiet period.”
Harrison isn’t concerned about the increased competition.
“We have shown that independent agents can compete with the big boys and I want to help others achieve that,” he says.
From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor
One of the attractions of the boom in dynamic packaging is the opportunity it gives for a complete rethink in terms of marketing strategy and tactics. It seems to me that there are now no limits as to the routes to market and the avenues open to attract the customer via myriad channels.
Nothing is off-limits and marketing concepts continue to reinvent themselves with the web providing the perfect stage to test all sorts of ideas. Not surprising then that Lee and Hilary Harrison at Select World Travel have found a new application for the latest development in communication….the blog.
While not a ‘blogger’ myself, I can see the attraction of this facility and the benefit it gives clients looking for up-to-the-minute comment and description of products, hotels, destinations and experiences.
There is nothing more potent than a third-party endorsement of a holiday experience from an independent source. Even more valuable is the ability to make contact with the person who recently visited the resort and get an in-depth view of particular aspects of the area that might appeal to prospective clients. So, well done to Lee and Hilary for their vision.
The world of online travel is now 10 years old. The changes that have occurred in the market and the way we reach customers cannot have been envisaged in 1996. Not only in the world of travel, but to every aspect of our daily life.
The ability to communicate information through websites and the change in customer expectations that has occurred is formidable, and we all embrace the developments and demand ever faster answers and solutions to our questions.
For new customers to the travel marketplace, the first port of call is, without exception, the web. It’s no longer the high-street travel agent. Yet the customer needs the experience and foresight of the agent more than ever to guide them through the unregulated mass of offers and (mis)information. So, there is a massive opportunity for the Sm@rt Agent to thrive and be profitable through canny application of the developments in technology.
Give yourself some thinking time and plot your path to success.
John Harding is sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com